Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 110 (February 2001): 31-34.
That there is a crisis in the Catholic priesthood is by now something that “everybody knows.” But new discussions of old questions are sparked from time to time, often by the publication of a book. Such is the case with The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest’s Crisis of Soul (Liturgical Press) by Father Donald Cozzens, Rector of St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School in Cleveland, Ohio. According to Fr. Cozzens, the changing face of the priesthood is very grim indeed, and his argument has sparked a great deal of discussion.
Fr. Cozzens frankly acknowledges that his book is impressionistic. His reflection, he writes in the preface, “is grounded in and shaped by my own experience as a priest, especially by more than a half dozen years of service as vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Cleveland and more recently as rector of our graduate seminary. . . . The experiences and reflections of many priests, I am quite sure, will lead them to see a different picture than the one I outline in the pages ahead.” Precisely.
My own experience of thirteen years in seminary work in Detroit and now as Rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, suggests a very different picture. Put differently, I recognize many of the problems discussed by Fr. Cozzens, but I believe that, at least in some cases, he frames the problem in a way that is, no doubt inadvertently, profoundly misleading.
For instance, Fr. Cozzens addresses the “identity” of the priest in terms of what he describes as a shift following the Second Vatican Council from a “cultic” model to a model of the “servant leader.” This shift was precipitated by the Council’s emphasis on the fuller realization of the priesthood of the laity. There should be, says Fr. Cozzens, a “dyadic” relationship between the priesthood of the faithful and that of the ordained. His greatest concern is that the “dyad” malfunctions when the ordained ministry of “servant leader” fails to be fully engaged with the ministry of the people.
Of course that can happen, and when it does, it is a real problem. Another problem, however, is the collapse of the dyad when the difference that ordination makes is obscured or forgotten. It is precisely the cultic nature of ordained priesthood that prevents such a collapse. Priestly identity is most fundamentally derived from the sacramental grace of ordination at the hands of the bishop. For many people, the word “cultic” has negative connotations that load the discussion. We are speaking about sacramentality, and sacramentality is what, most importantly, defines the priesthood. Priestly identity may be existentially experienced in different ways, but surely we can agree that the most important factor in the priest’s sense of who he is is his relationship with Jesus Christ, whom he makes sacramentally present. Apart from this sustaining sacramental reality, the ordained priesthood simply makes no sense.
At seminary conferences and elsewhere, one regularly hears the lament that younger priests and seminarians today are not as socially engaged as priests ordained in the decades immediately after the Council. These younger men, we are told, are too conservative, or too rigid, or too interested in orthodoxy. They are, it is said, a throwback to the excessively “cultic” priesthood prior to the Council. I am sorry, that is simply not my experience. Nor, incidentally, do I accept the conventional caricature of the priesthood before the Council. Of course there are exceptions, as there will always be, but the seminarians and younger priests whom I know represent not a regression but a new synthesis of, to use Fr. Cozzens’ terms, the cultic and the servant leader. For instance, seminarians today are more interested in urban ministries, in meeting human needs, and, very specifically, in learning Spanish than was the case when I was in seminary. Yet they are also remarkably devout and eager to understand the truth of the gospel—call it orthodoxy, if you wish—so that they can effectively communicate in an often neo–pagan society the reason for the hope that is in them (1 Peter 3:15). Of course the sacraments, the spiritual life, and the truth of the gospel have priority. That is simply to say that Jesus Christ has priority, and there is no other foundation for engaging the world as a priest—or as a Christian, for that matter.
Fr. Cozzens discusses at length what he views as attacks on the integrity of the priest as a human being, among which he includes the tension between the strict teachings of the Church and the more pastoral disposition of priests’ own consciences. He quotes Fr. Bernard Häring on the problem created “when religious authorities demand all too much submission to an obscure package of doctrines.” To be sure, I have felt at times, and I suppose most priests have felt at times, a tension between Church teaching and my own pastoral sensibilities when working with the real problems of people. I take that as a signal that I need to understand the teaching more thoroughly. Let me say it quite flatly: my presumption is not that I am right but that the Church is right. Christ made no individual promise to me that the Spirit would lead me into all truth; he did not give to me the keys of the kingdom. These are promises made to the Church, the Body of Christ, of which I am a member not as an equal but as a servant.
That is not, according to Fr. Cozzens, the attitude of a healthy priest. The healthy priest, he writes, “possesses the courage to stand in loyal opposition should official Church policy appear unfaithful to the gospel of Christ.” At the very least, one might suggest that opposition should be limited to when one “knows” (how would one know for sure?) that Church policy is unfaithful to Christ, not to when it “appears” to be so. Moreover, “loyal opposition” is a political term usually used for the party that is out of power. Is that the model for a healthy priest? Why would one be ordained, solemnly vowing to devote his life to the service of the Church, while expecting to oppose the leadership of the Church? Healthier, it seems to me, is Paul’s admonition that we be of one mind and one heart.
Fr. Cozzens says that the Church is indifferent to the “data” regarding problems such as the vocation shortage, the graying of the clergy, rampant homosexuality among priests (more on that later), the birth control dispute, and calls for married priests and women in ministry. Manifestly, the Church is not indifferent to these questions. At every level of the Church’s life, they are endlessly discussed. Just because the Church does not change its teachings or practices does not mean that such questions are being ignored. Might it not be at least seemly for those who agitate for change to entertain the possibility that the Magisterium understands the problems as well as they do, or even that the Magisterium is right and they are wrong about how these problems are to be understood and addressed?
On the sociological and psychological front, Fr. Cozzens makes much of his claim that a complicating factor in priestly integrity is that younger clergy have more “family of origin” problems than those of the past. Of course there are seminarians who have difficulties with their fathers, and that may contribute to their having a problem with authority figures. Without presuming to speak for clergy who are older than I, my sense is that that may also be true for priests ordained in, say, the 1960s. I believe an argument can be made that, by the usual psychological criteria, today’s seminarians are healthier than their predecessors. Psychological counseling and spiritual formation programs are much more probing and exacting than was the case in former times.
As for the family of origins theory, over the past decade I have kept a record of the seminary admissions cases in which I have been involved. Like Fr. Cozzens, I do not claim this is an “empirical, scientific perspective,” but the fact is that over 90 percent of admissions have come from intact Catholic families: no divorce, both parents Catholic, and an average of just under five siblings. This is not to say that there are no problems in these families. What family does not have problems? At first I thought this might be a peculiarity of Sacred Heart in Detroit, but I have now gone through my first admissions process here at the Josephinum and the statistics are the same. Living and working with seminarians for thirteen years, I simply do not see the massive family “dysfunction” that Fr. Cozzens depicts.
Fr. Cozzens has true and important things to say about celibacy, about the problem of priestly loneliness and the need for friendship and intimacy. He understands that today’s therapeutic society, in which everyone is presumably entitled to complete happiness here on earth, works against the gospel call for self–sacrifice. He writes of the priest: “The deeper his love for God, the greater his capacity for human love and friendship. Conversely, the more authentic his celibate relationships are, the more central and self–defining his love for God.” This insight, he says, needs to be deepened in the formation of priests, and I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, today’s seminarians get more formation with respect to their relationships, with God and with others, than most anybody on the face of the earth. But, as Fr. Cozzens notes, that is also necessary, for these men serve in a society marked by powerful forces militating against the gift and challenge of celibacy.
Less convincing, however, is Fr. Cozzens’ claim that a big problem facing today’s priest is the paucity of good role models living the celibate life. Admittedly, the number of men and women in our society committed to the celibate life is relatively small. But I am impressed by the many priests I know who are confidently and joyfully, albeit with the normal struggles and difficulties, celibate. At work in Fr. Cozzens’ alarmist view is, I expect, a preoccupation with an unrealistic model of health and maturity.
Unless one has reached this level of health and maturity, Fr. Cozzens suggests, he cannot be a happy celibate priest. But who in this life achieves such a model? Because a man and woman do not perfectly conform to contemporary criteria of health and maturity does not mean that they cannot enter upon a valid sacramental marriage that is happy and fruitful. We should not set up for either marriage or celibacy qualifications so extraordinary that they exceed the reach of mortals. Of course faithful celibacy is not effortless, just as fidelity is not easy for the married. Married or celibate, chastity is hard work sustained by grace.
Fr. Cozzens ventures into deep water in a chapter titled “Facing the Unconscious,” where he employs the Oedipal Complex to explain why priests are the way they are. He suggests that the priest is the son, the bishop is the father, the Church is the mother, and other priests are siblings. Each priest is competing for the attention and affection of the bishop. (Following the Oedipal image, one might expect the priest to be bent upon romancing the mother and killing the bishop.) According to this reading, the priest vies for the bishop’s attention by being either a sycophant or a maverick. Both tactics betray an authority problem rooted in the priest’s difficulties with his birth father. And so forth.
Of course sycophancy and rebelliousness are present in the priesthood. We all know such priests, and they are usually the most obvious characters. I doubt if we need an elaborately psychologized explanatory framework to understand why some priests have problems with authority. In most cases, sin is explanation enough—for instance, envy, pride, willfulness, and the sloth that undermines our doing what we know we should do. Fr. Cozzens, however, would have us see a dysfunctional, even pathological, Roman authority that is joined by enabling bishops in victimizing priests who, because of their own vulnerabilities or pathologies, are susceptible to being victimized. That is what one might see if one were set upon seeing it, and had dismissed the explanatory power of individual propensity for sinful behavior.
Too many priests, says Fr. Cozzens, are living out the “eternal boy” or narcissistic syndrome, expecting others to take care of them. He is undoubtedly right about that, as he is right in proposing the alternative that is a gift of self in service to God and others. For Fr. Cozzens, however, the paradigm of that alternative is the married man with a mortgage and other anxieties that produce maturity. Most priests whom I know have responsibilities as great or greater than those of most married men, and experience no end of demands on their time and energy—demands that act as powerful forces in producing maturity. The life of a priest is no less exigent than that of other people, and is frequently more so. Of course priests are freed from some anxieties about their own personal well–being in order to give themselves more fully to their ministry. That is something to be received with gratitude, although, as with all freedoms, it is attended by temptations. People, married and celibate, sometimes succumb to temptation. That is not an indictment of either marriage or celibacy. It is the reality for which there is the remedy of repentance, forgiveness, and, by the grace of God, faithfulness renewed.
For Fr. Cozzens, the problems lie elsewhere: in dysfunctional structures, in complex psychological dynamics, and, as he puts it at one point, in “the fear and mistrust so evident in the curial offices of the Vatican, the sinfulness of the Church itself.” One almost gets the impression that Fr. Cozzens is a modern day Daniel reading the handwriting on the wall at Nebuchadnezzar’s banquet and declaring that God has weighed the Church in the balance and found her wanting. The gates of hell have prevailed after all. This impression carries over into the most controversial part of the book, that dealing with sexual orientation.
Fr. Cozzens claims that statistics show that 50 percent of priests and seminarians are homosexually oriented. A gay culture in the priesthood or seminary, he says, makes it very awkward for heterosexuals, who as a consequence doubt their vocations and withdraw. Seminaries must therefore consider the kind of support that is needed for heterosexual seminarians in a gay culture. We are not told whether the prevalence of homosexual orientation and gay expression is bad or good. Fr. Cozzens seems to suggest that it is simply a fact of life with which we must learn to live. This is very unpersuasive on a number of scores.
First, I do not believe the statistics. The very few surveys and studies that have been done on homosexuality among priests are almost certainly flawed by the factor of self–selection. Those who, for whatever reason, are interested in homosexuality among priests respond at a far higher rate than others. Had I received a questionnaire in such a survey, I would not have responded. As for Fr. Cozzens’ depiction of seminarians, I can only say that they must be very different from those whom I have known during fourteen years of seminary work. Are there seminarians who identify themselves as homosexual? Certainly. Are there some who are sexually confused and in need of counseling and spiritual direction? Absolutely. But is there a dominant homosexual culture in seminaries that makes life difficult, if not impossible, for heterosexuals? That does not jibe with my experience.
It is very possible that in the 1970s and ’80s there were a significant number of seminarians who were sexually confused, and were encouraged in that confusion by a sexually charged society. They were not challenged to harmonize their ideas and their lives with the teaching of the Church, and today some of them are priests. Some are effective and faithfully celibate, while some are actively involved in the gay subculture. The latter pose a very real problem, but the incidence of the problem, I am convinced, is nowhere near the figure proffered by Fr. Cozzens. His claims are both unsupported and irresponsible.
Fr. Cozzens is surely right about the horror of priests engaged in pedophilia and pederasty, but he is wrong about the Church not being open to discussing the problem. It has been the subject of nonstop discussion in recent years. One has to wonder whether “openness” here does not mean readiness to change the Church’s discipline regarding celibacy, a change that would not resolve the problem since, in fact, pederasty is more commonly committed by married men. On the basis of my years of study and experience, it is evident that there is no psychological test or screening program that can reliably identify potential pedophiles among either the celibate or the married. Those of us responsible for the formation of seminarians can only be ever alert to signs of deviance, and ever faithful in communicating the Church’s teachings and expectations.
Fr. Cozzens concludes that there are five crises that are changing the face of the priesthood: the relationship between priests and bishops, the shortage of vocations, the gay ascendancy, the crisis of authority, and, finally, what he calls the crisis of intellect. By the last he means that priests do not have the time and energy to study and think things through, with the result that they do not really internalize the teachings that they unreflectively repeat. No sensible person should deny that these are five problems, along with other problems, affecting the priesthood today. But crises? I think not. To say that they are perennial problems is not to say that they are not urgent. Each generation must address them with urgency and imagination. Alarmism and exaggeration are no help in that task. Another book providing a more accurate and balanced depiction of the priesthood might not get as much attention as The Changing Face of the Priesthood, but it would be most welcome. Meanwhile, I suppose that those of us who are immeasurably grateful to be engaged in the high adventure of faith that is the priesthood will have to communicate the message by our lives.
Monsignor Earl Boyea is Rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum
in Columbus, Ohio.