By John Norton
The scandal last month of popular Miami priest Father Alberto Cutié admitting a two-year affair with a divorcée has sparked renewed calls for an examination of the Western Church's discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests.
One carefully argued essay that caught my eye was by Father Donald Cozzens, writing on CNN's website. He recapped arguments from his 2006 book, "Freeing Celibacy" (Liturgical Press, $15.95).
He makes some good points. Priestly celibacy has not always been the policy in the Church and is still not in the Eastern Catholic Church. Even today celibacy is not required of those married Protestant pastors who have become Catholic priests. Father Cozzens also points to what he calls an "inherent paradox lying just below the claim that the gift of celibacy is a precious gift of God to the priesthood and the Church: How can a gift be legislated?"
I don't know if the Church will some day change this policy. It could. But I have lingering questions for those, like Father Cozzens, who think that would be a good idea.
My first doubt is raised by this quote from Father Cozzens: "The most human, existential factor that should keep the celibacy issue on the table is the spiritual and emotional health of priests."
As a married layman, that statement bothers me. It seems to imply that the function of sex is a sort of psychological relief valve. It doesn't situate it within the vocation of marriage. (And it seems to perpetuate the idea that celibacy is somehow a more saintly, or superhuman, route to heaven than the exercise of conjugality.)
Second, he seems to believe it is unfair for the Latin Church to demand a commitment to celibacy from men who feel called both to the priesthood and to married life. Why? There is a theological richness to the idea of a celibate priesthood; either one feels called to it, or one does not (or, I suppose, one becomes Eastern Catholic to be able to pursue dual vocations). If a man feels called to be a priest in the Latin-rite Church, he feels called to celibacy; if he does not, then his discernment of calling is not complete.
Third, although Father Cozzens acknowledges that a married Latin-rite clergy would bring "scandals of its own -- infidelity and abuse among others," I wonder if he takes that possibility seriously enough. Our culture is not supportive of commitment (see the divorce rate, and even the attrition rate of priests), and Catholics bring that cultural weakness to their own weddings or ordinations. It seems to me that focusing on living one vocation well and faithfully is challenging enough, without adding the unique challenges of another.