The National Catholic Review
Paul Wilkes

When The Changing Face of the Priesthood was published two years ago, it created a virtual firestorm in the church. The Rev. Donald Cozzens was praised for his honesty and vilified for his unsportsmanlike conduct. He had the nerve to say not only that a substantial number of priests and seminarians were gay, but that a substantial number among the new crop were inadequate. Either in their psychological and spiritual makeup, they were unwilling or unable to set aside their clerical imperatives, trust in the Spirit and work hand-in-hand with an ever more educated and demanding laity.

I can remember reading that book in galleys and then picking up the phone to tell anyone who would listen that a new, fresh voice had said what others were afraid to say. And that this new, fresh voice was not some outsider lobbing SCUD’s into the well-fortified Catholic compound, but the ultimate insidera seminary rector, in fact. Cozzens’s book, which has gone through multiple printings and has been discussed in priests’ forums throughout the county and abroad, truly has been one of those books that can be called seminal.

In a calm voice, Cozzens told of a priesthood that was going through one of its darkest hours, not only in terms of quantity, but of quality also. Now, apparently, it is time to move on. That book might be considered the sturdy foundation for Sacred Silence, which is more prescriptive than descriptive. The time has come, for Cozzens, to take action to rescue a church so mighty and yet so fearful. The silence, denial, and minimization discussed in these pages have numerous roots... Cozzens begins. And indeed, with these three descriptors he underscores the classic Catholic response to the issues and problems that seem to be tearing at the very heart of the church. Birth control, clergy sexual abuse, ordination, clericalization are just some of them. What underscores Cozzens’s arguments is the simple premise: if the church truly isas we all believea faith-based institution, then why are we so fearful?

Cozzens (who is now a visiting associate professor of religious studies at John Carroll University) describes an institution whose higher ranks are peopled by menand they are all men, to be surewho feel powerless to effect change, while acting powerful, propping up policies that many, in their hearts, have difficulty believing in. If we concede that power, in a certain sense, is intoxicating, dulling the anxieties of our human finitude and isolation, it can easily become the cornerstone of an individual’s identity. With flowing robes and high miters atop their heads, addressed in terms once reserved for royalty, there is beneath all this pomp and circumstance a certain sadness about the play-acting that goes on. How many of our hierarchy have not yet understood that authority is not merely conferred, but earned, that respectat least in the Catholic traditionshould be more a function of action than of title?

In view of this attitude of prerogative that supercedes honest discourse, high station that assumes insight and intelligence and demands obeisance, it is not difficult to extrapolate that the current clergy sexual abuse mess would have gone unchecked for years, exactly as it did. The omertà practiced by the hierarchythe theology of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evilallowed the easy passage of abusing priests from parish to parish, where an ever-replenished supply of young victims was at hand. Let us not cause scandal, was their rationale, by revealing that we have a fox in Roman collar not only in the chicken coop, the parish, but also assigned as one of its leadersan astonishing conceit, now that we know more about it. Perhaps a key reason why we could have serial pedophile-priests is simply because who else in society had so many opportunities?

There are many ghosts in Catholicism’s closet that must be addressed, and Cozzens calmly lays them before the reader. The current sexual abuse scandal is foremost on our minds right now, but Cozzens wisely moves past a horror that is being addressed.

The trumped-up threat of modernism, once so feared that legions of priests had to promise to despise and categorically reject itis still with us. The promise of the Second Vatican Council has been largely blunted, even as needed and dramaticbut sometimes cosmetic changes (such as the use of the vernacular and the position of the altar)have changed the face of Catholicism. There has been no significant change in the Roman Curia, that sometimes-faceless legion that often appears to act to preserve and defend an institution in which they have an enormous stake rather than to serve rank-and-file lay Catholics. These lay Catholics, by the way, provide continuing financial support for the church, yet have little voice in its leadership, governance and, in fact, how that support is apportioned.

Women are patted on the head within the church, Cozzens allows, but still marginalized. Their voices cry out as never before in the church’s history; their imagination exposes old pieties and supposed certitudes; their very lack of fear continues to underscore the alarm with which the church regards them.

And the priesthood itself, obviously so precious to a man like Cozzens, who is still awestruck by its majesty and the passport it provides into the deepest parts of the human experience, must be reconfigured. The pedestal of the clerical culture must be shattered and the simple beauty and power of baptism recognized. Christ’s message and presence are indeed news too good to be presided over only by those with temple credentials.

Cozzens looks to the entire Catholic community as bearers of the truth, this sensus fidelium that Vatican II pronounces as the true infallible voice. Yes, this is messy. No, this is not democracy where appointments, dogma and scriptural interpretationà la the Jesus Seminarare subject to votes. No thinking Catholic, and surely not Cozzens, would have it so. There is a certain power in a centralized system that at once acknowledges the voice of the people and yet rules not by the loudest public outcry but by the murmurings of the Spirit.

What Cozzens calls for is honest, humble dialogue.

What a revolutionary idea!

Paul Wilkes is the project director of the Pastoral Summit, supported by a Lilly Endowment grant, which will hold three conferences in 2003 to promote excellence in local parishes (www.pastorals