Andrew Greeley is not the sort of Catholic cleric whom the Vatican currently prizes. Which is why I have always admired him. This turbu- lent priest disagrees openly with many of Rome's outdated notions - notably that the clergy must be celibate - but plays by its rules and fights for reform from within. His day job is at the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago and his professional expertise - aside from holy orders - is as a social scientist. Plus (just to show us that he is human) he publishes mildly steamy novels in which people have sex. And enjoy it.
Priests: a calling in crisis is Greeley with his serious hat on. Given the current crisis in the US, following the revelations of abuse of children by priests and a widespread cover-up by bishops, I was expecting some incisive material on how the tragedy came about. As long ago as 1985, to his credit, Greeley was warning that the paedophile scandal was an "atomic bomb ready to explode".
The book starts well enough, with a pithy, clear-sighted recap of the main events. And it ends strongly, with recommendations to allow priests to marry; to put an end to homophobia in the Church; and to appoint more bishops who are in touch with local people, rather than ideologues imposed by Rome. The problem is the bit in the middle.
Things start to go wrong when Greeley launches into a rant about other social scientists and their theories on the underlying causes of the paedophile crisis in the States. He spends far too many pages attacking the methodology of various others who have produced research on the issue. Greeley's argument is that most of these experts are ex-priests who are so embittered to be outside Mother Church that they cannot resist any opportunity to produce bogus evidence to bash her. This section restricts Greeley's options thereafter: he cannot in good faith go on to agree with their findings, however much they may fit with his previously held position.
So he finds a saviour in someone else's research - carried out by the Los Angeles Times in 2002. Now I'm no social scientist, but to draw conclusions on the general state of mind of 45,000 US priests from a newspaper survey sent out to 5,000 and answered by 1,854 hardly brings the word "gospel" to mind. Greeley himself confirms (in a footnote) that "it is regrettable that the response rate was not higher". So why does he make so much of the poll?
He offers no justification, but concentrates on relaying its picture of the American clergy as being not so much in crisis as in clover. So just 16 per cent of priests are gay or homosexually inclined, roughly 17 per cent have broken their vow of celibacy - high, but nowhere near other estimates - and 92 per cent are content with intimate but non-sexual human relationships (previous surveys had put this at about 10 or 20 per cent). Almost two-thirds of the LA Times respondents think the priesthood has turned out better than they could have imagined. And so on.
I'm all for comparing one survey with another; Greeley, however, wholly accepts the LA Times view. Yet its findings are at odds with the privately expressed feelings of nearly all the priests I have ever met. The only explanation I can think of for the figures is that, given the acute sensitivities within the Catholic Church (John Paul II is said to be considering a ban on ordaining anyone who is gay - celibate or not), most priests would think twice about answering a survey sent out by a secular newspaper. Many clergy hate the media.
Greeley in effect appears to be telling us Catholics to stop worrying about all this paedophile business. It was a blip and we should discount various plausible explanations that have been put forward: a prevailing culture that treats human sexuality as if it were at best a weakness and at worst a perversion in whatever form; an obsession with secrecy, as befits an institution that is hierarchical and anti-democratic; and a clerical caste that is forced, often against its better judgement, to embrace celibacy as part and parcel of having a vocation. These approaches are linked to social scientists of whom he doesn't approve.
We are left with a lazy, illogical book by a man previously celebrated for his industry and logic. It offers no answers and pretty thin comfort. Despite the brave words at the start and finish, the overall effect of its publication can only be to justify those who argue that the priesthood is basically fine, the Church is doing OK, and the calls for radical reform are misplaced. It will do nothing to advance the debate about the future of Catholicism and little to help restore its most precious asset - moral authority. In a church perilously short of inspiring figures, one more has been removed from the pantheon.
Peter Stanford's Heaven: a traveller's guide is published in paperback by HarperCollins