The Changing Face of the Priesthood

Donald B. Cozzens has published one of the most honest and thoughtful reflections on the state of the Roman Catholic priesthood in the United States that have appeared so far. Cozzens is president-rector and professor of pastoral theology at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland. Although brief, The Changing Face of the Priesthood distills over thirty years of the author’s experience as a priest, college teacher, spiritual director for priests, vicar for clergy and religious, and administrator and superior of a seminary community.

The most serious problem facing us today in arriving at a more adequate understanding of the priesthood, theologically and practically, is a widespread inhibition of speech within the Catholic community. For various reasons, to the great detriment of the church, its credibility, and its mission, too many have felt reluctant or unable to say what they see and what they think. Cozzens’s most important virtue is his courage to say what his experience has taught him. For this alone, his book deserves a wide and respectful readership.

Cozzens sets aside, for the most part, exegetical and systematic theological questions, as well as the subject of priests in religious orders and congregations. He wants to make a contribution primarily from the perspectives of psychology and pastoral theology, and he is thinking here mainly about diocesan priests. Within these limits, Cozzens accomplishes a great deal.

The author begins by charting the gradual shift from an older view of the priest’s identity that focused on his unique role in public ritual and emphasized his remoteness from the laity to a current emerging view that emphasizes his commonality with other church members and his mission of ecclesial leadership as foundational for all the central presbyteral ministries-as proclaimer of the word, doctor of the soul, critic of the culture, and bearer of God’s holy mystery. It is precisely as the "servant-leader" of the gathered community that the presbyter rightly presides at its eucharistic celebration.

This change in our understanding of the priestly role is connected, however, to deeper and more fundamental changes in Catholic theology, changes we do not yet understand how to negotiate. Cozzens is primarily concerned with this difficult time of passage as a series of wrenching, painful, and confusing events as they are reflected in the interior lives of the present generation of Catholic priests. What he is trying to map, in other words, is a psychology of epochal theological transition.

The profound change in theological vision inaugurated by Vatican II requires not only different virtues, skills, and behaviors from priests-hard enough!-it also requires "soul work," a journey inward, a willingness to work through anxieties and doubts, and a struggle against old mental habits and institutional inertia in order to realize a promise of new life in the community.

Perhaps the strongest contribution Cozzens makes to the current discussion is his psychologically informed critique of existing structures in the church, especially its clerical culture, a system that tends to reward docility and compliance. "Some [priests] sense it is possible to sell their souls in service to the church," he writes. "Their challenge is to be true men of the church and at the same time their own person." He argues that those who serve the church in ministry must share their considered judgments and speak from their hearts. A major theme of the book is the priest’s need to guard his own integrity, and Cozzens is interested in both the systemic factors that work against this and the psychological processes that make it possible.

In a frank discussion, he details the values and limits of contemporary psychology and psychotherapy. He insists on the need for priests to face the unconscious dynamics at work in their own lives and in the life of the church, pointing to a complex of psychic forces that can lead to distortions in church life like clericalism, careerism, legalism, and autocracy. Drawing on resources from the traditions of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Cozzens provides acute descriptions of the forces that can seduce the priest’s soul and baffle truthful communication at every level. "From every side he is cajoled to simply stop thinking and buy, uncritically, into the system. Should he succumb to this temptation he is likely to be rewarded."

Cozzens invites his readers to ask themselves to what extent we in the church truly value candor and intellectual honesty. "Some priests have lost confidence in their chanceries and seminaries," he writes. "Even the best of bishops and chancery staffs can be caught in the grip of institutional paralysis and denial. They sense a reluctance on the part of diocesan officials to listen to the import of their own data if the data suggest structural or policy changes that are not in harmony with traditional or current church practices."

This silence and denial affect the church’s reaction to the rising average age of the clergy, parishes without resident pastors, the closing or twinning of parishes, overwork and discouragement among priests, and clergy misconduct with minors, as well as the decreasing percentage of heterosexual men in the seminaries and the priesthood. Throughout this book, Cozzens is tracing a path from one to another of his own epigraphs: the first from Nietzsche, "Of necessity the party man becomes a liar"; the second from Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, "One of the priest’s first services to the world is to tell the truth."

He also places much emphasis on the priest’s need for intimate friendships with both men and women. "What is missing for many priests, I believe, is the experience of union, the intimacy of holy communion with a few good friends. By itself, without deep and authentic human friendship, their intimacy with God made experiential through prayer, sacraments, and devotional practices leaves their spirits slightly out of balance." Along with friendship, there is a need for leisure, for contemplation, and play, for a cultivated interior life that includes experiences of ecstatic union with God and with creation, experiences of "time outside of time" that are as necessary for the soul as breath is for the body.

In what will probably be one of the most discussed chapters in the book, Cozzens carefully-and somewhat nervously-takes up the issue of sexual orientation as it affects the priesthood. Citing several different estimates-and explaining why they can only be estimates-he seems to suggest that perhaps 50 percent of our priests and seminarians have a homosexual orientation, possibly an even higher percentage among those under forty. If this estimate is close to the truth, then half of all our priests and seminarians are being recruited from roughly 5 to 8 percent of the general population of American Catholic men. This is a very sobering statistic.

It seems to me unreasonable to presume that the percentage of gay American Catholics who enter the seminary or religious life has risen dramatically in the last thirty years. There are altered cultural factors that tend to support the opposite assumption. Given the severity of the priest shortage, the problem isn’t that we have "too many" gay men in the clergy. The problem seems to be a precipitous decline in vocations among the roughly 92 to 95 percent of American Catholic men who are heterosexual.

Cozzens is clearly concerned about this trend, although he doesn’t claim to know what conclusions should be drawn from it. At several points, he raises a concern that heterosexual seminarians, finding themselves in social environments with a large percentage of gay men, may feel "destabilized" by this experience, may suffer a loss of morale, and may interpret their sense of alienation as a sign that they do not belong in the priesthood. Although he says less about it, gay seminarians, meanwhile, often find themselves in situations that encourage repression, equivocation, and dissembling, and sometimes the kind of self-contempt that spills over in the treatment of other people.

Cozzens calls for reflection and discussion about this reality. He is convinced that inattention, silence, and denial are the main things we have to fear in this regard. But what would happen if we talked more about this issue? Cozzens doesn’t say. I think, if we did break the silence, we would eventually have to recognize that there are many different ways of being homosexual in our culture and among our clergy, and that the present ecclesial system may tend to reward the more conflicted, dishonest, and irresponsible ways over the more integrated, candid, and accountable. We might even have to acknowledge, as Ellis Hanson (Decadence and Catholicism, Harvard University Press) and Mark Jordan (The Silence of Sodom, University of Chicago Press) have recently argued, that repressed and dissociated homoerotic feeling plays a significant role in the making and sustaining of modern Catholicism.

In concluding the book, Cozzens reviews the crises in the church that are most affecting the souls of priests today. First, of course, there is the vocation crisis: a dramatic growth in the Catholic population, a severe drop in the number of priests, and a significant rise in the average age of priests. Because of this shortage, priests work longer hours, often at multiple locations, and they retire at an older age. They work under considerable stress in a highly polarized church, and they now usually live alone. "Twenty years ago there was approximately one priest for every 1,000 Catholics; in 2005 the ratio is likely to be one priest to every 2,200 of the faithful." Already more than a quarter of Catholic parishes lack a full-time priest.

Cozzens tries to sort out some of the factors contributing to this picture, emphasizing the reluctance of many Catholic women to encourage their sons to consider vocations to the priesthood. He concludes with strong words from an address by Father Norman Rotert, a former Kansas City-Saint Joseph vicar general: "The paternalistic attitudes, the increasing consciousness of women, the lack of appreciation for the value of celibacy, the large percentage of gay priests, the pedophilia crisis, all have so impacted our vocation recruitment efforts that I see no possibility of salvaging the priesthood as we know it today. We must talk about the issue if we are going to find a creative solution."

Second, there is an authority crisis. Cozzens describes a process whereby "the church’s teaching office saw its power to enlighten and reconcile, to challenge and encourage, diminished by its unwillingness to listen seriously to those outside the inner corridors of the Vatican establishment." As a result, he argues, our bishops have "lost a good deal of their credibility." In a democratic culture, effective teaching needs to be dialogical to be persuasive. Assertion by itself is unconvincing. "Practicing Catholics, in large numbers," he says, "simply bracketed policies and lower-level church teachings that didn’t square with their experience."

Third, there is what Cozzens terms an "orientation crisis," a growing perception that priesthood is becoming or has already become a "gay option." I believe we should see this as one aspect of something broader: a crisis in the public meaning of religious celibacy. The celibate life of priests has had its "witness" value considerably muddled by studies that indicate a high percentage of sexually active priests; by perceptions that half or more of our priests are homosexual, whose choice of celibacy therefore has multiple and undecidable meanings; by serious psychological, philosophical, and theological criticism of the traditional rationales for mandatory priestly celibacy, especially for the celibacy of diocesan priests; and by the deep disappointment and shock caused by sexual scandals and lawsuits involving priests, brothers, and bishops. This crisis is also related to the "developmental" problems the book describes. The aura of emotional immaturity among some members of the clergy can make their celibacy look like a flight from intimacy and commitment.

Fourth, there is an intellectual crisis. Being a responsible and engaged Catholic in our society is complicated and demanding. More than ever, the community needs leadership that is intelligent, learned, and discerning. But priests who are serving two or three parishes do not have time to do serious reading or engage in sustained reflection. And if their intellectual formation is alienated from experience, hemmed in by anxieties, buffered from the surrounding culture, or disconnected from a vibrant spirituality, they will not be able to help us think seriously about the investments of our hearts and our various cultural allegiances. "Without regular study and serious reading," Cozzens says, "clergy easily come under the influence of the polar opposites of relativism and fundamentalism." He believes that not many priests are significantly influenced by the relativism of our culture. "The greater danger for priests," he says, "appears to be an ecclesial fundamentalism," a settled attitude that (in the words of Timothy Radcliffe, the head of the Dominican order) "derives from a profound fear of thinking" and "offers the false hope of faith without ambiguity."

What are we to make of this "profound fear of thinking"? Do we human beings naturally resist thinking about what we are doing? We are creatures of habit, of course, and self-reflection about what we are doing can be unsettling. But the threat is at its worst, I believe, when we sense our social practices are shaped by ideas that have become implausible, when our lives are haunted by an apprehension that the truth claims implicit in our actions are really no longer credible.

Then the exigencies of sound thinking and honest talk come into conflict with the inertial forces of everyday routine and institutional self-maintenance. Those with something at stake in perpetuating the status quo will want, somehow, to inhibit the dynamics of sincere inquiry. If they have sufficient power, they may enforce a regime of silence in regard to the practices in question.

Cozzens has helped to interrupt a deadly quiet. There is much wisdom and hope in these pages, rooted in a deep faith in the Spirit, an obvious love of the church, and a reverent and affectionate respect for his fellow priests. In every chapter, there are striking insights about the demands and opportunities of pastoral ministry and priestly life today. Although attention will and should be given to the elements of crisis that Cozzens analyzes with unusual candor, there emerges from the pages of this book an intelligent, attractive, and compelling vision of what it means to be a priest. Let us hope it finds allies in the hearts of many readers.

Published in the 2000-08-11 issue: 

Robert J. Egan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, teaches theology and spirituality at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

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