In his most recent book examining the priesthood, Father Donald Cozzens raises the controversial question of mandatory celibacy. He has an abundance of experience as theologian, teacher, seminary rector and forty years as a celibate priest. Thus he provides an “insider’s” view of the concerns that surround this controversial issue. His argument is predicated upon the following position. “If charismatic celibacy is indeed a jewel in the crown of the priesthood, mandated, obligatory celibacy for individuals not blessed with the charism is a silent martyrdom.” (18) The key here is the distinction that he makes between celibacy as charism and celibacy as obligation. Cozzens acknowledges that for some individuals, celibacy is a graced call from God; it is “their truth.” It provides them with a life-giving spiritual freedom that enhances their ministry to God’s people. For those for whom celibacy is an obligation, however, it is more likely that it will become a hindrance to their ministry and a cause for personal struggle. Cozzens articulates the conundrum of a mandated charism.
In this frank look at the problems and blessings associated with a celibate priesthood, Cozzens traces the history of its practice in the church. Mandatory priestly celibacy has a rather short history, about 900 years. The reader is reminded of saints who were popes who begot sons who became popes and saints. Church leaders are encouraged to take a serious look at all sides of this question. Celibacy may make it easier for a bishop to reassign a priest, but this benefit must be considered in light of the difficulties it causes for those men who struggle deeply with the resulting loneliness that comes from a celibate life.
Cozzens does not hesitate to draw attention to the exceptions associated with a celibate priesthood. He points first to Orthodox Christianity, which has permitted married men to be ordained rooting the tradition in the apostolic era. He notes that should unification between East and West be achieved in the future, the church will be forced to address the question of a married priesthood. A more troubling exception to the practice of mandatory celibacy are the number of Latin-rite married priests who, having been Episcopal priests or Protestant ministers, left their denominations to enter into full communion with the Catholic church bringing with them their wives and children. Finally, he points to the lack of compliance to the law of mandatory celibacy that frequently occurs in Central and South America and Africa.
Cozzens claims that the problems associated with obligatory celibacy are compounded when the church attempts to legislate that which is a gift, given by God to a chosen few. In a bold articulation of the problematic nature of trying to mandate a charism, Cozzens argues that celibacy can actually be oppressive; it is an unnecessary restriction that is not life giving
An important contribution to the current debate about mandatory celibacy, this little book presents an unambiguous, comprehensible articulation of the major concerns centered on the question of priestly celibacy. Cozzens calls for a courageous response from church leaders today to initiate an open dialogue that will result in the freeing of celibacy.