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Where goes the priesthood?

After a talk he gave last year, Father Donald B. Cozzens found himself huddled in a corner with a Vatican archbishop. "People in the Vatican are talking about your book," the archbishop whispered. Reflecting on the encounter later, Cozzens wondered, "Why in the world did we need to whisper?" The publication last year of his surprise bestseller, The Changing Face of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press), certainly has people talking in an unprecedentedly frank way about the state of the church, its priesthood, and the challenges it faces. Cozzens, who until this summer was the rector of St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland, plans to return to teaching after a sabbatical at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. "What we need today," he says, "is honest discussion and respectful listening, and then we have to allow the Spirit to lead us where the Spirit will."

You talk about the challenge for priests to be loyal men of the church on the one hand, and their own person on the other. What's the tension in that challenge?

This challenge for priests is similar to what any individual faces when working for a large institution or company: How to be truly faithful to your role as a representative of that institution. In his case, a priest needs to be faithful both to his responsibility as a spokesperson for the church and to his own conscience. Most of the time there is no internal conflict because to be a spokesperson for the church is to be a spokesperson for the gospel and its truths. But there can be tension in areas that are not related to revealed teachings of the church, especially with human sexuality and moral theology.

How does such tension play itself out in the pastoral experience of the priest?

I think sooner or later priests come to see that their parishioners can be very filled with God's spirit, very alive in the gospel message, and yet might not, for example, go to Mass every Sunday. Or they might acknowledge that they are practicing birth control after bringing several children into the world. These are two cases where individuals are not in harmony with the moral teaching of the church, and yet as pastors get to know them, they see them to be people of great charity, real faith, and obvious hope.

How should a priest respond to that conflict?

I think first of all, he needs to do his homework. One of the challenges today is trying to be theologically up-to-date, and most parish priests are quite stretched. A priest has to be well-read in the area of theology and scripture. That's the first step.

Then I think he also needs to talk to other people in ministry--priests and lay ministers, deacons, bishops--to make sure that he isn't out on a limb or off base.

And third, he needs to do some serious theological reflection and then respond as a pastor. Priests today need more than the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as valuable and as important as those two documents are.

But won't a priest who favors a more pastoral approach get in trouble with his bishop for not toeing the "company line"? How should he deal with that?

Take two aspirins. (Laughs.) There is no single answer to that. I think we have to stand before God and truly try to bring the freedom and the responsibility of the gospel to bear on people's lives. If a priest has a low tolerance for ambiguity, this can be a very painful moment in his life.

The danger is that the priest will stop thinking theologically and pastorally and simply be a man who delivers the orders from his superiors. Being a priest is an art. You can't be a priest today by playing your role by the numbers.

You mean following official directives?

Yes, like following a coloring book that has the numbers to color in the appropriate colors. You cannot reduce the priest to absolute obedience to every directive that comes from the teaching church. And the church's tradition has recognized this. We have built into our tradition a high respect for exceptions due to circumstances and the human condition.

How do the compromises that some priests make when they find themselves in these conflict situations affect their spirituality, their soul?

Whenever we are not true to our own experience or not honest with ourselves in our prayer, there is a kind of shrinking of our soul. Some priests just "blink" in these kinds of pastoral conflict. They simply say, "Who am I to question the church? The church is much smarter than I (and they're right there, of course). I am simply going to relate its message and tell my parishioners, `I know this is hard for you to hear. I'm going to pray for you,' and then back off."

That might be appropriate in certain circumstances, but if I simply turn away from internal conflict that is caused by my pastoral experience coming into tension with church teaching, then I become less of an individual, and I think in the case of the priest, less of a man.

And, even though in the church today this kind of attitude can be rewarded, I don't think it serves the gospel well.

There is a perception that this approach may be more common among the newer crop of seminarians and younger priests.

Some of our seminarians today come to us from life experiences that are very much soaked in ambiguity. They are tired of the individualistic, relativistic values of much of modern society. They are frustrated with the negative aspects of our culture.

They would like to know what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad, what is morally permissible and what is not. And that's fine. But some of them have little tolerance for gray areas.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, is there also a danger in being too much of your "own man"?

Yes, some priests lose confidence in the institution all together and become mavericks. Then, in their eyes, the institution can do nothing right, there is no truth, no virtue in its pronouncements. The maverick priest comes to see his bishop as his enemy, regardless of how pastoral or committed he may be.

That's a less common but equally destructive path, and both of these false solutions reveal severe authority problems.

How are laypeople affected by this tension?

Catholics today love the church, they love the communion of the people of God, they love the sacraments. They see the church as their path to God. Like their priests, laypeople also find themselves in a state of ambiguity and conflict relative to certain teachings of the church.

Many don't believe that it's a serious sin to miss Mass maybe once or twice a month. They don't feel it's a serious sin to have a sexual fantasy that they don't immediately turn away from. Many feel that if an engaged couple engages in sexual intercourse, it perhaps is not always seriously sinful. That's where Catholics find themselves in tension with church teaching. And yet they do not leave.

Despite the celibacy requirement, some priests are sexually active. You make a point of differentiating the desire for intimacy from sexual relations. Why is that important?

When you say there are sexually active priests, that is correct. How many, I don't know. But I want to say that from my experience as a priest, the real majority of priests take celibacy seriously and struggle honestly to lead celibate lives.

That being said, the priests who lead the healthiest chaste and celibate lives are those who have honest human intimacy in their lives. I'm not talking about sexual intimacy, I'm talking about close friendships with a few people, both priests and laypeople. That gives a sense of life and communion to a priest.

Do you think lay parishioners understand this distinction?

Those parishioners who understand celibacy to mean a certain isolation from honest human relationships might be puzzled by a priest having close friendships, and they might not understand it. This could be especially difficult for the heterosexually oriented priest if he is seen at the theater or the orchestra or a restaurant with a friend of his who happens to be a woman. But I'll also say, if a priest is dining regularly with a woman friend, that can create a problem because of understandable misperceptions.

In recent years the scandals of clergy misconduct with minors have led to an erosion of trust. How serious of a problem is this?

First of all, the serious problem of misconduct with minors, which has eroded the trust the people of God have in their priests, is reducible to a small number of clergy. How small? I think the number is significant. Some say, "It's only 1 or 2 percent of the priests." Whether it's 1 or 2 or 4 or 7 percent, hundreds of cases have come to public knowledge. And that means there are equally significant numbers that have not come to light.

So even though it's true that only a small percentage of priests have engaged in misconduct with minors, it still is a staggering and sad phenomenon.

In dealing with these scandals, has the church been too focused on crisis management?

In the 1980s, when story after story seemed to be appearing of priests engaging in misconduct with minors, it was understandable that dioceses assumed a crisis response. It was a very painful challenge. Initially we certainly did not respond as well as we might have. Today, overall, the church seems to be doing a better job of responding pastorally.

But what I haven't seen is a serious discussion of the root causes of clergy misconduct with minors, its meaning or implications. We simply haven't asked those questions, and there are other areas that we have shied away from.

For example, most of the misconduct involving priests with minors is not strictly speaking what we call pedophilia. It is sexual contact with post-adolescent teenage boys. Diverging from the general population of child abusers--who tend to be married men who prey on both girls and boys--an estimated 80 to 90 percent of misconduct cases brought against clergy have to do with misconduct with teenage boys.

How is that significant?

The implication is that there is a link between sexual orientation and misconduct with teenagers. In general, a true fixated pedophile appears to be attracted to both prepubescent boys and girls. But in the sad incidents of priests' misconduct with teenagers, there does appear to be a link with the priest's orientation.

There is also a link between this misconduct and the lack of emotional and spiritual maturity in some of these priests. Sometimes priests who feel emotionally immature are more comfortable relating to teenagers rather than their peers. I think we should recognize it as a red flag when a priest vacations with young college or high school students, when on his day off he spends time with people considerably younger than he is. Leading a healthy celibate life requires leading a healthy individual life, and that includes having close friends one's own age.

Does the current clerical system and culture foster this kind of emotional immaturity and, by extension, misconduct with minors?

The clerical system in which we live has its origins in the Middle Ages. It takes care of us and provides our room and board. We are not paid large salaries, but most priests live comfortable middleclass lives. We're told where to live, how to dress, and our sexuality is shaped by our tradition of obligatory celibacy.

It can be a blessing that we are spared some of the stresses and experiences of married or single laypeople. But it can also tend to keep us somewhat immature.

How would you change that culture?

I think as long as a priest can't put his feet under his own table, he will remain more like a visitor; he's not living in his own house. I would give priests as much freedom as is reasonable to determine where to live. We should also look at disassociating a priest's income from his sacramental, liturgical ministry. Let's find a way to pay the priest a salary that is reasonable and that does not tie him to the free room and board that comes with most pastoral assignments.

There seems to be a reluctance or even a prohibition at higher levels of the church to talk as openly as you do about the issues facing the priesthood. Is there perhaps a fear of opening the gates to discussions about more far-reaching reform?

It seems clear that the Vatican does not want priests or laypeople talking about the possibility of optional celibacy for priests in the Latin rite. And some of the issues relating to emotional maturity or to misconduct with teenagers might further call into question how feasible obligatory celibacy is in this time.

A large segment of the laity no longer appreciates the significance and the value of obligatory celibacy. But the Vatican doesn't want that discussed. It seems reasonable to me to suspect that the lack of discussion today regarding some of the crises facing the church could be connected with this will of the Vatican that systemic issues not be addressed.

Would you endorse optional celibacy as part of the solution?

What I think would be positive would be an environment where priests and people are invited to speak candidly about their experience. It's always a sign of health if we can talk freely and honestly about patterns of life that are not related to divine revelation.

When it comes to obligatory celibacy, I think it's interesting that in the Catholic tradition marriage is a sacrament, while celibacy is only a discipline. So the church is asking priests to forego the sacrament of marriage and to embrace the discipline of celibacy.

The chapter from your book that has created the most controversy is the one on sexual orientation. You say that there is today a higher percentage of priests and seminarians who are gay when compared with the society at large. Why do we need to be concerned about it?

I think it is clear that we have a larger percentage of gay seminarians and priests. Why is that significant if we're all called to celibacy? I argue that there is a formation issue at stake here.

Seminary rectors today--and I'm not the only one--have found that some straight men are concluding that perhaps they don't have a vocation to the priesthood because they are not comfortable in a seminary environment that has a significant number of gay seminarians. If the priesthood should come to be associated with other so-called gay professions, it will have implications on the vocation situation in the United States. Is that fair? It probably is not, but it's a concern I have.

I've had parents tell me, "My son was considering the priesthood, but he is wary of moving on that desire because he senses a gay subculture present there." The problem with even a comment like that is that it is anecdotal evidence. And while there is a validity to that, it's easy to be contradicted by other seminary rectors or formation people who say they have not heard of such experiences at all.

Is there a certain amount of denial going on about that?

I certainly think there is.

How does the gay subculture in the seminary express itself?

It expresses itself in a number of ways that are discernible to the person who's alert. Gay seminarians tend to congregate with other gay seminarians. And very often they have some very common interests. They're kind of bonding together even though they are not intentionally excluding other seminarians. It is also a matter of perception and language, not necessarily articulated values.

How does the church teaching, which sees a gay orientation as a "disorder," affect this development?

For many seminarians who suspect that they're gay, it's a source of real inner conflict. They obviously have a close relationship with God. Yet in their courses they learn that their own homosexual orientation is considered to be an objective disorder. Does that mean that they as a person are objectively disordered? Some make the distinction that, no, the person is not objectively disordered, only the orientation or inclination. I'll leave it to others to comment on that fine distinction, but it can be very problematic for seminarians.

Some gay seminarians and priests find themselves in a real state of conflict and spend considerable psychic energy and suffer a great deal of pain repressing their own reality of sexual orientation.

What are the implications of this development for laypeople?

I think laypeople are eager to have priests in their parishes preach the Word of God effectively, to serve their pastoral needs, to provide spiritual leadership, and to point to how the gospel needs to be brought to our rather secular culture. Our laity today are fairly sophisticated people, and for many of them orientation is not their first point of concern.

But there are some people, who don't know the church's teaching distinguishing between orientation and activity, who view being homosexually oriented as sinful. They have a significant problem with gay priests. That's one reason why so many gay priests try to keep their orientation private.

The publication of your book last year caused quite a stir. What kind of feedback have you gotten?

Overall, the feedback has been very positive. I would say 95 percent of the reviews of the book have been very affirming. Those who have been critical have said that, as a rector of a seminary, I should be lifting the priesthood up and not be discussing isues such as misconduct with minors and orientation, that I am adding to the darkening of the cloud that is hanging over our heads right now.

And how do you respond to that?

I say, quite to the contrary, if we don't honestly, with care and respect, address the issues that are facing the priesthood today, we do not lift up the priesthood. If we can't honestly take a look at reality, the truth of our lives, then God help us.

So I hope in the long run that my book will be seen as a breath of fresh air. I'm inviting people to reflect on the priesthood--priests, bishops, and laypeople. Their conclusions often will be different from mine. What we need today is honest discussion, prayerful discussion, respectful listening, and then we have to allow the Spirit to lead us where the Spirit will.

Are you hopeful that such an open, honest discussion will take place?

I am hopeful. I don't think that one can be a Christian without being hopeful. I know the great good that priests do every day, and it's critically important that priests continue to minister to the people of God and to our world. My fear is that it's going to get worse before it gets better. But I am still hopeful.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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