The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California / kkmd at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsHere’s a news story of a sort that I’m surprised is not more common than it is. The Los Angeles Times reports on the fall of a Roman Catholic hierarch in California (WebCite cached article):

From humble beginnings in southwest Mexico, Gabino Zavala entered the priesthood and embarked on a remarkable journey that landed him squarely in the corner offices of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese. …

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.

As usually happens with such revelations, this triggers the LA Times to ramble into a discussion of Catholic clerical celibacy:

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.

Actually, in spite of efforts beginning in the 4th century to make all clergy celibate, the fact is that this was not universally observed. By the 11th century, clerical marriages were still taking place, among the “secular clergy,” and the matter had to be addressed as part of the Gregorian Reforms.

And while the Catholic Church’s stated reason for priestly celibacy is to emulate Christ’s chastity, the actual reasons are a bit less spiritual and more mercenary than that. Clerical celibacy meant that priests no longer were having children (legitimate ones, anyway), so that church offices no longer passed automatically down from father to son; this in turn meant that church office appointments were made explicitly by the bishops and the Pope, giving them greater control over the Church and permitting them more nepotism. Another reason is that celibate priests don’t have families to take care of or worry about, eliminating the possibility that a priest’s loyalty to the Church might be diminished.

This last is the chief reason the Church will never willingly do away with priestly celibacy; it would cease to be a closed club of bachelors with few external influences. It would fundamentally change as an organization, in a way that would — almost by definition — reduce the hierarchs’ control. There’s no way they’d forfeit that, at least not without a fight.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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