Two churchmen made headlines in 2006 with their comments about mandatory celibacy for Latin rite Catholic priests. Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia dropped from sight in Rome and appeared in the United States with his wife, Maria Sung. In July he founded Married Priests Now, an association of married priests who want to be reconciled to the church and serve as married clergy. In December it was the turn of Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil to raise eyebrows. Prior to leaving Brazil for Rome to assume leadership of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, Hummes commented that priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, of the church, that the apostles were married, and that the church must “advance” with history. Many assumed that the new Vatican hierarch was interested in reviewing the question of mandatory celibacy. Shortly after his arrival in Rome, Hummes clarified his comments, noting that a reconsideration of priestly celibacy was not currently on the agenda for church authorities.
While these items were making the news, Donald Cozzens’s latest work, Freeing Celibacy, appeared. This brief work, written in a popular style, addresses the blessing and burden of priestly celibacy. Throughout the text, Cozzens offers thought-provoking questions that invite readers to think along and to extend their probing of the questions beyond the book. His conclusion can be stated quite simply: “Charismatic celibacy will remain a great gift to the church. Mandated celibacy awaits repeal.”
The gift to the church is celibacy as charism, a graced ability “grounded in natural gifts and human potential ordained for the common good, for the building of the Kingdom of God.” Cozzens never suggests that living this charism is easy, for heterosexual or homosexual priests, but he holds that some, who are genuinely given the charism of priesthood, are not given the charism of celibacy. For some, celibacy is freeing and a witness to the church of the grace of God working through these individuals; for others it is an obstacle to the fullness of life in their priesthood. As church law stands, one must presume that both charisms are granted to the priesthood candidate.
Cozzens’s primary purpose is not to expound on celibacy as gift but to focus on reasons for the repeal of mandatory celibacy from the standpoint of history, theology and pastoral practice.
Historically, the obligation to celibacy has a shorter life in the church than the permission for clergy to marry. Is it reasonable to suppose that God called priests to celibacy only since the 12th century? It is not. Cozzens looks to the current practice of receiving into full communion married clergymen from other Christian denominations—Anglicans and Lutherans, for example—and ordaining them as Catholic priests. The number of priests who fit this description is not readiily available, but married priests in the Latin church are not as rare as one might think. And of course, our brothers in the Eastern churches are still permitted to marry prior to ordination.
Theologically, Cozzens argues that there is no foundation for considering celibacy as intrinsic to the priesthood, and he debunks any suggestion that radical discipleship requires a celibate life. Let radical discipleship in church leaders be found in “an ability to preach the word, to champion the poor and exploited [and] to care for the pastoral needs of those who receive [them] as their [priests].”
Pastoral arguments against mandatory celibacy include concern for the man who commits himself to celibacy as well as for the people of God. The scandal of sexual abuse raised the question of healthy psychosexual development in all priests, not simply those who prey on minors. In priests with the charism, writes Cozzens, “we see a liberation of soul, an empowerment of spirit, and the joy that comes from fidelity to one’s gifts.” For other priests, celibacy is a burden that too often moves them to coping measures that are harmful to themselves and to the church.
A further pastoral concern is simply the astonishing number of Catholics who do not have access to weekly Eucharist because of the priest shortage.
It is clear to Cozzens that the question is not whether mandatory celibacy will be revisited by the church, but when.
For all that is helpful in this book, readers may be frustrated at times, want-ing more evidence or convincing arguments from Cozzens. Sometimes he seems to assert rather than to argue, a criticism that he makes against the church itself in its arguments for celibacy. His chapter on celibacy and homosexuality is perhaps the weakest in the book. Intending to keep focused on mandatory celibacy, he offers little that is specific to homosexual priests on this point and includes material that might be offensive and stereotypical. He presumes that a chaste intimate friendship for a heterosexual priest would necessarily be with a woman while a gay priest’s would be with a man. He might better have included a chapter on challenges that priests, gay and straight, face in living mandated celibacy.
Freeing Celibacy, written engagingly and respectfully, is well worth reading. The author brings years of personal and professional experience to the issue of celibacy and its impact on priests and on those preparing for the priesthood.
Questions can be threatening. For that matter, Archbishop Milingo and Cardinal Hummes might be threatening. But questions provide an opportunity to articulate one’s position and reconsider it as one does so, checking for one’s own biases and flaws in argumentation. Cozzens’s work raises valid questions about mandatory celibacy’s impact on the people of God and those of whom it is required. It is better to respond to the questions for the good of the church than to run from them at the church’s peril.