Bishop Zavala & Celibacy

by Michael Sean Winters

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The surprise resignation of Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Gabino Zavala, and the even more surprising reason for that resignation, has already ignited a renewed conversation about celibacy. That is an interesting conversation, and an important one, but it is not the first thing that occurred to me when I heard the news.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln has failed to participate in the audits of anti-sex abuse procedures set up by the USCCB in 2002 at Dallas, yet no one at the Vatican has seen fit to demand his resignation. Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been indicted in civil court and, whatever the outcome of those proceedings, clearly also failed to abide by the 2002 Dallas norms governing the reporting of clergy sex abuse. Has anyone thought to demand his resignation?

We know very little about the circumstances of Bishop Zavala’s situation, but we know that he had two children. If there were only one, we might conclude that the child was the result of a moment of weakness. The fact that there are two children suggests that what happened to Bishop Zavala was not a moment of weakness but that he fell in love. Yes, acting on that love violated his vows. But, it is hard to sustain a sense of betrayal at his falling in love, at least it is hard for me to sustain such a sense of betrayal.

Nothing we learned yesterday, nor anything we are likely to learn in the days ahead, can detract an iota from Bishop Zavala’s record as one of the outstanding bishops in the United States. A forceful advocate for social justice, Zavala was not afraid to preach the Church’s social teachings as loudly as he preached the Church’s pro-life teachings. His commitment to human dignity was thorough, extending to the undocumented as well as to the unborn, encompassing concern for the poor as well as concern for religious liberty. The loss of his voice will be felt deeply for many years.

The issue of clerical celibacy arouses some strong passions. And, it is more than a little ironic that the resignation of Bishop Zavala came days after the erection of an Anglican ordinariate that will serve as home for dozens of married clergy, and will be headed by a married ordinary. But, that new ordinary, Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, will not be ordained a bishop in the Catholic Church because he is married. The Eastern Orthodox, which allow married clergy, also do not permit married bishops.

I am no expert on how the rule of clerical celibacy developed in history. But, I know this. In our sex-crazed culture, I would hate for us to lose it. Yes, in seminary, I encountered some men who were psycho-sexually under-developed and were looking for a way to hide that fact by putting themselves on a clerical pedestal. They usually did not survive formation. Yes, we lose the services of many good men who might make wonderful priests. But, someone in our culture needs to say that sex is not the most important thing in the world and the rule on clerical celibacy says that. Indeed, it points to the fact that none of the “things of this world” are the most important things, that it is the things of the next world that should garner more of our attention and care. The critics of clerical celibacy must acknowledge this: When someone meets a Catholic priest, it is one of the first thoughts that occurs – I wonder what drives a person to choose a life that permits no sexual pleasure?
In the past few decades, our culture’s obsession with sex has only gotten worse. How many marriages are wrecked because a spouse gives into the temptations that our culture celebrates in movies, television and literature? Growing up, I do not remember much in the way of a “fitness culture” and there was not a gym on every corner as there is today – is this primarily about fitness or is it really about staying sexually desirable? Certainly, it is about celebrating the flesh in a way that is unhealthy, at least for many of those who participate in it. Where in our culture do we celebrate the beauty of a lifelong commitment, faithfully sustained the way we celebrate a nice six-pack of abs?

We Catholics are called to witness to the Kingdom of God. We witness to that Kingdom every time we work for justice. We witness to that Kingdom every time we kneel before the tabernacle in prayer. We witness to that Kingdom every time we do an act of kindness to someone who is poor or vulnerable. And, we witness to that Kingdom whenever we affirm that the joys of this life are only joys when they point us towards the greater joys of heaven. The rule of celibacy does that, not always, not perfectly, but it does point beyond the horizon of human experience.

As for Bishop Zavala, it is my hope that he will find God’s forgiveness for transgressing his vow of celibacy and that he will also find great joy in the life of his children. The thing he did was wrong but it was not bad.

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