Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1928-) Priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago; S.T.L., St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, 1954; ordained priest the same year and assigned as curate to Christ the King parish, Chicago. While engaged in parish work, he was directed in 1960 to part-time study at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. (1961) and Ph.D. (1962) in sociology. In 1965, Greeley was assigned to full-time work at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), Chicago, where he holds an appointment as Research Associate. Lecturer, University of Chicago, 1963-1972; Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona, 1979–, and concurrently Professor of Social Science, University of Chicago, 1991–. President, American Catholic Sociological Society, 1966. Recipient of several honorary degrees.

A bibliography of Greeley's work (Harrison 1994) lists 3,715 items encompassing his activities as a sociologist, novelist, teacher, religious writer, commentator, syndicated newspaper columnist, media personality, poet, opera librettist, and photographer. His sociological publications include research monographs on the sociology of ecstasy (1974), the sociology of the paranormal (1975), ethnic stratification and mobility in the United States (1976), and ethnicity and drinking (Greeley et al. 1980). The Sociology of Andrew M. Greeley (Scholars Press 1994) contains 48 reprinted journal articles representing the core of his publications on the sociology of religion. An autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest (Simon and Schuster), appeared in 1986.

Greeley is a social scientist in the survey research tradition. He eschews extensive theoretical abstraction and data-free discourse in favor of testable hypotheses anchored in a covering perspective and assessed in probability samples of population. During the course of his career as a sociologist, he has consistently analyzed religion as a differentiated, irreducible phenomenon that provides meaning and organizes belonging in ways that are independent of the expression of instrumental and adaptive activity in modern societies.

Greeley's accomplishments as a successful novelist of religious sensibility are a pastoral application of his theory of religion. In his view, religion is root images that are embedded in rituals and narratives that enable individuals to tell and enact salutary stories in their own lives—witnessed, for example, in his Religion as Poetry (Transaction 1995).

Early Sociological Work

Greeley's early work was a response to questions stimulated by developments in American society from the end of World War II to about the mid-1960s. The decline of WASP hegemony, the identification of the categories of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew as the major elements of American pluralism, the incorporation of the offspring of immigrant sub-populations into the middle classes, and suburbanization led to questions regarding ethnic assimilation and the nature of religious meaning and belonging in America.

Greeley's study (1962) of an upper-middle-class parish in the Beverly area of Chicago adduced evidence of Will Herberg's triple-melting-pot thesis advanced in Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Doubleday 1955). The upwardly mobile offspring of immigrants (largely Irish in Beverly) were not assimilated to a single standard identity. They were Americans within the confines of religious categories that downplayed ethnic origins. Ethnic exogamy and religious endogamy underwrote the categories.

Notwithstanding the homogeneity of Beverly's citizens on the standard socioeconomic indicators, the Catholic-Protestant distinction divided the community into two endogamous solitudes. Adults of both faiths shared the common recreational ground of the country club, where friendly competition occurred but informal social interaction was limited. Protestant and Catholic youth never mixed in the community. Greeley's analysis (1970) of data from the 1957 Current Population Survey of the United States indicated that the endogamous religious marriage patterns that he found in Beverly held among Catholics and Jews in the general population and within Protestant denominations as well.

The Education, Values, and Careers of American Catholics

The American educational system became a focus of intense public concern after the Soviet Union orbited the space capsule Sputnik in 1957. The post-Sputnik public malaise coincided with criticism of the American Roman Catholic educational system and the ethos that was deemed to be the foundation of the system. Catholic intellectuals and critics pointed to the absence of a scholarly American Catholic tradition, fear of modern science, and the failure of Catholic colleges and universities to produce significant numbers of research-oriented graduates. On the basis of data gathered in the Detroit metropolitan area, Gerhard Lenski, in his widely acclaimed book The Religious Factor (Doubleday 1960), reported that Catholics were not disposed to make choices that led to economic achievement (the "Protestant ethic thesis"), and that they exhibited antiscientific attitudes. Lenski speculated that Catholicism's stress on obedience and the high value it placed on close family and kin ties rather than on secondary relationships were responsible for inhibiting the choice of scientific careers and lowering the level of orientation to economic achievement among Catholics.

Greeley responded to Lenski and to those Catholics whom he called "the self-critics" (Thomas O'Dea, Gustave Weigel, John Tracey Ellis) in Religion and Career (Sheed & Ward 1963) and in a series of articles (reprinted in The Sociology of Andrew M. Greeley ). Using data gathered by NORC from a national sample of 1961 college graduates, he showed that Catholics did not differ from Protestants and in some cases Jews too in terms of academic experiences, career plans, and occupational values. Catholics were no less interested in science or mathematics than Protestants or Jews and no less desirous of success than Protestants. Greeley's findings destroyed the widely held stereotype that all American Catholics were anti-intellectual, feared science, and rejected the core values of American society: autonomy, achievement, and material success.

Greeley's conclusions differed from Lenski's because, as Greeley pointed out, he had used a national sample, whereas Detroit still had a lot of recent immigrants when Lenski gathered his data in the late 1950s. Recent immigrants often were not able to afford higher education. For that reason, many Catholics in Detroit were less likely than the average American Catholic to attend college and acquire the values associated with higher education, including autonomy and achievement. What held in Detroit in the 1950s had held in America earlier in the century. Recent Catholic immigrants and their children formed a substantially higher fraction of the American population in 1910 than they did after World War II. The criticisms voiced by the Catholic intellectuals in the 1950s were based on old facts that did not apply to many Catholics after World War II. By the mid-1970s, Catholics exceeded Protestants on standard measures of education, income, and occupational achievement. Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics living in the North had higher annual incomes than white Episcopalians (Greeley 1976).

Religiosity, Ethnicity, and Secularity

While Greeley destroyed the stereotype that American Catholics were generally anti-intellectual and had values and career plans that set them apart from most Americans even after exposure to higher education, questions remained regarding the effects of religion and religiosity versus nonreligious factors on behavior, attitudes, and adaptation to American society. Greeley's work points to a complex relationship between sources of behavior that are fundamentally religious (for example, Catholic norms regarding birth control), the nonreligious aspects of culture that immigrants brought with them to America (for example, a taste for cannoli versus Wurst ), residential patterns of settlement (urban versus suburban versus rural), and the dominant secularized Protestant culture of America (the "American Way of Life").

Greeley realized earlier than most intellectuals that the triple-melting-pot thesis—that is, assimilation to the categories of Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—oversimplified the realities of adjustment in America. There were persistent nonreligious differences among groups. Greeley argued that many of the effects that Lenski attributed to religion and religiosity could be traced to the development of secular norms and roles formed in the segregated communication networks of groups that were marked in the first instance by distinctive religious boundaries. According to Greeley, group characteristics such as voting behavior (for example, the loyalty of the Celtic Irish to the Democratic Party) did not flow from religious ideology but from nonreligious constraints and secular action within religiously homogeneous communities (1963). Ethnicity, in other words, was alive and well in America!

Although he sensed the aptness of ethnicity as an analytical tool and underwrote it in his own work, Greeley was not willing to concede the religious question to the secularization theorists either by conflating ethnicity and religion—thereby reducing religiosity to ethnicity—or by accepting as true the popular decline-of-religion-in-modernity thesis. Long before many academics and opinion makers realized that religion was not irrelevant to either private or public life in America (the presidential elections of 1976 and, especially, 1980 marked the turn), Greeley marshaled data and arguments against the secularization thesis in Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion (Schocken 1972). His analysis of social surveys—some predating World War II—later led him to conclude in Religious Change in America (Harvard University Press 1989) that Americans' religious behavior had changed little from 1940 to 1985; there was always more than less of it.

Humanae Vitae and the Religious Imagination

The high level of aggregate religious practice and behavior in America over the course of the twentieth century does not support the secularization thesis. However, there have been some "ups and downs." Between 1968 and 1975, American Catholics reduced their weekly church attendance by one-third, marking an unprecedented decline in Catholic religious observance. Although lower than the Catholic rate (as usual), the weekly attendance rate for Protestants in the same period was unchanged (Greeley et al. 1976, Hout and Greeley 1987).

A popular interpretation of the decline linked it to changes in the Catholic Church as a result of Vatican II. Having analyzed a variety of databases, Greeley and his colleagues concluded that it was not the actions of the council that caused the decline. Rather, it was the 1968 papal encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae . They noted that there was little change in Catholic observance between the end of the council in 1964 and 1968. The decline in observance began in 1968 and leveled off in 1975.

Analysis of data gathered from representative samples of the U.S. Catholic population showed that about half of American Catholics accepted the birth control teaching in 1963, but the figure declined to 15% by 1974. A similar change occurred in the acceptance of papal authority. The change in weekly observance was accounted for by the decline in the acceptance of both the birth control teaching and papal authority. It could not be explained by age-related lifestyle factors, changes in the demography of American Catholics, or secularization.

The decline in observance stabilized in the mid-1970s at about 50%. However, among those who attended church weekly, there were still many who did not accept the birth control teaching and questioned papal authority. Why did they remain observant Catholics? Greeley showed in The Young Catholic Family: Religious Images and Marital Fulfillment (Thomas More Press 1980) that the key variable was how people imagine God. Those who reject the church's sexual ethic and nonetheless have an image of God as kind, gentle, and loving are the ones who are most likely to go to weekly Mass and Communion. The laity justify the reception of the sacraments by appealing in their minds to an image of God who understands the importance of sex in marriage.

The insight that images of God have an important impact on religious behavior has been expanded into a theory of religion in such books as The Religious Imagination (Sadlier 1981), Religion: A Secular Theory (Free Press 1982), and Religion as Poetry (see also Greeley 1989). The theory elaborates the work of Rudolph Otto and William James (religion as experience), Talcott Parsons and Clifford Geertz (religion as powerful symbols), and Roger Schank (religion as stories). Experience, symbols, and stories are entwined and mutually encoded.

Adapting an approach from David Tracey's The Analogical Imagination (Crossroad 1981) on the dialectical (Protestant) and analogical (Catholic) imaginations, Greeley has formulated in Religion as Poetry a specification of his theory that incorporates the fundamental Protestant and Catholic images of God. In scale form, the specification forces choices between images of God as Mother/Father, Master/Spouse, Judge/Lover, and Friend/King. Respondents' choices—the items have been administered to thousands of subjects—are explained by a single factor. These factor scores account for a wide variety of behaviors and attitudes, including prayer, political attitudes, attitudes toward the environment, attitudes toward AIDS, and differences between U.S. Catholics and Southern Baptists.

See also Gerhard Lenski, Protestant Ethic Thesis, Roman Catholicism

John H. Simpson


A. M. Greeley, "Some Aspects of Interaction Between Religious Groups in an Upper Middle Class Roman Catholic Parish," Social Compass 9(1962):39-61

A. M. Greeley, "A Note on the Origins of Religious Differences," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3(1963):21-31

A. M. Greeley, "Religious Intermarriage in a Denominational Society," American Journal of Sociology 75(1970):949-952

A. M. Greeley, Ecstasy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974)

A. M. Greeley, The Sociology of the Paranormal (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1975)

A. M. Greeley, Ethnicity, Denomination and Inequality (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1976)

A. M. Greeley, "The Sociology of American Catholics," Annual Review of Sociology 5(1979):91-111

A. M. Greeley, "Protestant and Catholic," American Sociological Review 54(1989):485-502

A. M. Greeley et al., Catholic Schools in a Declining Church (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1976)

A. M. Greeley et al., Ethnic Drinking Subcultures (New York: Praeger, 1980)

E. Harrison, Andrew M. Greeley (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1994)

M. Hout and A. M. Greeley, "The Center Doesn't Hold," American Sociological Review 52(1987):325-345.

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