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Cozzens breaks unholy silence

by Donald Cozzens
Liturgical Press, 160 pages, $19.95


Donald Cozzens has a fine, friendly way of defining the context and content for long-delayed conversations among Catholics. Sacred Silence renews this advocacy as did his popular The Changing Face of the Priesthood. This time around, he begins with a sturdy three-legged stool for sitting down and settling in.

His introduction culls pertinent pieces from the writings of Walter Bruegemann, tapping our prophetic imaginations in this place of dislocation; soundings from René Girard analyzing the two faces of the sacred; and Steven Cohen’s assessment of the slippery dynamics of denial. “Whenever we employ denial and silence out of fear or anxiety, we sin against faith. The very institutional postures we assume to guard our faith expose our lack of faith.”

Safely seated and challenged by faith, Cozzens lays out the discussion topics: sacred oaths used as assurance policies; voices of women, barely audible in not-so-sacred-silence; the diminishing ranks of religious and clergy, also known as the vocation crisis; the abuse scandal; clerical culture; gay men in the priesthood; and ministry and leadership. As in his first work, the final chapter is a well-crafted, comprehensive reprise of the seven topics, all ready for reflective sacred silence and charitable discourse.

Five of the warm-up chapters effectively identify the what and the why that has prompted denial by employing materials rounded up from the expected sources, including NCR. All is at hand for pertinent, possibly even calm exchange.

In sharp contrast, materials on the abuse scandal are so shrill and strident that any function as conversation starters is stunted. With good reason, Cozzens warns us that minimizing the devilish evil of abuse has been an abhorrent habit of some church officials. Yet might it not also inhibit compassionate conversation to indulge in maximizing?

Recent attempts to do the “head count” in each diocese have not yielded a statistic more than 1.6 to 2 percent of the clerical population. What end is served by upping the “estimate” to between 7 to 10 percent? Part of the difficulty here, as was true in Chapter Seven of his first work, is a questionable reliance on A.W. Richard Sipes’ self-confessed use of “guerrilla statistics.”

While correctly pointing out that no research on the topic has been done -- and for the nasty reasons he correctly identifies -- why use inflated estimates and anecdotal surmises to ratchet up the drama of the discourse and possibly intensify the frenzy? Where is the evidence that John Geoghan’s abuse count is typical of priests who have been treated over the past 25 years?

To take the extreme cases as typical of the population of abusers fails the test of fairness. Would it not help our grasp of the situation to include the powerful stories of the many who have made the journey of conversion and who are inaccurately described as continuous abusers? It is right, just and proper to indict the church leaders who have called down the wrath of God on the media for “creating” the crisis but would it discourage honest discourse to at least raise the question of what end was served by the daily recycling of incidents that are 20 years old as if they happened during the past week?

In Chapter Eight, Cozzens presents a more balanced discussion on gay men in the priesthood than that previously offered. A new study by Dean Hoge that is on the way to print (appearing in November) will offer data useful to a discussion of “gay subcultures” in the seminaries and the extent to which they destabilize the environment for heterosexual candidates.

James Alison’s sensitive Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay might also contribute to a broader approach to this well documented arena of denial.

In his wind-up pages, Cozzens concocts six possible outcomes that might eventuate from his proposed discussions. Such optimism is worth the price of the book. “For we, in this age,” Cozzens writes, “as in ages past, possess the abiding wisdom of the Spirit. It is time to draw on that wisdom and break the present, unholy silence.”

Amen to that, Don. Somehow I wonder if a few sentences citing some “best practices” might help this common hope. How about Fr. Philip Murnion’s Common Ground gatherings or Bishop (now Archbishop) Harry Flynn’s graced effort in restoring hope to the folks of Louisiana or (fill in the blank)?

Conventual Franciscan Fr. Canice Connors is a psychologist and president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002