Father Donald Cozzens has served as vicar for clergy and religious in the Diocese of Cleveland, and then as president-rector of its major seminary. He is the author of several books on the priesthood: The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, Faith That Dares to Speak, The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest and now his latest, Freeing Celibacy — all published by The Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minn.
Father Cozzens is currently a member of the religious-studies department at John Carroll University in Cleveland and is a popular lecturer and spiritual counselor.
I cannot recommend his new book, Freeing Celibacy, highly enough. Written in a calm, even gentle, manner, the book challenges every false or weak argument that has been advanced in support of obligatory celibacy for Roman Catholic priests.
I make a point of italicizing the adjective “Roman,” because celibacy is not required for the thousands of married priests in the various non-Latin, non-Roman rites of the universal Catholic Church. Their married clergy are Catholic priests in every sense of the word: preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments and exercising pastoral care of parishes. The only difference is that they have wives and, in most cases, children and grandchildren.
Too many of us Roman Catholics, however, still speak and act as if the Roman Catholic Church and the universal Catholic Church were one and the same. The Catholic Church — or better, the Catholic communion of churches — is actually larger than the Roman Catholic Church. These non-Latin-rite churches are nevertheless in full communion with the Bishop of Rome.
It is this excessively Latin mentality that leads many Roman Catholics and some in the media to assume that the Catholic Church requires celibacy of all of its priests. No, it requires celibacy of its Roman Catholic priests, and even then it makes exceptions — for former Anglican and Protestant clergy who have come over to the Roman Catholic Church, were reordained and then allowed to exercise priestly ministry without disrupting in any way their spousal relationships.
It is a matter of historical record that the Roman Catholic Church had a married priesthood, a married episcopate and even married popes during the first thousand years of its existence. The last married pope was Adrian II (867-72). Two popes — Anastasius I (395-401) and Hormisdas (514-37) — were succeeded (one immediately) by their sons, Innocent I (401-17) and Silverius (536-37). All four popes are recognized today as saints.
Why that situation changed is a story that would require far more time and space to relate. One would do well to begin with Father Cozzens’ new book, which is just a little over 100 pages long. It can easily be read in one or two sittings, but it may stimulate hours of fruitful discussion among priests and laity, and between priests and laity.
As I pointed out in my published endorsement of the book, “Freeing Celibacy is one of the clearest and most straightforward examinations of the role of celibacy in the Roman Catholic priesthood and in the life of the church. … Father Cozzens effectively challenges each of the traditional defenses that have been mounted in support of the discipline. The book, in effect, points its finger at a massive elephant in the Church’s living room that many still pretend not to see.”
Unfortunately, the church is running out of priests, and the apparent determination to “stay the course” in effect places a human-made rule above the sacramental needs of the church. It is nothing less than a spiritual tragedy that millions of Catholics worldwide are denied the Eucharist and other sacraments simply because there aren’t enough priests to make them available.
Catholics of the First Christian Millennium would have been stunned if confronted with the same situation, and then simply appalled. We can only speculate what Jesus would have said about it. Suffice it to point out that his own closest disciples, including his chief apostle, Peter, were married, and there is no evidence that Jesus required them to abandon their wives and families as a condition of continued discipleship.
In the meantime, there have been several traditional defenses raised in support of the discipline of obligatory celibacy, and various assumptions underlying them. Let one assumption stand for the rest.
Father Cozzens points out at the start of his book that “at the core of celibacy’s break-down — and it is breaking down — is the attempt by the church to mandate a charism.” The assumption, in other words, is that a vocation to the priesthood and the grace for lifelong celibacy always come in a single package.
They do not, and therein lies the problem.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.