Layers of Catholic denial

Every day the headlines and cartoons seem to get worse.

Every night stand-up comics crank out more nasty one-liners.

So it’s sad, but not shocking, that a Catholic priest told the Boston Globe about a partygoer who dressed up as a pedophile priest at Halloween.

It’s open season. Even though priests know they shouldn’t take it personally, it’s hard not to, said Father Donald Cozzens, a veteran Catholic educator who led a graduate seminary in Ohio.

“It’s hard to imagine how this can end any time soon,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible to me that some people continue to believe that we have to be careful about talking about this crisis. There are people who are still afraid that honesty will do more damage than silence.”

Back in 2000, Cozzens published a book called “The Changing Face of the Priesthood” that openly discussed trends — such as the thriving gay subculture in some seminaries — that reached mainstream news reports during 2002. Now he has written a sequel entitled “Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church.”

Once again, it is tempting to focus on the sexual details in this ongoing scandal, which actually began in mid-1980s. But Cozzens said recent headlines must be read in a larger context.

News reports are “unmasking a systemic or structural crisis that threatens the lines of power that have gone unchallenged for centuries,” he said. “This in itself is enough to make some prelates and clergy afraid, very afraid. Another is the Catholic anger rising from conservatives, moderates and progressives alike against the duplicitous arrogance of some prominent archbishops and other church authorities.”

Underneath the fear and anger are deep concerns about changing times and statistics.

For example, one or two generations ago middle-class or poor Catholic parents were proud when one of their sons and daughters decided to become a priest or a nun. Today’s suburban Catholic reality is radically different. The numbers just don’t add up.

“We have known for some time now that the birth rate for Catholic families in the U.S. is less than two children (1.85), the same rate for families in general,” he noted. “It is likely, then, that many Catholic parents will have but one daughter. Parental support, let alone encouragement, for a daughter considering the religious life is likely to be weak.”

And the same is true for Catholic sons. As the former vicar for clergy in Cleveland, Cozzens knows all of the statistics about the falling number of American priests and the rising number of Catholics in their pews. He also knows that some dioceses are faring better than others and that, at the global level, vocations may actually be up.

Nevertheless, 6 percent of U.S. priests are 35 years old or younger. The age of the average priest is creeping closer to 60 and Cozzens believes the number of priests 90 years of age and older may soon be larger than the number under 35.

Anyone who studies modern Catholics must face other stark realities, said Cozzens. The number of single-parent Catholic homes is rising, with the rest of the culture, and approximately “half of the young men and women making vocational … decisions are doing so in an environment that has been marked by separation, divorce or death.”

Meanwhile, worship patterns are changing. A generation ago, 70 percent of U.S. Catholics attended mass each week. Today, about a third do so.

Is there a link between the size and shape of suburban Catholic families and the drop in the number of candidates for holy orders? Can these trends be reversed?

This leads Cozzens to other tough questions: Will the clergy sexual abuse crisis start a “domino effect” that combines with other trends to cause sweeping changes in the church? If so, what should those changes be? Perhaps married priests?

Two years ago, a Vatican archbishop told Cozzens that his work was raising eyebrows. Vatican insiders were convinced he was attacking mandatory celibacy.

“We cannot avoid that issue,” said Cozzens. “Truth is, we already have a married priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, just not in the west. We may need to draw on the traditions of the Eastern Rite Catholics and the Orthodox, as well.

“But most of all, we can’t be afraid to talk about what is actually going on.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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