In the Fictional Church of Father Andrew Greeley, Even the Cardinal Sins

updated 06/08/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/08/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

His preliminary caresses were tender and sensitive. He prepared her slowly and leisurely, awaking every cell in her body, delaying their union until she was witless with desire. Now his strength served to heal and cherish her, and his demands were more for her satisfaction than for his.

"Thank you so much, Pat, "she breathed, covering herself with her slip in the surge of modesty that so often followed their lovemaking...

It is tepid stuff, as pop pornography goes these days—never explicit, devoid of profanity and almost painfully shy of anatomical detail. But a new novel called The Cardinal Sins (Warner Books, $12.95) is nonetheless sidling its way up best-seller lists across the country, generating a minor league scandal of the sort that gamier books like Lady Chatterley's Lover used to inspire. The reason: The book's protagonist—a bisexual adulterer who fathers an illegitimate child, plays ruthless political power games and commits something very close to a rape—is a fictional Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago dubbed Patrick Cardinal Donahue. Beyond that, its author, Andrew Greeley, 53—a respected sociologist and nationally syndicated columnist—is a priest in the archdiocese of Chicago, where some people consider it a scandalous roman a clef. As a result, Greeley's first major novel (after no fewer than 80 books of nonfiction) may well establish him as the most controversial priest-novelist since Rabelais. "Tasteless, vulgar," fumed a Chicago reviewer. The church has yet to make any official comment, but as one exasperated friend of Greeley's observes: "Andy is really testing people's patience. Did he really have to do this?"

Testing people's patience is second nature for Greeley, who has become one of the most prominent clergymen in America by "leaving no word unpublished," as one admirer puts it. As a University of Chicago researcher a decade ago, he gained a measure of fame for his studies of ethnic Americans (among them Why Can't They Be More Like Us: America's White Ethnic Groups). But in his writings since then, he has criticized the church's positions on such matters as birth control and the ordination of women, and has become the priest of choice for the American media, discussing religion with Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and Jane Pauley, covering the 1978 papal elections for Universal Press Syndicate—and making out perhaps embarrassingly well financially. Greeley owns a spacious apartment in Chicago's posh John Hancock Tower, as well as a beach house on Lake Michigan and a home in Tucson near the University of Arizona, where he teaches sociology one semester a year. A nonsmoking, defiantly celibate teetotaler, he never took a vow of poverty—and he has no apologies for his affluence. "What I do with my money is between me and God and the IRS," he says. "I think I'm generous with it. I'm willing to face God on the way I've spent it. I think He'll be a lot more generous to me than my fellow priests have been." Greeley bridles at suggestions that he is amassing a fortune with an eye toward leaving the priesthood. "Bullshit," he exclaims. "I'll leave the day after the Pope does."

Greeley comes from a second-generation Irish Catholic family; the son of a Chicago businessman turned writer, he entered the seminary at the age of 14 and never left. (One sister is a theological consultant and mother of seven; another is a chemist.) Yet a casual reader of The Cardinal Sins may well wonder why Greeley stays; his Cardinal Donahue is a conniving, unscrupulous, anything-but-other-worldly cleric whose lust for power—and just plain lust—comes close to destroying not only himself but also the papacy. Donahue's virtually undiscernible conscience surfaces only at the book's climax, when (in a plot twist that challenges the credulity of the most forgiving pulp reader) he overcomes his craven nature to help engineer the election of Pope John Paul II—and ensures the murder of his mistress in the process. "In an era when 90 percent of the laity reject the church's birth control teaching, 80 percent reject the divorce teaching and 75 percent don't believe in papal infallibility, it's pretty hard to scandalize them," Greeley says. "Somewhere along the line we started pretending that church leaders were not only saints but paragons of wisdom and virtue and intelligence and justice and fairness. That's just not true. If it shocks some people, then it's time they gave up the idea that the present leadership of the church is holier than Saint Peter and his bunch." For Greeley, Donahue's moment of courage is an act of redemption and resurrection. "This novel is probably the most priestly thing I've ever done," he claims.

Followers of Andrew Greeley's work are not surprised that he would write a blistering characterization of a fictional Chicago cardinal; he has been conducting a war of rhetoric against the real one for years. "The cardinal archbishop of Chicago is a monster," says Greeley of his real-life superior, John Cardinal Cody, 73. "He is one of the most truly evil men I have ever known. He is a crazy man." In Greeley's syndicated column and books, he has accused Cody of callousness toward his flock and cruelty toward his priests, of financial mismanagement, administrative incompetence and destroying the morale of the Chicago archdiocese. Vatican press releases have said that the late John Paul I suffered a fatal heart attack while reading a 15th-century devotional tract by Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ. Greeley has printed—and claims he can prove—that the Pontiff was reading a scathing personnel dossier on Cody. "Damned lies," Cody has called the Greeley accounting. Said the cardinal: "Father Greeley, with all due respect, doesn't know as much about this archdiocese as I do."

Greeley pointedly denies that Cardinal Cody bears any resemblance to the Cardinal Donahue of his novel, but there is no mistaking the provenance of his narrator, Kevin Brennan, a stubborn, well-meaning, upright priest who gets his Ph.D. in sociology but is continually frustrated by a backward hierarchy. Like Brennan, Greeley feels like an outcast among his fellow priests. "My friends say that they are harassed by other priests because of me," he reports. "We were taught in the seminary that priests supported one another, but that's baloney."

Although Greeley believes he was denied tenure at the University of Chicago because he is a priest (a charge the university denies), he admits that neither Cody nor any other religious superior has ever tried to discipline him for his writing or his actions. "Cody has shown remarkable patience," one friend of Greeley's notes. "On the other hand, it's good strategy for him to appear magnanimous." Greeley has no illusions about his status. "I am a marginal man," he says. "On the margin of the church and the margin of academics." Still, he values his vocation. His last full-time parish assignment ended in 1964, and Cody has effectively barred him from acting as a priest in Chicago, but he works for a Tucson parish while in Arizona. "I value my weekend parish work very greatly," he says. "I really miss having a daily congregation."

Many of Greeley's enemies—and even some friends—are puzzled by The Cardinal Sins. "It looks to me as if Andy is trying to precipitate a crisis to get a reaction from the church," one longtime associate observes. But Greeley flatly denies that, insisting he doesn't care what church hierarchs think of him anymore. "Most of my life is over," he says. "I'm simply not going to compromise to placate what I take to be a corrupt and inefficient church authority. If they throw me out, I won't go. I'll ignore it."

Starting this week, Greeley will indeed be out of the limelight for a while—but by his own choosing. He is taking a year's sabbatical from both his Arizona professorship and his writing duties in Chicago and moving to his beach house to find quiet. "I'm going to sit in me cottage and sip me tea and listen to the seconds ticking by," he says in the mock-Irish brogue he uses in moments of playfulness. He plainly needs the rest. He will have five books besides his novel published this year, on matters ranging from the sociology of religion to the role of story-telling in creating religious faith. "I'm exhausted," the graying priest says. "I'm doing too much. Maybe I'll go to a prayer house and see if I can still pray." Then, with the signature glitter in his blue eyes that is only partly caused by the reflection of his contact lenses, Greeley allows that he has another novel in the works. This one is about two brothers—one a senator, one a bishop—and the woman they both love. "It's completely fictional," he says. "There are no real-life characters in it. It even has a nice archbishop of Chicago."

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