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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Father Andrew M. Greeley, an outspoken Roman Catholic priest who wrote more than 50 novels and publicly feuded with his superior John Cardinal Cody, died at the age of 85 in his Chicago home, a spokeswoman said Thursday.
"Father Andrew Greeley was the most influential American Catholic sociologist of the 20th century," said Father Tom Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter. "He was the first to show how Humanae Vitae, the encyclical on birth control by Pope Paul VI, split the church and made the laity question church authority."
Greeley had been silenced in 2008, when he suffered a fall after his clothing got caught in the door of a taxi as it pulled away. A resulting brain injury left him unable to write or make public appearances, according to his niece, Laura Durkin.
He died in his sleep early Thursday morning, his spokeswoman, June Rosner, said.
A proponent of reform within the Catholic Church, Greeley also wrote more than 100 works of non-fiction, including "Priests: A Calling in Crisis" and "The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins and the Second Vatican Council."
"He was first and foremost a parish priest ... his parish were the people who read his columns and his books," said Durkin. "He was a priest and he loved the church."
Greeley's sometimes racy fiction dealt with some of the challenges facing the church. "The Priestly Sins," published in 2004 during the height of the sex abuse scandal, focused on an idealistic priest after he reported child abuse by a fellow priest.
Greeley, who recently celebrated his 59th anniversary as a priest, criticized church leadership over its position on birth control and the handling of the sexual abuse crisis.
"He served the church all those years with a prophetic voice and with unfailing dedication, and the church he and our parents taught us to love is a better place because of him," read a family statement, supplied by Rosner.
Greeley - who had a person website, www.agreeley.com/ - had masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, and was a research associate with the university's National Opinion Research Center and a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.
Greeley is survived by a sister, five nieces, two nephews and 18 grand nieces and nephews.
Many of Greeley's novels were best sellers. "The Cardinal Sins" in 1981 sold more than 3 million copies, according to a statement from the University of Chicago. It is the story of an archbishop who fathers a child.
Greeley famously feuded with Cardinal Cody of Chicago - whom he called a monster, crazy and "one of the most truly evil men I have ever known" - but denied Cody was the basis for the "Cardinal Sins" archbishop.
"People like stories. We are all story tellers," Greeley once told Reuters. "I'm convinced that people followed Jesus because he was a good storyteller."
His writings also covered education, sex, ethnicity, euthanasia, politics, war and other topics, and his engaging manner made him a sought-after interview subject on television.
"I suppose I have the Irish weakness for words gone wild," Greeley told the New York Times. "Besides, if you're celibate you have to do something."
His books made him wealthy and he owned an apartment in a posh downtown skyscraper. He responded to criticism of his wealth by telling People magazine. "What I do with my money is between me and God and the IRS. I think I'm generous with it. I'm willing to face God on the way I've spent it."
Greeley established a $1 million endowment at the University of Chicago for Catholic studies. He also gave money for scholarships to the Chicago archdiocese.
"Father Greeley could be irritatingly smart and a touch righteous, and some of his romantic novels bordered on the silly, but he dreamed a very special American Catholic democratic dream and we Catholics would have done well to have listened to him more closely," said David O'Brien, a historian of U.S. Catholicism and a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "He has been sorely missed since an accident silenced his public voice."
Reporting by Mary Wisniewski, John O'Callaghan and Bill Trott; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky