More than thirty-four years ago, in The Shape of the Church to Come, Karl Rahner issued a prescient warning concerning the future of the priesthood. “Plans for the future must be made at the opportune time,” Rahner wrote. “If for instance we know that in ten years’ time we shall be able to provide only half of the existing parishes with a priest on the spot, we must take incisive measures today.” Such measures might include opening the priesthood to men “who have proved themselves in their life, calling, and marriage.” If such men were ready to be ordained and to lead parishes, Rahner wrote, “their example could be beneficial for a time which is approaching when they will be absolutely necessary and when such a vocation will be completely taken for granted.” But such action could not wait. “[I]f it is attempted only after another ten or twenty years, there will be nobody who is prepared to take on the task.”

Today, what Rahner feared has come to pass. More and more parishes are being closed or consolidated into clusters; in many places, “Communion services” are supplanting the Eucharistic liturgy. But even as the ranks of priests dwindle, books on the priesthood, seminary formation, and celibacy are multiplying. Christopher Ruddy’s Tested in Every Way presents an unofficial summary of the main topics and concerns raised by the Seventh Annual Cardinal Bernardin Conference, “The Priest in the Church.” The conference was convened by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative a year after the Boston Globe ran its first article on the sexual-abuse scandal. Interspersing perspectives drawn from other sources with his own analysis, Ruddy uses the conference material as a springboard for reflection on the priesthood’s present and future. He proposes a theology of the priesthood built around an ontology of relationship, including the priest’s relationship with Christ; with the bishop (a sometimes tense relationship) and other priests; with the laity, both men and women; and with himself and humanity.

In discussing the priest’s “communion” with his inner self, Ruddy breezes through a short list of arguments for changing the church’s discipline of mandatory celibacy, then states emphatically that “optional celibacy for diocesan priests was not discussed at the conference-not because it was suppressed but because the participants focused on more fundamental issues.” In other words, the very issue that Rahner considered crucial was sidestepped. In my opinion, Ruddy’s book suffers from an ecclesially correct blandness. It cites statistics about the aging and shrinking of the U.S. presbyterate, but offers no strategies for the future. One hopes that the conference’s focus on “fundamentals” is not the only path open toward common ground.

The Struggle for Celibacy, by Fr. Paul Stanosz, is the result of research on the formation of Catholic priests. Including interviews and case studies, it focuses on how priests are trained for celibacy in diocesan seminaries, and takes a look at screening and admissions procedures. Stanosz gives a brief history of priestly celibacy and assesses its sometimes controversial status in contemporary Catholicism; one chapter, “Reproducing Celibacy as a Cultural Process,” offers a sociological and anthropological analysis of seminaries as “a rite of passage.” The Struggle for Celibacy provides tidbits of interesting insight into contemporary seminary culture. For instance, Stanosz reports that while seminarians in formation conferences and retreats freely admit to having had sexual involvements with women before entering seminary, no one in the groups he studied would admit to similar involvements with men. “[A]n unwritten norm operated to prevent these disclosures in public,” Stanosz writes. “Faculty members divulged in interviews that [one seminary] enrolled homosexual students, but that none have ever ‘come out’ in public formation contexts.”

In his introduction to Freeing Celibacy, Fr. Donald Cozzens remarks that in the “innocent Catholic imagination” of his younger years, “celibacy went with priesthood the way fish went with Friday.” For Cozzens today, “celibacy that rings true...that fosters a passionate love of God, humanity, and creation, is first and foremost a gift of God’s Spirit for the mission of the church. In theological language, it is a charism.” That serene assessment establishes the foundation for his reflections on “the core theological issue of celibacy-its requirement by church law for diocesan priests of the Latin rite.”

Cozzens, who spent years as a seminary rector, acknowledges both the substantial mystique and the transforming and liberating power of charismatic celibacy. But he also notes that there can be a downside. “The newly ordained priest soon discovers that the church/bishop controls what he wears, where he lives, what he does, and most especially his sexuality.” Most priests, Cozzens writes, “see in this wide-ranging control a shrinking of their spirit and humanity.” And he suspects they resent it: “Deep in their center, they sense that God takes no pleasure in their loneliness.” In Cozzens’s view, the Vatican’s reluctance to discuss optional celibacy may be yet another instance of “institutional denial,” a way of postponing “what is inevitable-a serious review of mandated celibacy.” Affirming the value of charismatic celibacy, he argues nonetheless that the church’s attempt to mandate that charism is breaking down. “As a freely bestowed gift of the Spirit, it deserves to be released from canonical mandate as a condition for ordination.” He concludes that the time has come “to set celibacy free.”

In closing, one might recall some relevant words of Paul. A staunch advocate of remaining unmarried for the kingdom, he nevertheless asks, in 1 Corinthians 9:5, “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?”

Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.
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Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: View Contents
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