The Problem of Secrecy

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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

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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.

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