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Sacred Silence:
Denial and the Crisis in the Church

By Rev. Donald Cozzens (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.)
Reviewed By Fr. Louis J. Trivison

Fr. Donald Cozzens’ third book is a sequel to his best-selling, prophetic book published two years ago, “The Changing Face of the Priesthood.” which brought him worldwide interest and fame. His latest book, coming as it does in the midst of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the church, promises to be an equally controversial blockbuster.

In the introduction Cozzens says the book is an attempt to answer the question put to him by Cardinal Roger Mahony, “Why are we afraid?” Why, indeed, asks Cozzens – why is the institutional church so defensive? Why is it so controlling? How is it that a church that is the bearer of the Word and the champion of the oppressed can maintain an unholy silence while denying that obvious pastoral and ecclesial problems, indeed, crises, even exist?

Cozzens writes smoothly and fearlessly. He refuses to bow to the criticism that “speaking the truth with love” is a sign of disloyalty or irresponsibility. History, from St. Paul to Catherine of Siena to Yves Conger, Cardinal Suenens and John Courtney Murray spoke the truth as they understood it out of loyalty to the gospel and church.

One of the mysteries confronting loyal Catholics since Vatican II has been the silence and lack of prophetic leadership on the part of so manyAmerican bishops while curia officials have gradually undermined and rendered meaningless the major doctrinal reforms of Vatican II, especially its teaching on collegiality and the role of the local bishops in leading the church.

Cozzens’ chapters on denial and the faces of denial in the church today are enlightening but often painful acknowledgements of the effects of denial on the validity of present-day church practices and its teachings and the honesty and integrity of its members.

Several chapters deal with the refusal of church leaders to face the reality of the shortage of priests, resulting in the denial of the Eucharist and the drastic drop in vocations to religious life. Cozzens mentions, and rightly so, that the determination of church leaders locally and world-wide to solve the clergy shortage by “praying for more vocations” is a hopeless failure to face the fact that the Holy Spirit is leading us to new and better ways to provide ministers for the mission of the church at this time in history.

He touches upon the problems of the abuse of African and other nuns by the clergy which surfaced last year and the failure of the church to provide structural changes that will enable women to take meaningful leadership roles in the church including decision-making authority at every level, from the Vatican to the local chancery and parish.

Clearly and sadly, Cozzens discusses the present crisis stemming from the public disclosure of clergy sexual abuse and the various rationalizations used to deny that there was a problem and to keep it secret. He quotes Richard Sipe’s list of the excuses: “There is no problem; it can’t be true;” “abuse by priests may exist but it’s very rare;” “the media distorts everything,” etc. Cozzens discusses the pastoral, fiscal and systemic implications at stake in this ongoing crisis.

He analyzes the pre-councilor culture that gave birth to the clericalism that marked the priesthood for decades before exploding in the present crisis. He reviews the reaction that followed his discussion of homosexuality in the priesthood in his previous book and defends holy and gay priests from being the scapegoats of the present crisis. Yet he calls on the whole church “to address with compassion and sensitivity a reality it wants to deny: many of its priests and bishops are gay.”

Among the many reforms he envisions for a renewed and humble church and priesthood Cozzens maintains “the current imposed fasting from the Eucharist in many parts of the world would be alleviated by a married priesthood in the Latin rite. Celibacy would be honored as a gift given to vowed religious, to some of the faithful, and to some of the church’s diocesan priests.”

In addition, women would be ordained to the deaconate and commissioned to preach at the Eucharist. “The theological and scriptural arguments against women’s ordination would be reviewed in the light of contemporary scholarship and gospel values,” he writes. The silence imposed by the Vatican on discussions of issues such as the theology of sexuality, the ordination of women, the election of bishops and the role of the laity in the decision making structures of the church would end.

If this sounds like the agenda for a third Vatican Council it could well become that. This book moves beyond the level of discussion sparked by Cozzens’ previous book, “The Changing Face of the Priesthood” and beyond the rubble left by the devastating crisis in the American church which struck this past year. It should be required reading for any bishop, priest, pastoral minister, or committed lay person. Cozzens dedicated his work to the memory of Bishops P. Francis Murphy and Raymond Lucker whom he calls “men of faith and courage who dared to break the silence.” With this work Cleveland’s Fr. Donald Cozzens stands faithfully and courageously beside them.

Fall 2002

 

 

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