Father Andrew Greeley, who died last week, embodied “public” concerns in religion and theology. Fittingly, the University of Chicago’s David Tracy who is the “Greeley” Professor of Catholic Studies (Emeritus)—a chair endowed by Andrew—provided what has become a classic statement of “publicness” in theology (see References, below). A line from one of Tracy’s articles captures the intentions: “As a discipline, theology has the peculiarity of being related to three distinct publics—academy, church and society.” Greeley was not technically a theologian, but in all other senses he was.
The “public” concerns embodied by Greeley also inspired the Center that issuesSightings. One week our two Sightings writers may address the various worlds of the “academy:” university, college, and seminary. The next week, “church” preoccupies the writers and their sources. And, in a typical third column, they might engage “society.”
Specialists of the academy, or of the church, or of society abound, and the public needs them, whether it always knows it or not. But generalists, which is not a good term, but one that points in the right direction, keep all three in mind. In our generation, says this biased friend of Greeley’s, no one better exemplified the company of those who reach for all three.
Exactly a year ago (see References, below), I called attention to Greeley’s vocation and achievement by reference to his last book. It was assembled by friends who worked with data he had compiled on Chicago Catholics, before a tragic accident more than four years ago left him with a brain injury that robbed him of speech and “normal” functioning. As if anything about Greeley could ever have been reduced to “normal.” Tributes and obituaries about this singular “public” Catholic writer made the front pages of major dailies and prime time in the public media.
Greeley was born four hours after me, as he often pointed out. We lived in the same condo building and, until his accident, bumped into each other regularly, as we had for most of the sixty years since we met and took up our vocations, compared notes, or tried out ideas, many of which went into his extensive bibliography or my less extensive writings.
These past four years, my wife and I would share silence on visits with him, or be there when another priest came by to celebrate mass. Much as we missed his intellectual presence then, we greet the news of last week ambiguously: there’s a void where he used to hold forth but there’s a relief shared by family and friends. Rest in peace!
How to describe or even point to the many worlds of Greeley?
The media accounters try, but give up along the way. They knew and saw him as a man of contradictions: a social scientist who crunched numbers found in polls he took, but a poet who could nurse fragile images and metaphors as well. A “just the facts” man, who loved fantasy and wrote 100 works of fiction. A parish priest—his favorite self-definition—who couldn’t get an assignment to a parish of his own, but made the larger world his parish. A provincial Irish Catholic cosmopolitan. A defender of Catholic schools when doing so was not fashionable, and a scourge of those who mis-ran Catholic institutions. He could hold a grudge, as he did against most hierarchies, and would love the people they had been intended to serve.
Something had to hold together this man of contradictions. If we did not catch onto it, we were not paying attention: he was, first and in the middle and last, a Catholic priest who did not give up on his church, or on the people—the “public” who surrounded him in a society called secular.
Rest in peace, Father Andy.
Tracy, David. “Defending the Public Character of Theology.” Religion-online.org. April 1, 1981. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1720
Marty, Martin. “Father Andrew Greeley.” Sightings. May 28, 2012.