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Posted September 15, 2006

Book: Freeing Celibacy
Author: Donald Cozzens
Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2006. Pp. 115

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Mandatory celibacy for Latin rite Catholic priests has been the norm for almost 900 years. Now the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the rapidly declining number of priests have pushed many of the faithful to the point of questioning this tradition of the church. To this sometimes tense discussion of sex and power Donald Cozzens brings his signature calmness, his own gifted experience of celibate life, and his talent for distilling the spiritual truth of the human condition.

Cozzens explores priestly celibacy as source of power and burden of obligation, as spiritual calling and gift of the Spirit. Putting mandatory celibacy in historic perspective, he examines the ancient and contemporary experience of married clergy in the Eastern churches and the Roman rite church. It is time, he concludes, to set celibacy free from canonical mandate to become what it is meant to be: a graced way of life for some but not all of the church’s ordained ministers.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Let me conclude on a personal note. I’m now in my fifth decade as a priest and words cannot express my gratitude for the privilege of preaching this radical gospel I so feebly attempt to live. Gospel simplicity? — I’m not sure I know the least thing about it. But I am convinced that the gospel’s radical invitation to a new way of life is the source of our salvation and liberation. To the extent there has been some radical witness to my life, I would hope that it has been the semblance of gospel fidelity that has emerged from time to time. On the other hand, I’m not at all sure of the witness value of my celibate state. It no doubt has earned the respect of some, perhaps many. But it is not at all the heart of the matter.

Celibacy, it must be conceded, has been the defining mark, the signature of ordination for the past nine centuries. As such it has been engraved in the Catholic collective unconscious — where it has rested more or less uncontested for almost a millennium. But no longer. Both laity and clergy now see that the law of celibacy is, at best, counter-productive for the life and mission of the church. Priesthood’s true signature is spiritual leadership grounded in the defining mark of every Christian who takes his or her discipleship seriously — fidelity to the God we cannot see, to gospel simplicity writ large as is fitting for spiritual leaders and preachers. What St. Paul said to the Philippians, the people of God now say to their priests, “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This, it would seem, is quite enough.

Charismatic celibacy, I have argued here, is indeed a blessing for the church. As a freely bestowed gift of the Spirit, it deserves to be released from canonical mandate as a condition for ordination. The time has come to set celibacy free.

Table of Contents:

1. The mystique of celibacy

2. Celibacy as charism

3. Celibacy as obligation

4. Celibacy’s exceptions

5. Celibacy’s shadow

6. Celibacy and homosexuality

7. Celibacy as power

8. Celibacy as oppression

9. Freeing celibacy