One of the few fortunate byproducts of these wrenching years of crisis in the Catholic Church is the emergence of voices that might not otherwise have been raised and the attention paid to earlier prophets whose words might have gone overlooked. The writings of the Rev. Donald Cozzens could fit into both categories.
Cozzens’ seminal book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, was published in 2000; and even in that relatively innocent time, his remarkable dissection of the foibles and pathologies of priestly life, fearlessly candid yet charitably presented, resonated in church circles. The diagnoses rang true, though many readers remained in denial. The eruption of the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy two years later not only vindicated much of what Cozzens argued (not that this modest man is one to say I told you so) but also thrust his work into the mainstream. Suddenly Cozzens’ writings were a touchstone for writers and laypeople (like myself) who wanted to understand a clerical world that remained largely walled off despite the changes since the Second Vatican Council.
While some critics remain chary of aspects of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, especially its psychological analyses, the book is likely to be the work that defines Cozzens’ career. But that carefully researched, richly anecdotal volume, the fruit of years spent as vicar for priests in the Diocese of Cleveland, and then as president of St. Mary’s Seminary in that diocese, was really the foundation for Cozzens’ subsequent role as a diagnostician for the ills afflicting the wider church.
As if freed by the terrible truths revealed by the abuse scandals, Cozzens in 2002 published Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, an examination of an unholy silence and an unhealthy denial that are at the root not only of clerical misdeeds but of the broader ecclesiastical dysfunctions that undermine the entire community of faith.
Now, in Faith That Dares to Speak, Cozzens has taken the next logical step, writing an exhortation to Catholics, lay and ordained, to raise their voices and help excavate a church that is buried alive, as he puts it, in a culture of obeisance. As Cozzens notes in one of his many insights, that culture is so pervasive that even laypeople brought into the chancery can become co-opted into serving the institutional church rather than the Gospel and the faithful. The solution lies not in replacing priests with laity or inverting the episcopal pyramid of authority, but in changing the suffocating dynamic of the church.
Cozzens, now a writer in residence at John Carroll University, reprises and distills many of his previous argumentsat 138 pages the book is eminently readable, a meditation as much as an analysisinto valuable and quotable observations. His governing metaphor and chief target remains the church’s feudal template, but his warnings about the idolatry of the institutional church and the blindness of the true believer go deeper into the psychological pitfalls of the present situation. His call for a holy alliance between priests and laity should be welcomed in both camps, and indeed reflects a growing reality since the scandal, though one that also signals a widening rift between the bishops and everyone else.
Cozzens will be categorized (demonized?) as a liberal, but, as he wisely notes, liberal is the new center in today’s scandalized church. Everyone wants change. The problem is that everyone wants change in his or her own way. And too often there is precious little silence and much shrillness as each faction attempts to make its arguments heard. Cozzens’ virtue is that he tries to short-circuit that response, declaring at the start that his aim is not to convince, complain or protest, but to engage. His humility shines through, backed by citations from Thomas Merton (In humility is perfect freedom) and the theologian Margaret Farley (the grace of self-doubt). In fact, to my mind, his most powerful chapter is Contemplative Conversation, which inverts the prevailing model of noisy discourse and offers a powerful reminder of how true communion is nurtured.
Yet is this affecting approach sufficient? My fears are twofold: one, that Cozzens is overly sanguine about the desire and energy among Catholics to work for change. Polls show that lay Catholics have not abandoned the church, but have instead focused on parish life, perhaps resigned to their powerlessness in the face of obstinate bishops. Cozzens himself recognizes that such a faith life of quiet desperation is a kind of small treason. But such are the moral compromises that many exhausted Catholics feel compelled to make.
The second concern is not that readers will disagree with Cozzens, but that they will not even engage him. Within the church and without, we tend to read and watch and listen to points of view we agree with, seeking only ammunition for our debates rather than conversion of the heart. That goes especially for the bishops, who have neither the time nor the inclination to read books like these, but whose authority remains the quickest, simplest route to reform.
Faith That Dares to Speak is a fine book, desperately needed, and one that years hence may be seen as prophetic. But if today there are no ears to hear, will that future ever arrive?
In the end, writing this bookand reading it with an open mindis an act of faith, the kind of faith to which we are obliged to hold fast in these challenging times.