The Problem of Secrecy


Finding the correct balance between secrecy and openness in the governance of any large institution is something like finding the right balance of ingredients in your favorite mixed drink: In the end, taste has a lot to do with it. Yet, as Gabriel Schoenfeld points out in his informative new book Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law (Norton), the pendulum has swung dangerously in America from pre-Vietnam days to now.

Back then, news organizations supported and cooperated with government in preserving secrets to protect national security. As matters stand now, you can pick up a New York Times or Washington Post just about any day and find leaked government secrets splashed all over page one. The WikiLeaks episode, involving thousands of documents from the war in Afghanistan, was a conspicuous case in point.

It isn’t so different in the Catholic Church. At least since the Second Vatican Council — and, sporadically, much earlier than that — leaking at the upper levels of the Church has been a regular occurrence. So has grumbling about leaks by the hierarchy (some of whom have done much of the leaking), along with low-level complaints about the misuse of secrecy that create an undertone of murmuring in ecclesiastical life.

There are, however, at least two notable differences here between church and state.

First, while lives can be placed in jeopardy by the leaking of national security secrets, it would be hard to think of an instance in which anybody’s life has been placed at risk by the disclosure of the sort of secrets that routinely get leaked in the Church. Reputations ruined, important projects undermined — yes; actual loss of life — apparently not.

Second, the respective claims of secrecy and openness in the civic realm are matter for vigorous ongoing debate in the United States. The stream of articles and books like Schoenfeld’s attests to that. By contrast, there’s no serious debate about official secrecy in the Church. The chief explanation is that the authorities decline to admit a problem exists, much less join in consideration of how to solve it. In this, of course, they have many passive collaborators, including church-sponsored media.


Here’s an illustration. The Catholic Press Association made much of the fact that, at its annual convention earlier this year, several bishops would be present to discuss the relationship between the hierarchy and the press. The bishops were there all right, and a discussion took place.

To judge from reports, however, the pros and cons of official secrecy were never raised, either by the bishops or by the Catholic editors in attendance. Instead, the bishops contented themselves with offering the editors words of encouragement, including the suggestion, familiar by now, that they do even more to make their publications organs of evangelization.

Evangelization, it hardly needs saying, is a very good thing. But, even in the Church, it’s not the primary job of news media. Media of news and information exist in order honestly and accurately to report, interpret, and comment on news. If Catholic news media do that, they’ll be contributing indirectly to evangelization. But they should concentrate first and foremost on news.

The overuse of official secrecy is the primary obstacle to the responsible reporting of news in and about the Church. In this environment, the leaks and the leakers thrive. It’s reasonable to think the editors of Catholic newspapers would grasp that fact and have a word to say about it to the bishops. But not at the Catholic Press Association convention, it seems.

As matters stand, secrecy is an obstacle even to the discussion of secrecy. Several years ago, I was in Rome covering a session of the world synod of bishops. These events take place entirely in executive session, with information filtered to the press via the Vatican press office. (Large portions of the U.S. bishops’ general assemblies also are conducted like this, as I’ve noted elsewhere many times.)

At a point during the synod, a bishop or bishops suggested that a future session be devoted to the subject of communication. A savvy church communicator chuckled at that. “Can you imagine,” he commented, “what the press would do to us if we had a synod on communication behind closed doors?”

Discussing the leaking of national security secrets, Schoenfeld argues cogently that the breakdown of official secrecy via leaking has gone dangerously far in the United States. I think he makes his case. But Schoenfeld also acknowledges that government secrecy can be and sometimes has been abused, becoming a cloak for “renegade governmental activity,” as in Watergate, and a “breeding ground for corruption,” as in more instances than one cares to recall.

To the usual catalogue of bad consequences arising from the misuse of secrecy in the Church, I’d add one more. It’s the most serious of all: Habitual abuse of secrecy by leadership erodes the perception by the members that the Church is a communion — a community of faith — and in the end risks eroding communion as a human reality. That many Catholics take the overuse of secrecy for granted is a symptom of the harm already done. Now when are we going to start talking about these things?

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • TheOldCrusader

    “The WikiLeaks episode, involving thousands of documents from the war in Afghanistan, was a conspicuous case in point.”

    The only point in that case is that the government uses false claims of ‘national security’ to hide disgraceful conduct. Nothing has been endangered by the Wikileaks episodes except the worldwide interventionist foreign policy that benefits only the ruling elites at the expense of regular citizens in the form of their lives, taxes and security.

  • AC

    It is funny I find that secrecy does however have a time and place. As a particular American example, the US Constitution was to have secret deliberations all through the summer it was written. So much so that some members were assigned to keep an eye on Ben Franklin – being the oldest and very loquatious. The idea was they wanted to get their work done with as little outside influence as possible.

    Now that worked and when they were done, all their work became public, and as was right and proper for their work (the constitution) voted upon by the states.

    A similar thing only in a sort of reverse was the ‘results’ of the 2nd Vatican council running in the 1960s (no I am not old enough to know this but by history, so I might flub here). The offical documents were not dry but ‘observers’ were reporting all sorts of falsehoods back over the media. At this time a little ‘secrecy’ could have been helpful and avoid a lot of 1970s confussion.

    So again, time and place. Confessional is a good time and place for it.

    With all that said, it is important that we the faithful know 2 things.
    1. the Hierarchy of the Church is made of humans and therefore will screw up. but
    2. that they will be open and honest and FIX IT!

  • Telemachus

    It seems obvious that secrecy shouldn’t be abused by members of the Church, in particular of the institutional Church. If leaders within the Church choose not to tell-all, then they should not be attacked, however. There’s a balance, and I don’t know what it is.

    It seems to me that a good “Catholic news-media” would perform the following functions:
    (1) inform the faithful as to what is going on within the Church at large
    (2) inform the non-faithful of the same thing, but in ways they will understand better, thereby helping them to consider the Church in a constructive fashion
    (3) have an eye out for any anti-Church corruption which might be creeping-in and to (a) inform the right people within the Church of this corruption, then (b) later break the story regardless of what is happening so that it can be understood that there was a problem and it has either been solved or is being solved or is being ignored

    Or something. Catholic news-media should not be the advocate of anyone, but should do what it is supposed to: inform, and to do so according to Catholic principles. This used to be obvious before the advent of modern attack journalism.

  • Matthew from Texas

    To muddy the waters a little more, we hear much talk about the “right to privacy.” I think what most people mean is a right to secrecy, not necessarily privacy. However, on an individual level, secrecy is ultimately the playground for the devil. In the guise of “privacy”, we now have abortion, contraception, pornography, and many other societal vices. I don’t believe we, as created in the image and likeness of God, have a right to secrecy/privacy. From the inner life of the Trinity, does the Father keep secrets from the Son or the Holy Spirit? Of course not! What the Trinity has, and since we are made in this image also have, is not a right to privacy or secrecy, but a right to intimacy. This is a fundamental quality of a true covenant.

    When a young newlywed couple puts a sign on their hotel room door

  • Fred

    I can see a role of secrecy in the Church related to the international relations of the Holy See with various nations. I can see a certain level of confidentiality regarding relations between the Church and the Christian ecclesial communities, or interreligious dialogue, as diplomacy is a delicate pursuit and can involve details we rank and file Catholics are not adept at handling.
    There is a certain common sense “sense” though where need-to-know is the rule in order to properly complete a task. What I find disconcerting is the secrecy-in-denial that is so operative in the Church. The fact that I was reading in one of the few catholic media publications that Catholics who were aware of the scandals before the story broke in the secular media is indicative of the type of secrecy often at work inside the bureaucratic workings of the hierarchy. I do not begrudge bureaucracy per se as I understand that it is necessary for governance and is oriented towards a specific task rather than efficiency. Efficiency, like excessive transparency, can facilitate or automate things that require deliberation and review more than speedy processing. I do begrudge the “shadow church” of heterodox heretics, schismatics and apostates who do not submit to the truth of Christ, nor those who misuse ecclesial offices to promote a message other than the gospel. It seems “secrecy” and “need to know” has often become the modus operandi of the revolutionary dupes and infiltrators (like the homosexual network outlined in “Goodbye Good Men”) in order to protect their insurgence and propel their subversive political machinations in order to recreate the Church in their image.
    It is this latter type of secrecy that needs to be blown open wide in a “sting-like” operation to expose the servants of darkness to God’s light, and thus bring discipline, cleansing and healing to the Body of Christ. Even then, some secrecy is employed because you do not want the spider at the center of the web to know you know she’s there and that you are coming for her.

  • Marjorie Murphy Campbell

    As matters stand, secrecy is an obstacle even to the discussion of secrecy. [/quote=Russell Shaw]

    The problem is not a secular sense of secrecy. It is an historical culture of avoidance of scandal. We, as Church, are called to understand the embedded value of avoiding scandal – so easily confused with secrecy and cover-up. “Avoiding scandal” is embedded in Church and canon law. The adversion to scandal has served the Church well for centuries; recently it’s harmed the Church (in my opinion). But that it is our issue … avoiding scandal. That our clergy, Bishops and Magisterium serve this canonically embedded concern, should, in my opinion, interest us all.

  • David Ambuul

    It is easy for secular media to abuse the Church over her necessary use of secrecy at times; they have many organs and are generally not in love with her. But it is interesting how this secular media treats the Federal Reserve Board, on the other hand. They don’t tell us the names of members on their boards or how much tax they have to pay as the private corporation that profits from the printing of our country’s money. This wasn’t so before 1913 when we had the disasterous congressional sessions that brought us both the Fed and the IRS, a tax on labor and, in my opinion, an illegal form of state sanctioned slavery (for honest, hard, working people). But these ideas are never, or barely ever, raised by our secular counterparts. Shame on them for how they have mercilessly picked on us for our over-inflated abuse scandal that has brought the world so much vitriol.

  • annmarie

    Just a thought. In keeping with the “penumbra” of secrecey, I have noticed that many Catholic places on the net do not welcome comments, CNS being one. It betrays to me a certain hubris, an attitude of we know better or you cannot know anything or if you do know, we don’t want it advertised or promulgated.

    I have had the experience of writing to people in the Church, requesting a response and get not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my letter.

    A little transperancy and a willingness to deal with hard questions or even false accusations would do service to our Church I think.

  • AT

    Great piece and great comments. Recent past has show the critical importance of true, serious, investigative, reporting specialized in Catholic Church issues by people like Renner, Berry, Magister, Nunzzi (Allen is not in that league, imo).