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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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