The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley has been a Roman Catholic priest for 48 years. A native of Chicago, Greeley is easily the most famous cleric to dabble in the social sciences and literary arts. He has written nearly 50 books, including "The Catholic Myth," an iconoclastic study of Catholic belief and practice, and "Cardinal Sins," a Vatican potboiler that sold millions. He also writes for the op-ed page of the Chicago Sun-Times and teaches sociology at two universities.
Greeley was in New York City last week, speaking at a conference at Fordham University. Beforehand, he spoke about the church's sex scandal and Bishop "Blackie" Ryan, the subject of his popular detective series.
A: The Catholic Church became the subject of world media attention during the council, and now it has again. This is the most coverage we've had since the council, except then it was all good, and now it's all bad. It's a feeding frenzy going on. I'd like to say the media didn't cause the problem; they didn't reassign these priests. We're responsible for the problem.
Q: Many Catholic leaders are now saying that something good will come out of all of this. You are more pessimistic. Why?
A: As long as there's the present administration in Rome, you're going to keep getting the same kind of bishops. Rome doesn't have a clue about American Catholicism; it doesn't have a clue about this problem, and it will certainly interfere with any national solution the bishops arrive at in Dallas. ... It will be a long time before [any policy] gets approved in Rome, and only then with all kinds of qualifications.
Q: Switching topics, why did you decide to write fiction?
A: Well, I always thought it might be fun. Then I developed this sociology of religion that says religion is story. ... And I thought that maybe a popular novel could do for the contemporary world what stained glass did in the middle ages: tell stories. That's what my novels are. [Chicago] Cardinal [Francis] George said my project is "re-evangelizing the imagination." That's a nice turn of phrase.
Q: What writers influenced you?
A: I read most of the same mid-20th century Catholic novelists: [Graham] Greene, [François] Mauriac, [Evelyn] Waugh, [Georges] Bernanos, Muriel Spark. I also read [G.K.] Chesterton's novels, which are fun. I suppose I wouldn't say they influenced me, but they at least gave me the idea that you could talk powerfully about religion by telling stories.
Q: What's your latest book?
A: Well, the next one, which will be out very soon, is called "The Bishop in the West Wing." Blackie Ryan is dispatched to West Wing to get rid of poltergeists. There's a new Democratic president, John Patrick McGurn from the south side of Chicago, and he's called "Machine Gun Jack." The media don't like him at all. Blackie is there to get rid of the ghosts. It's dedicated to Bill Clinton.
A: Clinton did me the great favor of mentioning my novels once. He said that he liked them. I wrote and thanked him, and he wrote back, and soon we got into a correspondence. I've been overnight at the White House - and he wasn't looking for money.
Q: What was that like?
A: It was fun. He is a brilliant and charming man.
Q: In a recent profile, you said you write 5,000 words a day. Is that true?
A: Some days. I don't do it every day, but when I'm writing I try to do 5,000 words. Yesterday I did 2,000 on the plane. ... It's a rare day that I can do it, especially since I've been on the road for the last three weeks.
Q: I have to ask this. What's with all the sex in your novels?
A: Well, there's less in my novels than there is in the real world. Sex is a sacrament. Sex is a hint of what God's love is like. You can't write about the human condition and ignore it. I don't think my sex is pornographic, though maybe mildly erotic.