When I read Bible Belt Bobby’s post about the journalistic virtue called “attribution” I was reminded of a controversial West Coast story that I have been trying to get around to for several days. I refer to the recent resignation of Bishop Gabino Zavala as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Why did he resign? The Los Angeles Times put it this way:
Popular and approachable, Zavala was widely known by his first name. To many, that sensibility made the Vatican’s announcement on Wednesday unthinkable: For more than a decade, Zavala had harbored a dark secret. He is the father, church officials said, of two children, and had resigned his post.
Zavala’s fatherhood, a violation of canon laws of celibacy for priests, was the first controversy to rock the local church during the tenure of Archbishop Jose Gomez, who succeeded Roger Mahony last year. Gomez responded with a blunt letter to his flock on Wednesday announcing the resignation, which elicited shock, despair and, among some, a palpable sense of betrayal.
“He is the father of two minor teenage children, who live with their mother in another state,” the letter said. “Let us pray for all those impacted by this situation and for each other.”
So far so good. It’s pretty clear that Zavala violated his vow of chastity. We can move on.
The Times reports — with clear attribution — the answers to several basic questions about this tragic event. For example, Zavala remains a bishop. And, so far, there is no evidence of financial misconduct, in terms of the bishop using church funds to help support his children.
However, readers eventually hit this summary of the major issue that, from the point of view of the newspaper’s editors, looms over this story of sin and misconduct.
Zavala’s resignation is likely to spark renewed debate over the ecclesiastical laws of celibacy. The earliest popes — St. Peter himself, under some interpretations — were married men and fathers. Later, in the fourth century, church officials concluded that men who were not celibate “shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical life.”
The idea was to mimic the sacrificing, chaste life of Jesus — for priests to be married, in a sense, to the church. But in recent years, hundreds of theologians have argued that the rules are dated and needlessly restrictive.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to distrust sentences that include “is likely,” just before a journalist launches into a discussion of a controversial topic that is allegedly linked to a specific news event.
Note, in particular, the lack of attributions in the paragraphs when it comes time to explain the historic teachings of the Catholic Church in the Western world. Who precisely is being quoted? Who are the church authorities and historians who were interviewed and asked to defend the church’s traditions on this issue?
It is clear, however, who provided the material quoted in opposition to the Vatican’s stance. Prepare for the usual suspects:
“It’s self-evident — celibacy does not work,” said Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Younger priests influenced by conservative Vatican administrators in recent years “think celibacy is the crown jewel of the priesthood,” he said. “That’s nonsense.”
A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest and retired psychotherapist in La Jolla, said there was “no question” the Zavala’s case raises questions about celibacy standards, and he said he hoped it would spark an overdue review. “I want it discussed openly and honestly,” he said.
So here is the key. There are no clear attributions when dealing with material defending a traditional approach to the tradition of priestly celibacy. Readers get clear attributions when it comes time for the Times to harvest zinger quotes from those who oppose the tradition of priestly celibacy.
One would have to wonder if traditionalists were, in fact, asked to take their best, media-friendly shots at defending the church’s traditions. The way the published story is worded, a cynic might think that there is the possibility that these weak, perfunctory pro-Vatican quotes actually came from McBrien and Sipe. You know. Perhaps a reporter asked them a question that sounded something like this: “OK, I’ve heard your point of view. What would the Vatican say to defend this lame policy that clearly is hurting the church?”
Just saying, once again: Attribution is a journalistic virtue.