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Community itself at stake if priesthood problems ignored

Since earliest times Christian communities have needed leaders known as priests, “these men of mystery” as Fr. Donald Cozzens calls them in his book.

Such priests, in turn, follow in the footsteps of holy people set apart by our ancestors from the beginning of time. We have always needed intermediaries between heaven and earth.

That fundamental need is as pronounced as ever in our own time. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council adjusted the focus, strove to remove the emphasis from a class of men set apart to a concentration on the entirety of the people of God. The church moved, as Cozzens puts it, from a “cultic model of priesthood” to a “servant leader” model. From priest as mediator between God and humans to one engaged in a more collaborative ministry.

That switch threw us all off balance, and we are still some distance from regaining our equilibrium. As definitions - especially that of priesthood - were blurred, the force of authority, and the special power presumed to be conferred at ordination, were drained from the role of priest. Great waves of priests left, and increasingly small numbers were attracted to the beleaguered vocation to refill the ranks.

And then the scandals hit, sex abuse, money abuse, by priests and some bishops. Add to all that trauma the increasing revelations of death by AIDS, in many instances as the result of homosexual activity by men presumed to be celibate, and the impression emerges of an institution besieged, uncertain of its identity or its standing in the community.

The church exists to bear witness to and inspire belief in God, not belief in earthly structures, even church structures. And while it is comfortable to lean on certain revered images from the past, the past can never be a crutch on which to hobble into the future.

That’s why church leaders should take heed of such people as Eugene Kennedy, A.W. Richard Sipe and Cozzens. They and others have urged, so far unsuccessfully, the kind of study and debate that will be necessary to rid the church of that sense of siege.

All three speak of aspects of priesthood - and its problems - and dare to push the church one scary new step toward that future. They do it not by demanding, as some do today, a return to some nostalgic moment in the past, but by begging the church to look honestly at the experience of its clergy right now and to ask what God is saying to priests and the church at large.

The one who has shown greatest courage, of course, is Cozzens, for he speaks from inside the institution, which he has ably served in a number of responsible positions. He no doubt will be attacked by those who feel that such issues should never be aired publicly. We hope his brother priests and his bishop will appreciate his high purpose and come to his defense if necessary.

The private conversations about priesthood’s dilemmas that have been occurring for years have generated few results. Any enlightenment on the issues of sexuality and other controversial aspects of the priesthood has largely been forced on church leaders. Jesuit Fr. Jon Fuller in a recent America article said he believes a “sea change” is underway in the area of educating seminarians as the result of the occurrence of AIDS among priests. He acknowledges, however, that it is happening “more often in religious orders than in the training of diocesan clergy.”

He makes the point well, even if unintentionally: There is no comprehensive discussion of or strategy for approaching the problems of the Catholic priesthood today because for too many in the hierarchical ranks denial and secrecy remain the order of the day.

Some wonder at the fascination in the larger culture with the problems of Catholic clerics. But the church has long invited such scrutiny. It seeks in all ways to be an arbiter of morals in the public square. It speaks forcefully to issues, particularly sexual issues, unlike almost any other voice in the wider culture. It can’t expect to hold society to lofty standards and not expect to be itself judged by the same standards or higher.

Most priests, it should be said, are not in denial. Most are good priests, running uphill all day on the treadmill of increasing demands and less help. They recognize the problems in the clergy culture. They deserve better than the day’s headlines and the burdens of overwork. And they know better than most that refusal to look at the problems may endanger the very future of the church as a eucharistic community.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000