A controversial American study of the priesthood ignores the Soviet-style ruthlessness of trendy zealots, says John D'Arcy
The Changing Face of the Priesthood by Fr Donald Cozzens, Liturgical Press (Minnesota) £10.99
IT IS ALWAYS instructive to read the reflections of a priest who has been involved in the training of students for the priesthood. What brings a seminary rector to publish and be, damned, as it were, is a matter for speculation, but concern for the wider Church should not be ruled out. So Fr Cozzens need not necessarily be regarded as an ecclesiastical David Shayler who is breaking professional codes of conduct on confidentiality. The question which has yet to be posed of the book, despite gushing reports in The 'Tablet, is whether this is a fair reflection of life in seminaries throughout the Eighties and Nineties.
Much of the coverage of the book has understandably focused on its critique of celibacy: Cozzens's phrase for camp enclaves among the clergy, "lavender rectories", has become something of a catch-cry for the book. If it were remembered only for this, of course, the overall usefulness of Fr Cozzens's reflections would be undermined. In fact, what is offered is a serious discussion of the crisis presently felt among those promoting vocations to priesthood.
Cozzens suggests that there is something within the celibate clerical caste which attracts a higher proportion of homosexuals than other professions. He also argues that there is a problem of faith among clergy — that they are asked to defend positions for which they have no sympathy, such as Humanae Vitae, and thus suffer front the ambivalence echoed in Yeats's poem, "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death": Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love.
This assertion of widespread ambivalence is perhaps the most worrying in the book, as it suggests that there is much insincerity among the preaching clergy. Yet there are actually four crises which presently bedevil the clergy: (i) a vocations crisis; (ii) an authority crisis; (iii) a crisis of sexual orientation; and (iv) an intellectual crisis.
The first issue, the vocations crisis, has found a new explanation of late from the lips of the Holy Father, who has noted patchy performance from diocese to diocese and has suggested that dioceses with sound catechesis inevitably enjoy a good vocations record. This theory is certainly born out by statistics from places like Arlington, Peoria, Nottingham and Newark.
The most useful part of the book, and maybe the most instructive in light of scandals from Hawaii and Santa Rosa. is the chapter on the crisis of authority. Here Cozzens refreshingly airs the problems caused by patriarchal patronage and the rewarding of favourites. Confidence in authority is weakened when clergy are rewarded on the basis of fawning agreement or good looks rather than merit.
cOZZENS MAKES a meal of the third crisis, of course, and invokes a few traditional figures from psychology (Freud and Jung). But all this comes across as rather dated: most psychologists now find that the issue is a little more complex than a simple gay/straight divide.
The weakest feature of the book is its inability to address the fourth issue, the intellectual crisis. Cozzens does not explain why clergy lack conviction in major features of magisterial teaching. He ignores the explanation that stares most young seminary professors in the face: the anti-intellectualism which persists among the ordained and the lack of serious application to intellectual issues among aspirants.
Part of the problem may be the notion of Catholicism as a "counter-culture" in which there is a sharp division between Church and World: this gives some clergy the refuge of appealing to faith rather than to reason.
More disturbingly, some seminary professors have noted the growing Catholic cult of the working-class hero: someone who has no wish to be thought "an academic" but who thinks he can muddle through on a private spirituality and a personal following based on the ability to play the guitar, chat up old ladies, drink others under the table, and talk non-stop about the Premier League for one hour. It may come as a shock, but these are not the ingredients of what the Church means by evangelisation.
The prevalence of older icons, too, who cheerily celebrate the fact they have not read a book since ordination, is worrying — as is the idea that a priest can get by with frenetic social work.
Cozzens does not address these trends. This is not to say, however, that his book might not be of some benefit to the wider Church. Aside from repetitious eruptions of anti-Roman rhetoric, there is much to commend. The sincerity of Fr Cozzens and the seriousness with which he has made a first stab at analysing the crises among the clergy certainly demand some attention from bishops.
But what of the accuracy of his remarks on American seminaries? Here I am indebted to young seminary professors from across the United States. To understand what happened there in the 1980s and 1990s, we need to understand that most seminary staff acquired their ideological orientation during the 1960s. These staff often talked about "the spirit of Vatican II" — but that didn't mean that they engaged in dialogue with their seminarians; rather, they traded on their youthful deference to authority and their sense of obedience to the Church to re-educate them, Soviet-style, according to the received wisdom of 20 years earlier.
Often, a key figure in this process was the token woman on the staff: a sort of small-town feminist busybody who promoted a touchy-feely ambience with the aid of accessories such as the "worry doll". This woman's task was to identify students who did not relate to her and her friends. Those who showed "conservative tendencies" were asked to undertake "counselling" because their theological positions were clearly unreasonable and showed a "lack of human maturity".
This feminist figure was often known as the "fag-hag" because of her fondness for camp company. It was her friends, the liberal students, who tended to be gay; contrary to Fr Cozzens's assertions, the conservative seminarian of the Eighties and Nineties was almost invariably heterosexual.
What evidently occurred almost universally in American seminaries at this time was the promotion of a single psychological stereotype: the liberal student who agreed with the anti-Roman postdons of the Sixties-trained staff and as a reward was tacitly dispensed from the normal obligations imposed with an iron fist on the conservative students. THE LIBERALS could go out, stay out, get drunk, have intimate friends inhouse, and not turn up for morning prayer but nothing would be said — a blind eye would be turned to extracurricular activities because they exhibited correct behaviour, i.e. they drank, swore, played guitar, could talk football, and didn't believe in too much theological clap-trap front Holy Mother Church.
No such indulgence was afforded the traditionalists. In fact. in one seminary such was the injustice felt by conservatives that they posted a notice
on the seminary board demanding "Equal Rights for Blacks" — meaning those traditionalists who still wore the black clerical uniform.
What were the origins of the Soviet-style system among professedly post-conciliar staff? One young seminary professor explained: "You have to recall that for these men, the only year that mattered was 1968. Their campaign was personal never again will we have priests that will make me feel guilty about my private life." So, a kind of presumption against classical moral theol ogy took root, backed with the structures of control. Psychological counselling was one of its most effective instruments. Most young students of a conservative disposition simply could not understand what was going on — having never experienced 1968 or read The Gulag Archipelago.
Fr Cozzens seems to have ignored this well-documented persecution in American seminaries, and it is this which will eventually date and sideline what could have been an invaluable contribution to our understanding of modern priesthood.