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Compounding the Crisis

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jun 27, 2005

Terry Mattingly calls attention to a Commonweal article by former seminary rector Fr. Donald Cozzens, in which the perplexingly protean Cozzens sheds yet more darkness on the seminary question. Listen to him on the upcoming visitation:

If they concentrate on seminary admissions standards and strict compliance with the church's teaching on sexuality, the Vatican's visitation teams are likely to overlook two other critical issues. If we want to improve seminary education, the church will have to reconsider both the discipline of mandated celibacy for diocesan priests in the Latin rite and a moral teaching that continues to regard all sexual sins as equally serious.

Where do you begin to unravel these confusions? How can Cozzens pretend that it's in the purview of a visitation team -- quâ visitation team -- to call into question mandatory celibacy on the one hand and the Church's "moral teaching" on the other? How can an inspection be carried out when the criteria of success and failure, conformity and deviation, are themselves up for grabs?

Traditional teaching has it that there is no "parvity of matter" in sins against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, i.e., by their nature these sins can never be venial. Cozzens gives a grotesquely tendentious misstatement of this teaching ("the church continues to insist that all freely willed sexual thoughts, desires, and behaviors outside of marriage are seriously sinful"), and then advances the bizarre view that this teaching is what impedes candid discussion and honest evaluation of candidates:

This understanding of sexual morality creates enormous difficulties in the seminary, and prevents almost any candid conversation about sexuality from taking place. This state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that, according to church teaching, no individual is to be compelled or asked to reveal the "state of his or her soul." As a consequence, the candid dialogue needed to form mature celibates is hampered and the specter of sin hangs heavy in the air. In such a climate, behavioral signs that might indicate future difficulties are often masked or simply missed. Worse, if such signs are noticed, they are addressed with studied indirection.

Is Cozzens arguing that Church teaching should change so that individuals are to be compelled to manifest their sins? Almost certainly not. So what he seems to be asking is that we define deviancy down by reclassifying some mortal sins as venial (or as not sinful at all), whence, presumably, the lads will feel freer to talk about them. If feeding on Internet porn is not deemed to contravene a moral norm, then the "specter of sin" no longer clouds our discussion thereof.

When a seminarian does raise a sexual issue with a teacher or counselor, it is almost always in the context of the internal forum -- another ecclesial expression referring to information that must be held in strict confidence. A seminarian's spiritual director may know some of the particulars of the individual's sexual life and orientation, but this privileged information cannot be used in any formal evaluation of the student. This raises significant difficulties for those who are responsible for judging a seminarian's suitability for the priesthood. Unless a seminarian is "caught in the act" (say of viewing child pornography) or his problematic behavior comes to the attention of seminary authorities from outside sources, it is easy to hide behind the seminary's culture of confidentiality and secrecy.

Rubbish. All seminaries are careful to separate evaluators from confessors precisely to avoid malicious exploitation of internal forum confidentiality. "Significant difficulties" may remain for evaluators, i.e., for evaluators of Cozzens' stamp, not because the seminarian hides behind the "culture of confidentiality and secrecy," but because the evaluators are handcuffed by their own ideological inhibitions and funk their duty as formatores. Because they secretly share the sexual appetites of the problem candidates, or because they are intimidated by their colleagues who share these appetites, such evaluators are incapable of pronouncing a man's libido intrinsically disordered and hold out for indisputable proof of wrongdoing before they bounce him. Of course, a Boy George poster in a seminarian's room sends a signal as clear as a Che Guevara poster in the room of a West Point cadet; the fact that the staff shies away from expulsion in default of hard evidence of a crime teaches us about nature of the staff -- not the system, not the candidate. And please, no tenor arias about our sacred Catholic reverence for due process. Hundreds of candidates for the priesthood have been damned for the sin of "rigidity" by malignant formatores and found themselves on the street before they knew what hit them. Have you heard one syllable calling for reparation, much less retributive justice?

As common sense tells us, seminarians (with some exceptions) want to be ordained. They understand perfectly well, though, that should they bring certain personal struggles of a sexual nature to the attention of the rector or seminary faculty outside the internal forum, they face the threat of dismissal. Thus, a culture of secrecy is perpetuated.

So tell me, how is a change in the teaching on "parvity of matter" going to remedy this? Now matter how low you set the bar, as long as some deviant appetites are still deemed unworthy of priesthood, the candidates who have those appetites will lie about it. If pedophiles are disqualified, you can encourage open discussion all you want, but no candidate is going to admit to the tendency outside of the confessional (and very few within). To any who doubted it before, the Crisis has made it plain that sexual miscreants are liars, subversives, and frauds. Liars, subversives, and frauds will not announce themselves to the candidacy committee, and no adjustments in Church doctrine will change that fact.

As with his book The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Cozzens's Commonweal article is a specimen of the disease for which it purports to be the cure. When your seminary rector is sporadically antagonistic to the Church's moral teaching; when he believes the Church should dispense with mandatory celibacy ("if we want to improve seminary education"); when his every adjustment is an accommodation to middle-class American secularism and sexual comfort, is it any surprise that so many of his pupils fulfill his prophecy and either cheat on their promises or leave the priesthood altogether? Having asked so little of them, should we be astonished if we get what we asked for?

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jun. 28, 2005 11:59 AM ET USA

    In lieu of the pursuit of holiness and discovery of the truth through sacrifice as all priests are called to do, Cozzens' desperate rhetoric pleads the case on behalf of similarly frustrated seminarians: "What can we get away with and still be magisterially correct?"

  • Posted by: - Jun. 28, 2005 8:16 AM ET USA

    The celibacy rule is a discipline, not a doctrine of the Church. Debate on this issue by qualified experts should be encouraged, not hindered. He makes many good points, although I disagree with the view that mandated celibacy is the root cause in the priest abuse scandal. Seminarians were taught why the Church's sexual teaching was un-pastoral for years and now the Vatican needs to correct that error.

  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Jun. 28, 2005 7:15 AM ET USA

    The test that evaluators should apply to seminarians is: Would you send your son or daughter to confess with that man? Would you send your son or daughter to a psychologist who is a sexual devient? If the answer is no then how could you send hurting, damaged people to confess with a priest who is a sexual pervert?

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