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Freeing Celibacy

By: Fr.  Donald Cozzens
Review By: Fran De Chant, FutureChurch member since 1990

book reviewCelibacy.  To be valued?  To remain unchanged in the face of severely diminished numbers of the clergy? To be liberated from eight centuries of mandatory application?  Rev. Donald Cozzens takes a close look at options for the institution of priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite Roman Catholic Church.  In a voice both compassionate and challenging, he builds a case for celibacy as charism, as freely chosen ideal to be lived along side the vocation of priestly ministry by those so called.

Cozzens speaks and writes from a place of unique knowledge.  He is presently a writer in residence at John Carroll University, where he teaches and lectures in the religious studies department.  His background as President-Rector at Saint Mary Seminary in Cleveland gave him extensive interaction with seminarians and familiarity with their formation.  As former Vicar for Clergy of the Diocese of Cleveland, Cozzens came to know the lives of many priests.

Of the aura of celibacy, he writes: “Celibacy’s mystique, the intuitive understanding that there is something special, something mysteriously present in publicly identifiable celibate individuals--especially when celibate life is closely linked to religious faith—is a phenomenon worthy of reflection.”  Cozzens traces some of the long history of heroic self-sacrifice by celibate priests and religious to shore up this reflection.

At the same time, Cozzens devotes nearly half the chapters of Freeing Celibacy to negative and problematic issues emanating from celibacy in the present day church.  He describes a level of internal suffering and dysfunction among priests that is rarely apparent to lay Catholics.  He writes:  “Celibates ‘without charism’ often fail to ring true.  Not at home with themselves, their spiritual and psychological awkwardness keeps them from connecting with others, the very foundation skill of ministry.  Priests in this category are especially susceptible to the pseudo-identity found in clericalism.  Cloaked in the mantel of ecclesiastical manners and propriety, they present themselves as not quite real--and not quite in touch.  Often their artificial culture depletes their creativity and passion for life.  Moreover, their relationships tend to be superficial and formal or strained and immature.  Not surprisingly, their preaching is often didactic and dry.  Sooner or later these shadow forces lead to compensatory behaviors and attitudes of privilege and power.”

What is the answer for today?  To continue imposing mandated celibacy on all aspiring to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church?  Charismatic celibacy has been and should remain a revered blessing for those gifted with it by the Spirit. For the majority with vocations to the priesthood, but not to celibate life, Cozzens believes the call to gospel fidelity and spiritual leadership that is the essence of priestly ministry is more than enough.

Third and slimmest of his books, Cozzen’s study of the Catholic clergy distills wisdom, practicality and yes, hope in his graciously worded challenge to the Latin Rite Catholic Church.  I could wish that he had expanded his examination of charism into another area that, as a lay person, mystifies me.  Is there an equal and parallel charism of living in community that is available to some individuals and not to others?  Living the benefits and challenges of this committed way of life surely appears to be a gift of the Spirit in the same way celibacy can be.  What happens when community living is imposed especially by harsh or rigid formation on an individual not called to it, concerns me as highly destructive of human personality.  Possibly I bring up an issue that will have some place in a fourth book.  That said, I thank Fr. Don Cozzens for his wise and decisive exploration of what is potentially the most critical problem facing the Roman Catholic Church today.

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Freeing Celibacy
book review

A Look Ahead

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