“He canonizes himself a Saint in his own lifetime.”
—Samuel Butler

Exhibitionism is a sin yet to be legitimized in Father Andrew Greeley’s ongoing excursion into soft porn (or those novels which he euphemistically christens his “comedies of grace”). But Greeley, the exhibitionist, is on full display in his venture into autobiography (or this book which he wrongly labels “confessional”).

Father Greeley (or “Greels” to his teenaged, water-skiing, Arizonian sidekicks) has done everything in this autobiography but kiss and tell. He is too much in love with himself to have risked the former—whether it be a woman’s lips or a prelate’s ring. And the latter? Father Greeley is too much concerned with preserving the mystique of the Irish (American) priest to be blurting any secrets out. Then again, there just might not be all that much to tell.

Secrets or no, there is little doubt that Greels has carried on a lifelong love affair with at least himself We all do, I suppose, but not many of us would inflict our most private passions unto others via the printed page; and darn few would pursue their self-appointed task of intellectual narcissism quite so relentlessly. On one level Greeley has written a very candid book. The Greeley persona does come blasting forth on every page. Bursting from between these covers is one always driven, forever ambitious, overachieving workaholic. Seething between these covers is one persistently stubborn, often angry, occasionally hurtful, and forever flawed human being. And cuddling within these covers is one inordinately passionate ordained celibate. It might well have been tided “Greels on Wheels.”

On another level, Greeley’s “confessions” reveal little and confess to even less. Mistakes? None that he can think of—or will admit to—that would require more than a “five Our Father and five Hail Mary” penance. Regrets? “Destined” for the priesthood, Andy Greeley hasn’t looked back since he made that decision in the second grade. What if, heaven forbid, he should be dismissed from his priestly vocation? Father Greeley, forever obedient to his vows, would simply refuse to leave. How else would any good Catholic respond to a hierarchy “hung up” on authority? How else could a simple (but never pious) parish priest, who also happens to be a peripatetic (and always righteous) national celebrity, be expected to deal with superiors who range from “mediocre” at best to “psychopathic” at worst?

To be fair, Greeley does offer an abbreviated litany of those “sins” of omission or commission for which he is apparently sorry. As a parochial school student, a young Andy was “obnoxious” about displaying his intelligence; but darned if he wasn’t “too behaved” to permit himself the pleasure of tormenting his teachers. Those same teachers, we soon learn, were under no similar psychological restrictions. Greeley’s father, the son records, tried to teach his sole male oilspring just how to handle all women. Nuns, however, remained a breed apart to the son as son—or as adult. In the lower grades, an obnoxiously well-behaved(?) Andy Greeley was rapped with a ruler by a nun on the lookout for poor pencil posture. To this day. Father Greeley (a) hasn’t forgotten; (b) remains ill at ease among nuns; and (c) sheds few tears over the slow death of women’s religious orders. One wonders what his penmanship is like.

Life under the rule(rs) of nuns also gave Andy the acolyte his first object lesson in living with the “active dislike” of others. He’s still learning. As a youngster, he was “naive” when it came to understanding how his teachers dealt with “strange, bright students.” As an adult, he claims not to mind criticism directed at a strange, bright priest. If that be the case, this book could have been significantly shortened. There are still those who actively dislike this priest who has designated his mailbox as his parish. And he knows it—and remembers—and responds. Ad nauseam. Blue-nosed laity, envious clergy, and ignorant, if not lunatic, prelates are his tormentors—and targets.

Happily, for Greeley, the bluenosed laity constitute a distinct minority. Only 11 percent of the readers of Greeley, the novelist, labeled as “steamy” that which they had read, according to Greeley the sociologist. Unhappily, for Greeley, the probable (though apparently unquantifiable) majority of his fellow clerics languish in ignorance and envy. Why so many? The seminaries breed mediocrities, and the priesthood offers a “limited reward structure.” And Greeley himself? It seems that Greeley, the seminarian, magically avoided ignorance by reading what he wanted to read, while Greeley, the priest, has magically created his own reward structure by writing that which he wishes to write.

Throughout the book there is the cavalier attitude that demands: “Greeley, love me or leave me.” Or queries: “If I love myself, why doesn’t everyone love me?” His insistence that seminaries have no right to control the personal lives of their subjects and his refusal to submit to Cardinal Bernardin’s ban on novel-writing as a condition of his return to parish work in Chicago are both of a piece.

Throughout his travails Greeley grins his impish Irish grin, conceding only that he harbors a “fierce Irish temper” and an “ingenious Irish tongue.” Is he angry? He protests not. But he protests too much. Anger, he explains, serves “no useful purpose.” But since when did someone in full possession of a “fierce Irish temper” stop to ponder the uses and abuses of anger? Father Greeley might respond: Anger I have expressed, but angry I am not. Perhaps, but methinks he still protests too much.

His greater failings, he insists, are a trusting nature, a too readily expressed willingness to reconcile with his enemies, and a penchant for avoiding confrontation. Prince Andrew the Pussycat? Ask Cardinal Bernardin. In the midst of a nonconfrontation with the “most interpersonally sensitive man I’ve ever met,” Father Greeley shouted at his superior for a “solid hour” over the telephone. Bernardin “spoke not a single angry word in return.” The issue was the cardinal’s peculiarly shortsighted request that his diocesan priest cease authoring titillating stories if he truly wished to function as a parish priest in the Chicago Archdiocese. Greeley hastens to add that he called Bernardin the very next day to apologize—before hastening to add that he was sorry for his ill-temper but “not for the substance of my complaints.” Another “five Our Father and five Hail Mary” job.

A self-confessed “localist,” Greeley has banished himself from his locale, Chicago, in order to preserve his freedom to write his “comedies of grace.” It doesn’t wash. Nor does his flirtation with martyrdom. A committed localist would readily surrender much more to remain among his people and on his turf And a convincing martyr would not likely be found water-skiing in Sun Country.

That Father Greeley loves Chicago and Chicago’s Irish I do not doubt. His Depression-era memories of his family’s tenuous hold on the middle class are deeply etched in mind and print. His affection for family and parish is no less genuine. His parents were solid New Deal Democrats who practiced ethnic liberalism before sociologists could so label it or historians decree its passing. They also taught him to be a risk-taker who would win approval for attempts, not successes, and who would be “free of envy of the excellence of others.” The first lesson has been thoroughly learned. The second has not.

A younger Andrew Greeley was ready to pick up his pen at the drop of his breviary. An older Andrew Greeley will embrace his word processor at the drop of a water ski. Any risk to rush into print is worth it. The result, by his own admission, is impressive. Asked (by himself) to list his most significant works, he counts not one, not two, but 21 book-length publications. Whether Andrew Greeley has ever had an unpublished thought only Andrew Greeley knows for sure. That he thinks highly of his published thoughts is obvious. One need read no further than this published, but as yet unranked, memoir.

Envy is another matter. Greeley claims to be able to live quite comfortably with the realization that he is no Graham Greene. He attributes his worldly success to talent, hard work— and celibacy. And he distrusts the Berrigans and other troubadours of the 1960’s. Does he again protest too much? Would a reincarnated Andrew Greeley prefer the mantle of substantial novelist, the comfort of a loving partner, and the euphoria provided by the star-struck young?

Sprinkled liberally throughout these pages are healthy doses of skepticism directed at the illiberalism of the 1960’s. The promise of the early 60’s ended with the worship of leftist “gurus” within and without the Church and the elevation of Liberation Theology into the dogma of “authoritarian liberalism.” Too many “peace and justice activists” were political ideologues masquerading as men and women of the cloth. On this point Greeley must be given his due. His judgment is on the mark—whether or not envy of the Berrigans helped form it.

But, to Greeley, not all of the excesses of the 60’s were equally excessive. Silliness in the streets of American cities he could not abide. Fun and games within his Church he could not and cannot get enough of. In Father Greeley’s Catholic Church, popes would be openly elected by clergy and laity, women would be ordained, no one would be “hung up” on morality and authority, papal encyclicals on sexual reproduction would be stillborn, and pastors would never interfere in the communal—or private—lives of their parishioners—or assistants. Celibacy, however, would remain.

Good ol’ Greels, it must be told, cannot bring himself to go all the way. Optional celibacy, he argues, would mean compulsory marriage. He’s probably right. But he also contends that “human passion is a sacrament.” And in his next ever-so-hot breath he pleads that priests “should not be separated from the human condition.” Thy Brothers Wife (a “comedy of grace”) is an extended portrait of a priest who is very much a part of the human condition. Need more be said?

Greeley promises his “most erotic” novel for 1987. This time all of the eroticism will be between a husband and his wife, all the better to demonstrate Greeley’s “correlating” of human love with divine love: “God is like Eileen and Eileen is like God.” Good ol’ God apparently has His ways of “breaking into ordinary life.” Greels, however, prefers to find Cod in other ways. Water-skiing and word processing might not be quite as much fun, but for now they’ll apparently have to do.

The future, however, is another matter. Catholicism, Greeley believes, is the religion of fresh starts. So is America. And Father Andrew Greeley is a very American sort of Catholic, filled as he is with the twin desires for total freedom and unconditional acceptance. He has also assumed that classically American pose of forever keeping his options open. Balancing on those skis must be necessary practice for keeping himself poised between Arizona and Chicago, between academia and the best-seller lists, and between the Church’s holy laity and its unholy hierarchy. As if all those juggling acts are not enough, he must also find an intellectual home between those on the left who advance a “morality of secular relevance” and those on the right who assert a “morality of sexual irrelevance.”

No wonder there’s no time left for diving—or falling—into the icy waters of the human condition. Amazingly, he does find time to read. Lest my evaluation of Greeley be dismissed as unrelentingly negative, let it be recorded that no fan of G.K. Chesterton can be without personally redeeming value. Has Greeley learned anything from rummaging through GKC? At the very least, this autobiography has revealed a tenacious Greeley grasp of the last half of an oft-quoted Chesterton epigram: “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”


[Confessions of a Parish Priest, by Andrew Greeley (New York: Simon & Schuster) $18.95]