Andrew Greeley

The Rev. Andrew Greeley is shown in 2003. (Charles Osgood / Chicago Tribune / January 29, 2003)

A self-described "loud-mouthed Irish priest" ("And may they carve it on my gravestone!" he once quipped), the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley rejected a conventional definition of his vocation.

Denied a parish, the Roman Catholic priest created his own pulpits as a sociologist whose groundbreaking research corrected misimpressions of American Roman Catholics and as a bestselling novelist whose works — "The Cardinal Sins," "Thy Brother's Wife" and more than 50 other titles — made readers blush and church superiors fume.

An irrepressible critic of church policies on birth control, divorce and the ordination of women, he once tarred American bishops as "mitered pinheads." Decades before the priest sex abuse scandal received broad attention, he was "one of the first — inside or outside the church" to publicly challenge the U.S. hierarchy's mishandling of the problem, said David Clohessy, director of the leading national advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Greeley, 85, who once described himself as "a priest who happens to do these other things as a way of being a priest," died in his sleep early Thursday at his Chicago home, said his niece, Laura Durkin.

His fictional treatment of the everyday dilemmas of Catholics won millions of loyal readers in the U.S. and abroad, many of whom said his stories of sin, grace and salvation brought them closer to the church. But provocative plot twists — including pedophile priests, corrupt cardinals and explicit sex — made others, particularly in the church hierarchy, yearn for a vow of silence from the gadfly in their midst.

"There is a certain truth-telling that goes on in his novels that mirrors the kind of truth-telling he has brought to the church as a social scientist. ... He made us face real facts," Thomas W. Roberts, former editor of the independent National Catholic Reporter newspaper, told The Times a few years ago.

Greeley completed his final book — a study of Chicago-area Catholics published in 2010 — just weeks before he fractured his skull in a 2008 fall caused when his jacket got stuck in a taxi as it pulled away. He never fully recovered from the traumatic injury to his brain.

Born Feb. 5, 1928, in Oak Park, Ill., Greeley knew he wanted to be a priest by the time he was in second grade. After attending a seminary high school, he continued his formal training at Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.

Ordained in 1954, he was assigned as an assistant pastor to an affluent suburban Chicago parish, where he worked with the youth. To help him better understand the young parishioners in his charge, he began to read sociology books, particularly the work of David Riesman, who wrote the 1950 classic "The Lonely Crowd." A University of Chicago professor encouraged Greeley to keep notes on his experiences, which led to the first of more than 100 nonfiction books, "The Church in the Suburbs" (1958).

Convinced that he wanted to serve his church as a sociologist, he enrolled at the University of Chicago with the blessing of his archbishop. His timing was auspicious, with John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, running for president and the Second Vatican Council convening the first of several historic sessions that would bring important reforms. He earned a master's in 1961 and a doctorate in 1962 with a study on the effect of religion on the career paths of 1961 college graduates. His scholarship led to his longtime position as a senior researcher on the staff of the university's National Opinion Research Center, which surveys the American public on religion and other issues.

His early work at the center examined the widespread belief that Catholics had low college attendance rates. Greeley found that white Catholics graduated from college and pursued advanced degrees at higher rates than other whites. He said the reason was the quality education that they had received in parochial schools.

The superiority of Catholic school education "is so widely accepted now that it is hard to grasp how new and controversial that idea was then," said Michael Hout, a UC Berkeley sociology professor and Greeley co-author. He said Greeley's early work in such books as "The Social Effects of Catholic Education" (1961), "The Education of Catholic Americans" (1966) and "American Catholics: A Social Portrait" (1977) were "path-breaking in their scope and stereotype-breaking in their findings."

During the 1970s, Greeley studied ethnic Catholics and showed how religion influenced their political behavior. Greeley, who also taught at the University of Arizona, was one of the first scholars to point out the growing schism between the Catholic hierarchy and the laity in the wake of Humanae Vitae, the controversial Vatican encyclical from Pope Paul VI that banned artificial birth control.

Greeley's studies made him suspect in the eyes of fellow priests and particularly Chicago Archbishop John Cody, who began a controversial tenure in 1965. Cody opposed Greeley's sociological work and denied him a parish; Greeley returned the disdain, calling the cardinal a "madcap tyrant" after the high-ranking prelate closed a number of inner-city schools. Although marginalized, Greeley stayed in the church and continued to conduct research .

In 1972 he completed a two-year study that found widespread dissatisfaction among American priests. American bishops had helped fund the research but rejected its findings. "Honesty compels me to say that I believe the present leadership in the church to be morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt," Greeley said.

He was denied tenure at the University of Chicago in 1973, even though he had taught there for a decade and published dozens of books. Greeley said anti-Catholic prejudice was the reason, but a colleague was quoted in news reports saying that the denial was due more to the sociologist-priest's cantankerous nature. (Greeley eventually received a professorship, in 1991.)

Greeley found freedom in his alienation: He began to write novels, an enterprise that melded his various identities.

"I am confident that I have never done anything more priestly in my life than write those novels," he said in a 1990 biographical essay.

His first two novels — "The Magic Cup" (1975) and "Death in April" (1980) — attracted little attention. But his third attempt was an overwhelming success.

"The Cardinal Sins" (1981) follows two priests: one a writer-sociologist like the author, the other a cardinal with a penchant for rough sex. Church officials accused Greeley of using the latter character to malign Cardinal Cody, who at the time the book was published was embroiled in a scandal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly paid to a mistress. Cody was never formally charged with a crime and died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 74.