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Celibacy as bad for clergy

by William Cleary

Freeing Celibacy by Donald Cozzens is a short, gutzy book on celibacy, a good read. Author Cozzens with three other important books to his credit -- is becoming a leader of Roman Catholic reform. Nine brief, graceful essays about 12 pages each comprise this effort. It's easy, convincing reading. His point: only a non-mandatory celibacy makes sense for future Catholic priests.

My problem: Cozzens still holds out hope for religious celibacy as a charism found in a few men and women. Perhaps you believe it too. In my view, that is a lost cause. Do we not suspect a connection between celibacy and the catastrophic abuse of youngsters by priests, now numbering 5000 plus in the US alone? Of course there must be a connection, exactly what it is hard to state. In my view, as long as religious celibacy is in any way part of clerical life, our children will simply not be safe around a Catholic church.

When the scandal first broke, did you not wonder (as I did): how could they do it? How could men set aside and trained for virtue and heroism fall so far? Reading Cozzens, I finally saw how. The bishops sometimes wink at evil. WINK ONE: how little the life of honest celibacy worldwide means to Rome; it's mostly ignored, he says. Then it's just a little step to WINK TWO: look, some priests get intimate with youngsters: so what? We don't really care about that either.

That's how the sexual abuse of children becomes so prevalent: because dishonest celibacy is so prevalent. So it seems to me.

The new little book is firmly forthright -- especially on homosexuality, which can be a real blessing for churchmen. Cozzens even quotes a seldom-seen letter Cardinal Newman wrote his most intimate male friend, giving readers a model of the level of love and affection that two celibate men can have for one another. Without such deep friendships, says Cozzens, no celibate can survive spiritually, a truism that church writers hesitate to admit. Gay or straight, we must all have intimacy. Newman and his friend arranged to be buried together, by the way.

Will Church leaders be impressed by Cozzens's book? Possibly. More likely they'll feel threatened. Will it bring change? Perhaps, slowly. To block change, all it takes is one well-placed, conservative cardinal.

What makes the book less valuable than it could be is, alas, it is another insider's book. His terminology and frame of reference are for most humans, non-Catholic people, obsolete. The author constantly assumes for instance that God appreciates "glory" -- so that doing things "for the glory of God" is praiseworthy. Of course it's biblical, yes. Glory is pursued by kings and males everywhere, yes. But by God? By the Ultimate Creative Energy Around and Within Us? The real Creator has to be far beyond glory seeking.

But Cozzens is a prophet full of courage and brilliance as is sweetly evident also in his previous books: The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Sacred Silence, and Faith That Dares To Speak. All these are very helpful in understanding and guiding the Church.

In this book Donald Cozzens nostalgically wants to save the "charism of celibacy" as a value. For my part, all the speculation about a charism called "celibacy" runs counter to my experience. I for one see my 20 years with the vow of celibacy as an eccentric lifestyle produced largely by illusion, misinformation, egotism, and ambition.

"Priesthood is their truth" the author reports some clerics as claiming. But scholars know that the word priesthood is really inexact and ultimately inappropriate. Jesus ordained no priests. There were Jewish priests who did animal sacrifices, but Jesus was not one of them. There are really no Catholic "priests," only those men who serve and lead, who minister and bless. The sooner we stop using the word "priest," the better. It gives "priests" illusions.

I stand instead with William Phipps. He says in his new book Celibacy, the Heritage: "Clerical sexual abuses are the surface symptoms but celibacy is the systemic disease. The media has described the ugly eruptions but has given little attention to the disquieting underlying historical causes." He means religious celibacy itself is a mistake, a bad idea finally showing in our time its potential for pathology. I agree. Cozzens would not.

Freeing Celibacy

by Donald Cozzens

Liturgical Press, 2006, $15.95


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