WASHINGTON–Last week, Andrew M. Greeley, the well-known liberal priest and sociologist of all things Catholic, gave a celebrity interview to his fans. Though his main interlocutor was Robert Orsi, the chairman of the religion department at Harvard, Father Greeley also took some questions from the audience, most of whose members were gathered here for the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. One person asked about the potential for the lay group Voice of the Faithful to transform the church, another about whether nuns should return to wearing habits. Then a middle-aged woman in the back of the room asked Father Greeley about the changing face of the Catholic Church. The greatest growth in the world-wide Catholic population, she noted, has been coming for some years from new believers in South America and Africa, and the trend shows no signs of abating. What effect would this have on the church?
"We will depend on them for vitality," Father Greeley predicted. "But they will continue to depend on us for the ideas."
Well bad ideas are still ideas. Fr. Greeley and many like him do have a sort of reverse charism of infallibility. If you have a list of ideas to preach the Gospel and to help the Church grow you can always match it to one of his ideas and immediately cross it off your list. So in some ways they are a real time saver in eliminating failed ideas.
The current issue of First Things contains a quote from Fr. Greeley in 1987. He was asked to look 20 years ahead and tell what it would be like in 2007. He replied:
"The power of the pope definitely will shrink. Today we are experiencing the last gasp of a dying order, and in 20 years it will be gone."
Does Pope Benedict know he only has a month left? If only Fr. Greeley had been talking about himself and those sympathetic to him and he could have been a prophet.