The church will submerge before any emergence

by Tom Roberts

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Fr. Donald Cozzens speaking at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, N.Y., in 2005. (CNS)

In Search of the Emerging Church

Fr. Donald Cozzens, who has produced arguably one of the most candid examinations of the contemporary Catholic priesthood and hierarchical culture in the United States in a series of four books published since 2000, believes the church will submerge in many ways before any emergence occurs.

Cozzens is a priest of the Cleveland diocese and had been for decades before he began writing the series of books on the priesthood and the structure of the church. He edited an earlier volume on Spirituality of the Diocesan Priesthood that appeared in 1997. He had been vicar of priests for the diocese as well as president of St. Mary's Seminary, so his writing has a ring of authenticity and experience.

These days he is writer in residence and teaches a course in Christian Spirituality at John Carroll University. During my time in Cleveland, I visited Cozzens in his office on the campus of the Jesuit school.

Our conversation began with a discussion of the premise for this trip -- the hunch that something new is emerging in the Church. Cozzens takes a dimmer view.

"Let me say that before I see the church emerging into new forms, it actually is going to do some submerging," he said. "A good percentage of the church is grieving right now. We're closing parishes. We're consolidating parishes. Fewer people are going to Mass on Sunday," he said, also mentioning the declining number of priests and nuns.

"From your point of view, the church is emerging," he said. "It's pregnant with possibility, but how it's going to emerge, I don't know."

Cozzens said any emergence is going to be affected by the attitude of bishops toward laity, toward vowed religious and toward priests. "If what I've written earlier is more or less on target, we're witnessing the last era of the feudal church, especially in the West. … If we are witnessing the last decades or generation of the feudal church, what is going to happen?"

He thinks a lesson can be drawn from Western Europe, where the church has shrunk dramatically and few people attend Mass. "The claim that the Eucharist is really the center, the pulse and heart of our faith, will be put to the test. We're going to be asking Catholics to fast from the Eucharist, and the crisis, to a certain extent, is church made." While emerging styles of leadership in ministry and pockets of vitality exist in the U.S. church, he said, for many there is increasing confusion as the church submerges.

Most Catholics, he contends, are content with things as they are. If their church closes, they have a car and will go where they're told. If they get a good sermon, they're happy. Others who care deeply and keep informed of what's happening in the church, while a minority, "can't understand why women are treated the way they are. They can't understand why the church insists on mandatory celibacy. They can't understand why some pastors won't let their daughters serve Mass. They're not leaving. They're just heart sick, I think. I think many of them feel sad. I used the word grieving earlier. I think we are grieving, and so what goes on during this period of being submerged?"

His hope, he said, is that "we're not going to become embittered and cynical," but rather that "there will be a real spiritual awakening. I hope there will be a turn to contemplative prayer. I think Karl Rahner was on to something when he said, 'The Christian of the 21st century will be a mystic or not at all, a contemplative or not at all.' "

Cozzens said he generally agreed with the point Phyllis Tickle makes in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why that Christianity is currently going through one of it's every-500-years convulsions and that a central question that accompanies each of the upheavals is: Where is the authority?

"I think we are in the midst of change," he said. "There is a lot of anxiety going on and a lot of uncertainty." He mentioned that in class he's using the work of theologian Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who contends, according to Cozzens, that "even more upsetting for some people is the undermining of their long-held certainties. The challenge they face might not be that of changing one idea for another, but rather that of replacing certainties with uncertainty.

"We talk about the certainty of faith, but that's a special kind of certainty. The anxiety is grounded in the fact that we have a different way of looking at authority. We have a different way of looking at the Catholic church which, until recently, claimed to be a perfect society. We see that's not true any more, and we'll have ongoing financial scandals, I believe, in the decades ahead, simply because the system almost invites financial scandals. A benefice system doesn't work anymore because the serfs are well educated people. They want to see the books. They would like to know what is going on."

At another point in the conversation, Cozzens referred to authority as "one of the biggest issues for my ordained brothers of the priesthood. … We're in the midst of a crisis of authority right now because in a feudal system, authority calls for one virtue over the others, and that's obedience."

In priest retreats, which he has conducted throughout the United States and in Ireland, Cozzens is telling priests that he believes "our first authority has to be the Gospel," followed by conscience as we understand the Gospel. "I'm going to Gospel values ahead of conscience. The third authority should be the church as not only the bishops, but the sensus fidelium [Latin for "sense of the faithful"]. If I behave in a way that is contrary to the communion of the church, I really have to ask myself, 'Don, do you know what you're doing here?' "

In a sense, he says, the hierarchy of Gospel, conscience and church "is a false hierarchy because I think that those three dimensions of the spiritual life of the baptized Catholic are not necessarily one, two and three.

"I know the Gospel can be looked at in many different ways, but I think there is a certain Gospel truth. The radicality of Jesus' message, how does my conscience fit with that and this church I belong to?"

In ways not unlike earlier eras, he thinks science today is "shaking the Catholic imagination."

He mentions the work of Sacred Heart Fr. Diarmud O'Murchu, theologian Elizabeth Johnson's The Quest for the Living God and the cosmology of contemporary scientists. "I'm so blown away by how old our universe is, and then people are talking about multiple universes. So you've got time, and then you've got space. We are in the heavens. We know that right now. That has to have an impact on a lot of the imagery, especially biblical imagery that we Catholics have been raised with.

"I think most of our clergy still have a pretty traditional image of God even though our God is fundamentally mystery, and we know little about God, in spite of the revelation of Jesus the Christ and the Hebrew scriptures.

"So, you take time, our new understanding of the mystery of time, our new understanding of the mystery of space, and a more humble acknowledgement that God remains fundamentally mystery to us … all of this is creating a perfect storm, with winds blowing every which way."

And he believes it could be decades before the storm settles. "What's happening now, what's emerging right now, if it's a movement of integrity and wholeness, then I hope we're going to have a new respect for the freedom of the Holy Spirit to give charisms of leadership in ministry where the Sprit wills," he said.

"As I say that, I'm afraid I'm a little nervous that I am being too optimistic here. It could be a generation or two of real darkness before something happens."

Cozzens’ books on the priesthood include:

  • Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest, a book he edited, 1997.

  • Changing Face of the Priesthood, which appeared in 2000. It is a psychological and spiritual look at priesthood.

  • Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, published two years later, focused on church structure and the silence around such issues as the sex abuse scandal.

  • Faith That Dares to Speak, published in 2004, argues that the church is the last feudal system in the West.

  • Freeing Celibacy, 2006, his latest, calls for a review of mandatory celibacy.

Tom Roberts, NCR editor at large, is traveling the country reporting on parish life. He is on the first of several trips he plans to take, this time moving through Ohio, eastward into New Jersey and on to the nation’s capital. His e-mail address is Read the full series here: In Search of the Emerging Church.


Follow Tom Roberts on his journey "In Search of the Emerging Church." Sign up to receive an e-mail alert when his stories are posted to this series. If you already receive e-mail alerts from NCR, click on the button that says "update my profile."


Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters