Saturday, September 30, 2006
Plain Dealer Religion Reporter
Most priests were not given the gift of celibacy, and forcing sexual abstinence upon them can be a soul-shrinking burden that drains clerics of passion, endangers children and leads men away from the priesthood, a prominent diocesan author says.
In a provocative new book, "Freeing Celibacy," the Rev. Donald Cozzens calls for an end to the almost 900-year-old Catholic practice staunchly defended by the Vatican.
Mandatory celibacy is breaking down as priests around the world defy the rule and more church members support the right of priests to marry, according to Cozzens, a writer in residence at John Carroll University who also served as a vicar for clergy of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.
"Mandated celibacy is . . . an unnecessary restriction for thousands of priests and a source of suffering for the church itself," writes Cozzens. "The time is right. Catholics everywhere await the freeing of celibacy."
Most U.S. Catholics agree. In a 2005 survey of American Catholics, 75 percent said it would be a good thing if married men were allowed to be ordained, and 81 percent said priests who left to marry should be allowed to return to ministry.
In a 2001 survey of Catholic priests, 56 percent favored optional celibacy.
Rome, however, has spoken otherwise. Pope John Paul II declared mandatory celibacy a closed subject.
In his influential 2000 book, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," Cozzens, then the rector of St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, said the church needed to deal with "the growing perception -- one seldom contested by those who know the priesthood well -- the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession."
Cozzens' latest book from Liturgical Press is winning praise from Catholic observers.
"In my view, it's not disloyal. . . . It's courageous," said sociologist Dean Hoge, fellow of the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America, in a telephone interview.
And responsible, given the worsening clergy shortage, Hoge added.
"People should think about how to carry out the Lord's will under new circumstances," he said.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at Notre Dame University, wrote that Cozzens' book "in effect, points its finger at a massive elephant in the church's living room that many still pretend not to see."
Cozzens requested that an advance copy of his book be sent to Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon. The bishop was unavailable for comment Thursday.
The early church did not mandate celibacy for clergy, and there were many married popes through the centuries. In I Corinthians, Paul says, "Have I not the right to take a Christian wife about with me, like the rest of the apostles?"
Celibacy was not required of all clergy in the Latin Rite until the 12th century. Even today, exceptions exist. Married priests from other denominations converting to Catholicism have been accepted into the Catholic priesthood.
Catholic Church canons call celibacy a special gift of God by which ministers more freely can dedicate themselves to the service of God and humankind.
Cozzens said celibacy freely chosen can be a joyful witness "to the mystery of selfless love, to the transcendent, saving powers of the God we cannot see."
But few priests are given this gift, he said.
Mandatory celibacy ends up being "an oxymoron. Gifts that are grounded in the grace of God simply cannot be legislated."
The church is paying a steep price, he said.
One consequence is the large number of men who have left the priesthood and the difficulty in attracting seminarians to a celibate life.
But there also can be a devastating emotional and personal cost, he said.
While stopping short of saying there is a causal relationship between celibacy and sexual abuse, Cozzens said "the psychosexual immaturity evident in celibate priests in general and priest-abusers in particular must be considered."
Cozzens also said many priests "can become obsessed with that which is forbidden -- waiting for vacations and other opportunities to break out and experiment."
Signs of the breakdown of celibacy are everywhere, Cozzens said, from the widespread disregard for the rule in many parts of Africa and South and Central America to the growing number of priests in the United States who have decided not to follow the discipline.
It is no secret among priests, Cozzens said.
"Some will acknowledge, when the company can be trusted, that there already exists optional celibacy -- for the gay priest."
Cozzens says that from the first grade at Holy Name Elementary School in Cleveland, he felt both an infatuation with a female classmate and a call to the priesthood.
"I don't feel I had a call to celibacy," he said.
Cozzens said that while some priests, himself included, over time grow into the gift of celibacy, there are both many who do not and many who find it a painful struggle.
Cozzens recalled asking one 95-year-old diocesan priest how the rule had affected him.
The priest's response: "When it comes to celibacy, Don, it's OK during the day."