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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Donald Cozzens
Liturgical Press, 320 pages, $19.95
The intractable Catholic church

Reviewed by DENNIS M. DOYLE

Fr. Donald Cozzens, a well-respected figure in contemporary Catholic circles, reflects deeply on the state of the church in the wake of the sex abuse crisis. He contemplates first the internal fears and external structures that keep people from speaking out and making needed changes. He then turns to consider broad-scale changes already set in motion.

Fr. Cozzens’ powerful writing displays his mastery of skills in spiritual direction, pastoral counseling and conflict resolution. He spends time fostering and maintaining in his reader a meditative state of consciousness. He wants to encourage people to listen humbly and attentively and to speak courageously and frankly.

As bad as or worse than the actual sex abuse committed by priests has been the response of secrecy and transfer and cover-up by some bishops and those who assisted them. Fr. Cozzens links these behaviors with a culture of clericalism rooted in the continuance of feudal structures. The practices needed to maintain this culture include paternalism, blind loyalty, authoritarianism and insensitive disregard of those not in the club. Pope Pius X articulated the underlying vision when he described the church, in essence, as a society of unequals.

Fr. Cozzens sees the vision of Vatican II as one of a community of co-equal disciples. All the baptized are members of the people of God. Any distinctions in roles are made within this basic framework and should take nothing away from this sense of mutuality. In Fr. Cozzens’ judgment, however, powerful forces within the church have been retreating from the conciliar vision. The road ahead lies in empowering the laity through changes of hearts and structures. The church of secrecy and cover-up and abuse of power needs to be overtaken by the church of openness, dialogue and respect.

I say Amen! to much of the message of Fr. Cozzens. This is a book worth reading and pondering. I offer some reflections on a couple of difficult points.

When challenging clericalist culture, Fr. Cozzens’ main descriptor is the adjective “feudal.” This might work adequately as a metaphor to make a point, but Fr. Cozzens goes beyond metaphor to press the description as a literal social analysis. He sees the relationships among pope, bishops and priests to be those of lords and lieges, patrons and clients, and nobles and serfs. He judges these arrangements to constitute an actual historical continuance of structures that the church adopted during the Middle Ages.

Some valuable insights are perhaps shed on the current situation, but the problems go in two directions. On the one hand, the analysis fails to appreciate the complex space created within medieval culture. Without idealizing medieval relationships, one could explore seriously the positive value of reciprocity based on loyalty and trust and mutual obligation in comparison with an individual-rights culture. On the other hand, one could also complain that the contemporary clerical culture suffers as much from the bureaucracy and impersonalism and alienation that go with the modern world as it does from so-called feudal bonds. One factor in the crisis was the bishops’ trust in the psychologists who assured them that cures had been effected through the miracle of modern therapy.

Fr. Cozzens does not refer to the classic Protestant critique of Catholicism as being backward and superstitious and “medieval” or to the traditional Catholic response that valorizes the medieval over the decline represented by the Protestant and the secular. With centuries of that debate in the not-so-distant background, however, Fr. Cozzens’ charge of feudalism provides less than the dialogic opening for which he hopes. His powerful points about the present realities of clericalism would do better without overreliance on this analogy. His assertion that mandatory celibacy for priests represents a feudal mentality can come off as more of a label than a convincing argument to those who rightfully question whether becoming more modern really holds all the answers.

Fr. Cozzens’ stress on dialogue engulfs him in inevitable paradoxes. There is an unavoidable tension between communications theories that bend over backward to value all contributions and the reality of situations in which some people’s positions are clearly untenable. Fr. Cozzens praises those who dare to speak out of a reflective, non-ideological position, without mentioning that the hordes of ideologues who are already speaking out every day think of themselves as reflective and would be happy to confront anyone who would beg to differ. He tends to dichotomize between humble people who want needed changes and arrogant people who fearfully reject change, though it appears to me that most sides of the ideological divides have plenty of humble and plenty of arrogant voices among them. He tries to explore empathetically the deep-seated fears across the spectrum of believers, but, as he presents them, the fears of the left and the middle sound relatively reasonable whereas the fears of the right sound a bit narrow and paranoid.

It is difficult to reconcile a radical openness in conversation with some degree of foresight concerning what conclusions these conversations should properly yield. Fr. Cozzens does better than most at this. His book is a serious contribution to the conversation taking place at this most critical time in the history of our church.

Dennis M. Doyle teaches theology at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and is the author of The Church Emerging from Vatican II.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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