Bishop Gabino Zavala resigned as an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles this week after admitting that he is the father of two teenage children who are living with their mother in another state. Few details are available out of an understandable respect for the privacy of everyone involved.
The news was met with predictable criticisms of the Church’s rule of clerical celibacy, and relief that sexual abuse of young boys wasn’t the issue this time. There was also shock and bewilderment that a man who was so beloved and doing such good work in the Church was being forced to resign over something so natural and ordinary; when pedophile priests and the bishops who covered up for them were allowed to remain in their positions for so long.
There’s more than a little irony in the fact that the news came just days after the official establishment of an ordinariate for Anglican congregations, headed by a married priest.
There’s validity to these reactions. But the thought that kept going through my mind was, “Where is the honesty?” This man was a bishop. He certainly knew the teaching of the Church on clerical celibacy. While one might argue about the merits of that teaching, it’s still the rule. Is it kept perfectly throughout the universal Church? Certainly not. The variations on “He’s only human” being bandied about carry some weight.
None of us is perfect; all of us sin. But it is, in fact, more significant for a teacher of the faith to choose to break one of the Church’s rules than, say, for a married couple not to follow the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Jesus had something to say about the religious leaders of his day laying burdens on ordinary people and then missing the mark themselves.
Having two children in a relationship suggests that this wasn’t something that “just happened.” Many choices had to be made. The most fundamental is the choice between the relationship and a vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood (or consecration as a bishop). Whether it should need to be made is a question for Rome. But choosing to have a secret family in another state is never the right option. It’s a shadow vocation that falls somewhere between marriage and priesthood. It’s living a lie on both sides.
Life is about making choices. Some of those choices are going to be difficult.
Every choice has consequences. People who choose to get married have to be faithful to one person. People who choose to remain single have to find ways to be fruitful that do not involve biological children and ways to be intimate that do not involve sex. And, right or wrong, men who choose to be priests in the Roman Catholic Church have to forgo marriage and children.
The key to making good choices is the ability to be honest: with ourselves, with those we love, with those who look to us for guidance. Growing into honesty and integrity are lifelong goals. Countless men and women work every day to be faithful to the teachings of the Church as they are, not as they wish they were. When those in positions of leadership and power in the church make bad choices, it reflects on the integrity of the entire Church.