Andrew Greeley’s Chicago Catholics -- Sightings

The Roman Catholic Church in America is an interesting institution.  It seems to be getting more and more conservative, especially as seen in pronouncements of its bishops on issues such as abortion.  It is also getting more ethnically diverse.  Even as White Catholics seem to be exiting, their ranks are being taken more and more by Latinos.  Consider this statistic from Putnam and Campbell's American Grace -- 58% of Catholics between the ages 18 and 34 are Latino.  If it weren't for Hispanic immigration, the Roman Catholic Church would be in a position similar to Mainline Protestantism (American Grace, pp. 300ff).   One of the most interesting interpreters of Roman Catholicism over the years has been Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest, sociologist, professor, and author of rather racy novels.  His final book takes up the Catholic situation in Chicago, and in today's edition of Sightings Greeley's colleague at the University of Chicago and long-time friend Martin Marty takes up the issues raised by this locally focused book, which suggests that there is good news for Catholics, but maybe not for the bishops!


Sightings 12/20/2010

Andrew Greeley’s Chicago Catholics
- Martin E. Marty

Father Andrew Greeley, friend, neighbor, sociologist, novelist, youngster—we were born on the same day, but he arrived three hours later—has published over 150 works of fiction and non-fiction. Chicago Catholics and the Struggles within Their Church is his final book. Final, that is, because two years ago he suffered a brain injury, after the manuscript was well along. Colleagues brought the materials together, but insist that it is “Andy’s book,” and anyone who has read him and reads this will recognize the stamp: he honors some friends, picks some fights with others, and loves to present data which many will find provocative, controversial, and slanted counter-intuitively.

While the Pope and the bishops, with most of whom he is out of patience, make global news, Greeley has engaged in survey work which assures that he has his feet on the ground. His regard for the Catholic people—whom he thinks the hierarchs overlook—is evident. His writing occupies only sixty-five pages; the rest of the book is made up of appendixes: the Survey Questionnaires, revealing “Interviews in Depth,” and “Transcripts.” If that sounds boring, his opening but summary statements startle.

Yes, he insists, 25 percent of the people in the sample have left the Church, but not for the reasons mass media give. The Church neglects the young, but they are more attached to it than were those in the past (I keep my fingers crossed on that one). “Four-fifths of Chicago Catholics approve of the pope, the Cardinal, and their pastor.” Note that bishops are not included in that list. The lay people make up their own minds about the Church: “With astonishing ease, Chicago Catholics have separated what God demands of them and what the Church expects of them.” After the papal encyclical banning birth control back in 1968, Greeley first foresaw them heading for the exit doors in disappointment and disgust. Many did. Most do not argue about the teachings which do not square with their experience, their life in community, and what they consider to be the Catholic story. They simply ignore what the bishops declare, and bond with each other, enjoying what appeals to them in Catholicism.

Not that all is well with Chicago Catholics. “Very few young people plan to be a priest or a nun. Cafeteria Catholicism divides the Catholic population into two groups. Catholic schools are closing. Many dispense themselves from Sunday Mass because they get nothing out of it, because it is dull, tedious, and BORING!”

It wouldn’t be part of Greeley’s testament if it did not include his prediction about the reception of his survey findings and conclusions: “Both the left, which thinks Chicago Catholics should be more resentful of their leadership, and the right, which thinks that Catholics are more orthodox—or should be—on sexual issues, will try to cast doubts on the study.” He defends the survey methods and justifies the choice of Chicago, with which he has a love affair, for his sampling. And it wouldn’t be Greeley if it did not include lines like this: “The current bench of bishops is terrified of research which, because the men sitting on the bench (most of whom should have been left back in the locker room) have learned to expect nothing but bad news from research. . . It does not matter that much of the research reports good news.” The bad news of the last two years is Greeley’s debilitating injury. The good news appears along with mixed data in what he found and for what he argues in this book and, better yet, that the book could appear at all.


Andrew Greeley, Chicago Catholics and the Struggles within Their Church (New Jersey: Transaction, 2010).

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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