Thursday, May 20, 2010


A good interview on "How to Build a Healthier Church" with Fr. Donald Cozzens, whose book Freeing Celibacy was recently recommended to me by a reader. In order to distinguish my boldings and my comments (in red) from the interviewer's questions, I've simply put his questions in blue:

In writing about priest sexual abuse, you once quoted the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, "Of necessity, the party man becomes a liar." Somehow, looking at the current crisis, this seems a particularly fitting quote. Many Catholics seem most shocked at what they perceive as an appalling lack of candor and honesty on the part of some of our leaders. Is that a fair perception?

For the most part, bishops and church officials do not see themselves as having been dishonest or as having done anything but trying to serve the best interests of the church. But many lay Catholics today, while they deeply regret the tragic harm done to apparently thousands of young people, are equally shocked and appalled at what they see as a cover-up and as dishonesty and lack of candor on the part of many of our church leaders.

I feel that the root of this problem may be a theologically naive understanding of loyalty and responsibility [indeed, in seminary and religious formation, obedience, institutional loyalty, and docility to authority seem to be equated with holiness at the expense of real virtue. And control of sexuality is all tangled up with this, as the article I recommended a few days ago said, "submission in radical abstinence required an extraordinary abandonment of the will. In theory, the abandonment was to God; in practice, it was to the 'superior,' who always thought he was."]. These men are in leadership positions because they have indeed been responsible and loyal churchmen [in other words, the criteria by which our bishops have been selected is keeping their heads down, not rocking the boat, and toeing the party-line; or as another article I recommended once pointed out, "men largely selected for a lack of initiative"]. And when the church's reputation and the sanctity of the priesthood are your top priorities, then you may end up framing scandals as mind-boggling as the abuse of minors by priests in ways that will make you speak and be heard as less than honest and candid.


You've talked before about this need for a more profound and frank dialogue, particularly about the state of the priesthood. Is this an opportunity now to have that kind of dialogue?

First of all, I think we priests and bishops tend to listen as hard as we can and therefore may be puzzled when people call us to listen. But, by our training and by our vocation, we tend to listen for questions so we can respond with an answer [For example, when someone questions something like mandatory celibacy, many priests' or bishops' first instinct is to "answer" the objection by trotting out the party-line defense of it]. Or we tend to listen for problems so we might respond with a solution.

I'm calling for a kind of listening that would be an honest dialogue, where the bishops themselves could be informed [in other words, to internalize and understand that there need to be some changes; not to "listen" and then immediately respond with a defensive justification of the status quo, as if the critique is an "attack" or like it is some sort of debate to be won. Can you imagine if a politician stubbornly and patronizingly tried to defend unpopular decisions to an outraged public rather than fixing things? He wouldn't be re-elected]-- and even on occasion transformed.


But some continue to argue "The church is not a democracy." How do you reply to that?

Involving laywomen and men in higher leadership levels in the church does not mean the church is becoming a democracy. But when I hear that charge, I could counter that in some sense there has never been a more profound democracy in the history of Western civilization than the church. I'm not talking about a political democracy, I'm talking about communal discernment of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In the early church, leaders listened differently than they do today. And I think the early church leaders included women as well as men, ordained as well as nonordained.

We're witnessing here the dawning of the age of the laity [Lay Pride!]. The laity, I'm convinced, are going to call for greater accountability of church leaders. Bishops are as committed to the gospel as anyone, but I think it's the system in which we clerics live that has led to the spin that the official church has put on this scandal-the spin being that this is only a few bad apples who are besmirching the priesthood and the church; that we need only to find a way to identify them and get them out of the priesthood, and then all will be well.

The current crisis has renewed discussion of mandatory celibacy and the all-male priesthood. Is it fair to link those questions with the sexual abuse crisis?

I see a link between the abuse of minors and the present system of the church, which some have described as being a sick system. I'm not making a link between the all-male character of the priesthood and misconduct. I'm not making a link between sexual orientation and pedophilia, nor am I making a link between celibacy and misconduct in itself. I am suggesting that the present clerical system has allowed men, who see themselves as very faithful to the church, to make decisions that further harmed people who had already been harmed by priest abusers.

So our urgent mission this time is to free the Spirit to really work among God's people. And I think it's no longer acceptable to be told that you may not even discuss certain issues.

So you don't buy the argument that such talk is exploiting the current crisis for an agenda of church reform?

I think it's unfair to accuse people who would like to have the present system examined more honestly of having a "secret agenda." I hear this from conservatives regularly. That when people talk about systemic review and possible structural changes in the priesthood, they're simply out to foist upon the church their liberal agenda-married clergy, ordination of women, greater roles for the laity in church leadership. I think that charge is disingenuous.


Every thinking person should have a vision of where the church should be going. The only way not to have an agenda is to stop thinking and to stop imagining. [I've said before: a huge problem with the current conservative clergy, especially bishops, is that they don't seem able to articulate any concrete VISION of how they'd like the Church to be outside the status quo; and if you don't have a vision, you don't have anything to work towards] It's like saying Galileo had an agenda and therefore he had to be squashed and threatened with not only excommunication but torture and death. Is it fair to say that the preeminent theologians of the Second Vatican Council-Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, and John Courtney Murray-each had a secret agenda? I don't see that.

I find it interesting that conservative visions of the church are never called "agendas." Apparently only liberals have agendas. Conservatives may want to go back to a pre-conciliar church, but no one accuses them of having an agenda; we just see that as some strange notion of orthodoxy.

One of the issues currently under scrutiny is the formation of priests. What message do seminarians receive about sexuality?

The church's approach to human sexuality sends a very mixed message. On the one hand it raises human sexuality in marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, so it has a remarkable incarnational confidence in human sexuality. At the same time it also shows an almost convulsive suspicion about human sexuality. And it has overidentified holiness with sexual abstinence.

Seeing every deliberate sexual experience outside of marital intercourse open to procreation as not only sinful but seriously sinful creates an atmosphere that leads to a guardedness on the part of seminarians and novices. They don't feel they can speak openly and candidly about their experiences of their own sexuality [which normal guys do all the time with friends, in bawdy good humor], because to speak of their experiences might be to acknowledge their own sinfulness. And the church reserves such admission to the sacrament of Reconciliation, the only place where one should make a manifestation of conscience. [I've often thought that, though private anonymous "sealed" confession should always remain an option, Catholics should get used to discussing their sinfulness candidly, publicly, without this whole facade that is put up (sometimes in the name of "avoiding scandal") wherein, when we're around Catholics qua Catholics (as opposed to around our "real friends")...we need to all pretend to be little goody two-shoes even though this is inauthentic. Especially when it comes to embarrassment and shame surrounding sexuality.]

I would hope for a renewed theology of human sexuality. But many theologians and bishops are afraid to go there. [Though I like recent attempts (ala Theology of the Body) to present the teachings in a less legalistic, more personalist way...I would argue that, rather than changing any objective teachings, we simply need a more realistic pastoral approach towards morality in general when it comes to their subjective application. One more like the Orthodox concept of oikonomeia, based on being pragmatic about human frailty and incremental improvement rather than the uncompromising emphasis on immediate idealism and utopian perfectionism]


Could the priesthood appear inviting to abusers?

The priesthood appeals, I hope, to the best and brightest, the people who are really mature, committed, and want to further the gospel. It certainly does that. But the priesthood can also appeal to people who don't have a good sense of their own identity, who are conflicted about their sexuality, and who need the mantle of the priest persona to allow them to feel like they're somebody.

Recently I've heard bishops say, "What I'm looking for in a priest candidate is a man who would make a wonderful husband and father." [A good standard! However, it would seem obvious to me that there is no better way to find this out than if he is, in fact, already a good husband and father...] And I'm arguing that the priests need to have the ability to connect well with other human beings.

You have written that, in contrast to the typical pedophile in the larger population [who most often target girls], some 90 percent of priest abusers have been men who target teenage boys. In the wake of the current crisis, a Vatican official and some conservatives in the United States have picked up on that observation and are calling for a ban on all homosexually oriented priests. Is that part of the solution for the priest sexual abuse crisis?

In my judgment, absolutely not. It's unfair to the many, many committed, effective, talented, celibate, and chaste gay priests who serve the church today with distinction [the last thing we need in the world today is more stigma]. To suggest that gay men should not be priests is mind-boggling to me. The church has been served well by gay and straight priests throughout its history. We've had gay individuals who are saints. We've had outstanding gay bishops.

For example?

I'll mention Gerard Manley Hopkins. There has been speculation about some highly revered saints and church leaders that I don't think I should name. But one current outstanding example is Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the brave gay priest who gave his life ministering to firefighters on September 11.

Is the idea of a ban of gay priests even a realistic option?

It's not. If the church said, "We're not going to accept gay men into the seminary," in addition to it being biased, it can't be implemented. There is no perfect screening process, and if we tried, we'd be creating an atmosphere of subterfuge [and secrecy and paranoia and repression in general. And, if the military's experience is any guide, of opportunities for blackmail. We don't need a McCarthyism in the seminaries...]. If a candidate suspected that he was gay and felt a call from God to become a priest, he would be tempted to hide his orientation while going through the admissions procedure and psychological testing.

In addition, we would see our already critical seminary situation worsen. If the church tried to drive gay priests from the priesthood, it would significantly weaken our ranks. And if we wanted to be consistent, then we'd also have to ask the gay bishops to leave.

So if we shouldn't ban gay priests, should the church do anything about the gay subculture that apparently exists in some circles of the priesthood?

This is a very sensitive issue. Just as there are straight priests who do not take celibacy and chastity seriously, so there are also some gay priests who do not take celibacy and chastity seriously. When we find examples of gay priests who seem to almost make a mockery of even an attempt to be celibate, we run the risk of coloring with the same brush gay priests in general.

So, are there straight priests who have used the priesthood as a shelter for their sexual activity? Yes. Are there gay priests who have used the priesthood as a shelter or screen for a life that is incompatible with chastity and celibacy? Yes. Do more gay priests seem to have a cavalier approach to celibacy than straight priests? I don't know. Some think that there is evidence to support that, but we just don't know.

People talk about this crisis as a historical moment, some even going so far as to compare it to the 16th-century Reformation. This may be overreaching, but can this become the beginning of a purification and renewal for the Catholic Church? And if so, what could you envision as the positive outcomes?

I will leave to historians whether this current crisis is comparable to the crisis we experienced in the 16th century. But it is profoundly significant by anyone's measure today. I believe the Spirit is with us in this crisis and we will find a healthier church as we slowly grieve and heal and move through the present dark night.

I think the priesthood will be purified. I hope the bishops will gain a new openness to the pastoral experience of their priests and the lived experience of their people. And I believe that the laity will speak more candidly to their pastors, the pastors will speak more candidly to their bishops, and the bishops will speak more candidly to the bishop of Rome and to the curia.

1 comment:

Tony said...

That interview was terrific. I'm sharing this on facebook.