sense & celibacy

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jan 08, 2007

Fr. Donald Cozzens puts me in mind of one of those divers who takes higher and higher bounces on the springboard until he has everybody's attention, but then kills his jump, walks back off the board and robes up, still dry. As an author, he's penned a series of Prolegomena to Daring Stances, in each of which we are threatened with imminent candor. And spared. Recently Cozzens allowed himself to be interviewed about his latest book, Freeing Celibacy. No, he isn't calling for an end to mandatory celibacy. He says it needs to be "reviewed":

The Rev. Donald Cozzens says the requirement is hurting the church at a time of priest shortages. "Many, if not most, of the inactive priests would be serving in our parishes if it were not for the law of celibacy," Cozzens writes in Freeing Celibacy.

"Celibacy used to go with priesthood as fish went with Fridays," Cozzens said in an interview. "Over the past 40 to 50 years, I would argue that more and more Catholics are questioning the need to link celibacy with priesthood."

The fish-on-Friday analogy says a lot about Cozzens and his generation. He's a man of his time, and views celibacy in functional terms: formerly a sign of Catholic distinctiveness but currently obsolete and an obstacle to recruitment.

We're all familiar with Cozzens's attitude, though perhaps most of us meet it in the celebrant at Mass. It's not as if they're obviously bored or perfunctory, but somehow they communicate the feeling that the real business takes place somewhere else. They seem bewildered, not by the meaning of Calvary exactly, but that the faithful would find it important. They don't understand genuflections or silences or prayers said kneeling. They're embarrassed by awe. Their breeziness at the altar as well as the velcro on their vestments shows that, for them, the whole golgotha/sacrifice/wine-into-blood thing is No Big Deal.

Their priesthood means something different to them than it does, say, to the faithful that show up at Mass during the week, whose eyes tend to focus on host and chalice. It's a priesthood in which the gift shop and the altar are simply two ways of reaching out to spiritual needs. It's a priesthood in which there's no damnation from which souls need to be rescued, a priesthood in which acceptance of self is more urgent than contrition. Small wonder if, for Cozzens's generation of priests, asceticism in general -- and celibacy in particular -- is hard to make sense of.

"Celibacy used to go with priesthood as fish went with Fridays." There's nothing heretical about the statement, but what human good does it invite us to recognize? It speaks to me of a mildly condescending and good-natured worldliness, with a wry smile for an austerity it views as antique. And, after all, Cozzens's observations are eminently sensible -- sensible, that is, in a scheme in which mortification is pointless (do Kiwanis fast?) because there's nothing worth dying for.

For a radically contrary view, compare the following remark of Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard (Archbishop of Paris 1940-1949), from a retreat he gave to his own clergy, published in a book called Priests Among Men:

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist.

Suppose the Church took the advice of her Cozzenses and, having "reviewed" the discipline in question, made the change to optional priestly celibacy. To whom would the change appear as eminently sensible? What would the new witnesses be witnesses to?

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  • Posted by: Santiago185 - Jan. 17, 2007 8:35 PM ET USA

    With all due respect, all of the minutiae about the history of the Friday abstinence misses the point. The heart of this article is in the description of the "liturgical style" of a Cozzens. It is "spot on" as the Brits say. I've seen it in practically every parish and cathedral. "What's the big deal?" is a very apposite way to describe such celebrants.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 11, 2007 10:32 PM ET USA

    Today I called a priest and spouted-off maybe it's not the priest shortage causing some to want married priests; how about quality? I speculated that some converts (say conservative Baptist like me) might be troubled by the promises of celibacy as we recall a seeming more consistent quality of our prior pastors. But, he helped me not to want to abandon another ideal. The quality of historical Saints vs my pastors? The Saints, I guess :) Baptist proof: choice=no celibacy. Cause the ideal.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 10, 2007 8:51 AM ET USA

    For the historically minded: The first formal reference to Friday fasting was in the 2nd century. In fact, the custom then was to fast on Wed as well as Fri. This according to Francis X. Weiser,SJ Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1958) p.23 Thus, for you traditionalists out there, today is a fast day!

  • Posted by: - Jan. 09, 2007 5:10 PM ET USA

    You know, it might be prudent for the church to permit married men to become priests, and it may be the only plausible response to the unduly high percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood. However, so long as the abandonment of the "discipline" is advocated by Fr. Cozzens and other assorted weirdos for whom, thankfully, marriage is prohibited by civil law, one hopes (and prays) instead for the renewal of an honest, faithful clergy.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 7:16 PM ET USA

    Cozzens, though a Priest, probably like most Catholics does not even realize that though we are not obligated to abstain from meat on Fridays we are required to abstain from something or make some sort of sacrifice en lieu! Let's see--is it all about me?

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jan. 08, 2007 4:16 PM ET USA

    Thanks to Pseudodionysius for the first good chuckle of the day. On the subject: the contrast between Fr. Cozzens and Cardinal Suhard reminds one of the story of St. Francis, who summoned one of his brothers to go for a walk through Assissi, preaching. He said if necessary, they might even use words. A priest doesn't preach a sermon; he is a sermon. INcluding Fr. Cozzens. What we're saying is that his sermon isn't very edifying.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 2:34 PM ET USA

    It often works out poorly when Cozzens marry.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 2:29 PM ET USA

    As President Reagan used to say, "Well...." No surprise here. Some guys like the media attention. Most Protestant ministers with whom I have spoken have said, "Keep the mandatory celibacy. If you think priests are conflicted now, wait until they have wife and kids' conflicts to deal with."

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 2:24 PM ET USA

    Esalkin: I'm pretty sure meatless Fridays goes all the way back in the middle ages. It's one of the reasons for the medieval dried codfish industry in Brittany. The fishermen there, I believe, are thought to have discovered America before any other white men. The more learned can settle this controversy. But Cozzens is everywhere, isn't he? Keep it up, Di.

  • Posted by: sparch - Jan. 08, 2007 1:59 PM ET USA

    Although the culturally understood Catholic fish on friday has gone to the boards, the fasting on friday has not. We are obligated by the church to fast on fridays, with our choice of subject. What comparison is there with celbacy in the priesthood? I have no answer.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 1:48 PM ET USA

    If I am not mistaken, the "Friday fast" was instituted about the time of the battle of Lepanto to hold it check the Muslim hordes. Look at world history since the lifting of the fast then re-read this article.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 1:40 PM ET USA

    "Celibacy used to go with priesthood as fish went with Fridays." Catholics are obligated to either give up meat on Fridays OR make a different form of sacrifice on Friday. So is Cozzens saying that priests today should be allowed to employ a different form of sacrifice other than celibacy? Is there another equally weighty sacrifice a man could make? I doubt it. Something about Fr. Cozzens' statement makes me think he eats meat on Friday without making any sacrifices.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 08, 2007 11:39 AM ET USA

    Not being able to easily achieve that humble greatness of spirit that such a discipline provides, the good Fr. Cozzens and his compatriots among the self-defined progressive Catholics seek to flatten out the beauty of Christ's true mystery, sacrifice and redemption within the Church. Which is why we constantly hear cutsey Oprah homilies rather than anything close to Cardinal Suhard, Benedict Groeschel, or Benedict XVI.