CHICAGO, May 30 (Reuters) - Father Andrew M. Greeley, an outspoken Roman Catholic priest who wrote more than 50 novels and was a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times until he suffered a brain injury in 2008, 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 died in his sleep early Thursday morning, according to his spokeswoman, June Rosner.
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 his niece, Laura Durkin. "He was a priest and he loved the church."
Greeley's 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 criticized church leadership over its position on birth control and the handling of the sexual abuse crisis.
He suffered a fall in 2008 when his clothing got caught in the door of a taxi as it pulled away. The resulting brain injury left him unable to write or make public appearances, according to Durkin.
Greeley recently celebrated his 59th anniversary as a priest.
"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 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.
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.
His books were published in more than 12 languages.
"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 distinguished university professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "He has been sorely missed since an accident silenced his public voice."
Greeley is survived by a sister, five nieces, two nephews and 18 grand nieces and nephews. (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Scott Malone)