e-mail us
Priests on bishops’ agenda

Special Report Writer

There may be a “silver lining” in the recent barrage of reports about turmoil in the American priesthood, said Fr. Cletus Kiley, executive director of the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “All of this requires us to look seriously at issues of human formation to see how we’re doing,” he said.

An opportunity will come when the U.S. bishops meet June 15-17 in Milwaukee, but there is no guarantee of a serious discussion at that event. On the bishops’ agenda for discussion and approval is a 138-page document titled “The National Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests.” Kiley said the document was prepared before The Kansas City Star series on the high rate of AIDS among priests or the publication of Fr. Donald Cozzens’ book, “The Changing Face of the Priesthood,” which speaks openly of a “crisis of confidence” in the American priesthood.

However, the document as presented has only a few launching points for development. It does not discuss in detail any particular crisis and does not so much as mention the words AIDS, homosexuality or sexual orientation. Among 10 “significant contexts” for priestly formation in the 21st century, it cites in general the “diminishing number of priests,” “divisions in presbyterates” (regional groupings of priests) and “the counterpoint of current sexual mores.”

“Today the former social support for celibacy is gone,” it notes. “Highly publicized cases of priests’ sexual misconduct have cast a shadow of incredibility on the professed values enshrined in the celibate commitment. All this suggests an urgent need for ongoing formation that enables priests to interiorize their commitment at a deep level.” The document also states, “While a celibate commitment is not expressed in genital activity or in an exclusive intimate relationship, the priest remains a sexual person who is challenged to grow into a mature expression of love and caring. As the priest internalizes his celibate commitment, his sexuality is ever more directed toward a vibrant spiritual life.”

In separate sections dealing with formation at different stages in the priest’s life, the document mentions in passing “temptations,” such as discouragement, legalism, overwork and “the violation of sexual boundaries,” and presents them largely as occasions “to deepen and consolidate their already-made commitment.”

The implications of homosexuality among priests, which Cozzens, the president-rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, calls a serious “destabilizing” factor among priests, must be faced and discussed by the bishops, said Kiley, adding he would urge them to do so.

Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay, Wis., who has called Cozzens’ book a “must read for all bishops, priests, seminarians,” agreed that an intensive investigation is required. “Yes, we are paying attention to these matters,” he said, “but not adequately. There’s a need for more expertise at the national level.”

Fr. Donald Wolf, outgoing president of the National Federation of Priest Councils, said strides have been made in seminary sexuality formation in the past 25 years. “Today most priests are exceedingly realistic about their lives,” he said. “They’re neither surprised nor outraged by sexual or financial scandals” (such as those involving the bishop of Santa Rosa, Calif., or a high diocesan official in San Francisco). “But they are embarrassed and they resent implications that the priesthood is in a terminal state and going to hell.” Wolf criticized as “questionable” the Kansas City Star research, as did Kiley, who said the newspaper’s findings on AIDS “don’t ring true” to many priests who are tired of “getting beat up again.”

But Wolf, too, said Cozzens’ candid comments about the effect of clerical homosexuality on priests and laity ring true. Asked Wolf, “What happens in a community when one third of the members are gay, know they’re gay and know all the others who are gay, while the other two thirds don’t know anybody who is gay?” This long, unacknowledged ecclesiastic division has to be addressed, he said, since “it’s got to be extremely destabilizing.”

Fr. Francis Cilia, vicar for clergy in the San Jose, Calif., diocese, said Cozzens’ book has been universally received with respect by priests. “He’s dedicated and loyal and writing about what he sees,” he said. “You can’t be angry at the truth.” The issues he raises, said Cilia, require serious attention.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000