Who were those defenders of priestly celibacy?

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    They also get at least some of the history of ecclesiastical celibacy wrong. One of the major reasons for the doctrine is so that ecclesiastical offices and control of the their lands could not be passed down from father to son as form of inheritance. This forestalled the formation of an inherited ecclesiastical nobility who could dominate the bishoprics although it did not completely disrupt nepotism within the church.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    First, Bp. Zavala did not violate his “celibacy” vow, since celibacy means being single. What he do, on at least two occasions, was violate chastity, to which all Christians are called, whether by fidelity in marriage or continence in celibacy. This matters: the claim that “celibacy doesn’t work” because a percentage of celibates fail at chastity can be turned to marriage, in which a percentage of married persons also fail at chastity. But that would sort of ruin the Times sub-plot. Their major theme, of course, was what a good guy Bp. Zavala really is, being correct on all their favorite issues.

    I will give the reporter credit for tucking in that tidbit about the archdiocese seeing to the kids’ college. That seems kind of important to me, given that we don’t know what support the bishop had provided over the years.

    As a sidenote, bishops have been celibate under rules consistent in the east and west for most of the last 2000 years. The argument that he should have been allowed to marry has ecumenical implications beyond the Catholic Church.

  • Martha

    There’s no matter of interpretation about St. Peter having been married – he had a mother-in-law, which is kind of hard to acquire without the missus to go with it.

    Fr. McBrien gives his usual opinion. I’ll say no more other than to say that the rate of divorce proves marriage doesn’t work, or that adultery proves marriage doesn’t work, or that bank robberies prove banks don’t work, or that any case where someone breaks a vow or contract means we must immediately do away with all forms of social interaction that may entail vows or contracts.

    I’m fairly sure that if Notre Dame tried to turf out Fr. McBrien from his position, all of a sudden, he’d be for insisting that the terms of his contract of employment are binding and he wouldn’t be too interested in an argument that ran that since the contract had been broken, that meant it never worked in the first place and had no bearing on the conduct of Notre Dame towards him.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen

    I picked up on the mother in law “interpretation” too. Pretty blatant Biblical illiteracy on the part of the reporter. Thanks for pointing out the difference between breaking chastity vows as opposed to celibacy.

    I would be interested in their having covered why this particular incident of unchastity which occurred long ago results in resignation when I have read some pretty high rates of violation of that vow among Roman Catholic priests.

    My great grandfather was a bishop in Tuscany but apparently only took early retirement due to his recidivism.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Passing by:

    Duh. Thank you.


  • Jimmy Mac
  • Will

    But on reflection, Peter’s WIFE never appears in scripture, so we do not have evidence that she was still alive. And nobody that I know of has advocated a ban on ordaining widowers (although the Romano/Orthodox churches would refused to consecrate a DOUBLE widower as bishop.)

  • Will E.

    Passing By/tmatt — I believe it’s the other way around: Diocesan clergy such as Bishop Zavala make promises of celibacy while members of religious orders make vows of chastity. The practical effect is the same. But Passing By is correct that all are called to be to be chaste within one’s state of life: married, single pursuing marriage, diocesan clergyman, member of a religious community/order, etc.

    It seems to me that a bigger deal is made out of Catholic clergy/men & women religious breaking their celibacy/chastity commitments than out of Protestant/Non-Christian married clergy breaking their fidelity vows (or is that just confirmation bias on my part?)

  • Julia

    He remains a bishop b/c that is a status as well as a position. Archbishops, Cardinals, Popes, retired bishops are all still bishops whether they are in charge of or serving a diocese or not.

  • Aron Wall

    Will, 1 Cor 9:5 indicates that Cephas (= Peter) and the other apostles did have wives whom they took along on their apostolic ministry.

  • Rick

    Regarding Peter’s mother-in-law: there the story in Scripture that Jesus healed her and she immediately got up and fed all the guys.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The “is likely” phrase makes it seem that the journalist is trying to use writing this peace to advance an agenda, in this case convincing the Catholic Church to allow married men (and probably others not currently allowed) to be priests.

    Such behavior should be confined to editorials. News staff should report the facts as they happen. “Is likely” means “in the future” which means it has not happened yet, so is not factual or reportable.