Book Review, 28 September 2006
Reviewed by Peter Cornwell
Priests are both flesh and spirit
Liturgical press (Dist. Columba Book Services), ££11.50
Tablet bookshop price ££10.35 Tel 01420 592974
The American priest and scholar Donald Cozzens makes a strong case in this book for the abolition of "mandated" celibacy. It is the stronger for being also a clear affirmation of the value of the celibate state. This, he claims, is a "great gift" to the Church, not simply because it is administratively convenient to be able to dispatch priests anywhere at any time, but because mature celibates are powerful communicators of the love of God. They have about them a sense of being at ease with themselves, which puts others at ease, and a generosity of spirit, which makes them seem available at any time for any person. In the wastelands of our city centres, when the social services have retired for the weekend and other clergy have long since retired to the suburbs, such men, rattling around alone in their presbyteries, vulnerable to conmen and assault, often offer the only care available. Without priests like this we should all be the poorer.
But, insists Cozzens, this gift needs to be set free from its present entanglement with law and discipline, for it is a charism, a gift from God which is clearly not given to all. The idea that the Church can guarantee that God will automatically add it on to the grace of holy orders, he says is presumptuous. Grace can only perfect nature; therefore celibacy is a "graced ability" that has to be grounded in natural gifts. For those so gifted, the celibate state is simply "the right way to live out their lives". But when David is squeezed into Saul's armour and this state is instead endured as part of the priestly "package", then lives are diminished, humanity eroded and with it that precious ease in relating to other people. What results is "an inner disquietude" which is good news neither for the priests themselves nor for those whom they serve.
Cozzens takes great care not to make easy links between mandatory celibacy and child abuse but he poses a real question when he asks whether the formation of celibate priests may fail to encourage that psychosexual maturity without which there can indeed be risk. This, of course, is the real issue in the case of homosexual priests. It is not orientation that should be the worry, but whether there is achieved a mature coming to terms with whatever sexual orientation one has. Resisting the scapegoating of gays, Cozzens points out that some of the "brightest and best" of priests are gay but that they have to carry the burden of seeing what life has handed out to them as "objectively disordered". For such, "mandated celibacy" may prove an enticing escape from the issue, an opportunity to put their "painful sexuality" on a shelf.
Priests, whether celibate or married, have real human needs. Cozzens recognises that the authentic celibate life needs to be fed by close, non-sexual friendships with both men and women. Anxious authority worries about the danger of "particular friendships", but far more worrying are those priests who think that they can do without them. This attempt to dodge the flesh can be encouraged by the rhetoric of celibacy, the claim to a more whole-hearted commitment to God, a more radical fidelity to the gospel. If you have Jesus as your special friend whom else do you need? But that is a distorted spirituality, which puts asunder love divine and love human, which in Christ have been united. Ask the question, Cozzens tells us: "whom did Jesus love more - God his Father or us humans?" and you will see that such a competition for our love has no place in Christian thinking.
These arguments are not new but this excellent book mounts them with such moderation and sensitivity that we would expect him to get a sympathetic hearing. But the truth is that this issue goes on being met with a wall of silence from authority. What is it afraid of? Perhaps it is the deconstruction of a particular model of priesthood that has flourished since the Reformation, the loss of that mystique, which surrounds the brotherhood of celibate priests living in solidarity with their bishop. That model still has great strengths but the response to the child abuse scandal has revealed some of its weakness: the faithful may no longer be willing to be treated as children by this all-male controlling world.
At the moment something of a rearguard action is being fought to resist the emergence of a new model of ministry; young priests are being stuffed back into their soutanes and laity warned off holy ground. But if we ask the daring question: "What does God want?", we might look for the answer in his apparent failure to provide sufficient priests to maintain the old way and in his raising up lay men and women to run vibrant parishes with occasional priestly assistance. The future that God may be shaping looks "collaborative", a matter of men and women, celibate and married, lay and clerical learning to use their varied gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ.
Authority understandably hesitates to end mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests of the Latin rite because it fears slippery slopes, one thing leading to another. When, some 20 years ago, it was suggested that, as a married man, I might be recycled as a Catholic priest, I went to see the late Cardinal Hume to discuss the matter. I wanted to know whether the authorities had thought through where all this might lead; for indeed I guessed that once you let married priests out of the closet, you might never know what other issues would come tumbling out as well. Eighteen years serving as a Catholic priest has assured me that, far from being scandalised, the faithful are quite relaxed about it all and that my brother priests who are celibate are able to take me as I am - wife, children, grandchildren and all. If they envy the married retiring home to their wives, then we can remind them of the night-office that younger married priests must perform, taking their turn to change the nappies and give the feed.
It has been my good fortune to work in situations in which I am not expected to be the omniscient omnipotent parish priest but in a university chaplaincy, a prison, a school, to be part of a team working together with men and women, lay and cleric, married and celibate. With such a model of priesthood one can abandon the attempt to be god, enjoy the different gifts and be happy. Freeing celibacy, as Cozzens argues, is part of the construction of this model of ministerial variety.