Lifting the Church’s Veil of Secrecy

At their general meeting in November 1999, the American bishops, by a vote of 223-31, adopted an “application to the United States” of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Later, someone with a good reason for wanting to know e-mailed me to ask who the 31 were who’d voted against this important, controversial document.

The question caught me by surprise. Information like that just isn’t made public. “I really don’t know,” I admitted. “Sometimes you can guess how individual bishops voted, but unless they tell you, you can’t be sure. People at the bishops’ conference won’t say, and I’m not sure even they know.”

My questioner let it go at that, but the incident started me thinking: Is this situation desirable? When bishops, gathered in a public general assembly of their national organization, decide a question of great importance to the entire Church, is there some compelling reason not to tell the world how individual bishops voted? Mightn’t it be just the other way around—there’s a compelling reason to tell?

Any way you look at it, there is some kind of problem. Voting procedures of the national episcopal conference are only the tip of this particular iceberg. It is not that the leadership of the Church habitually lies—the “structures of deceit” alleged by Garry Wills in his book Papal Sin are edifices of his imagining—but that, time and again, truth doesn’t get told. Facts are suppressed, swept under the rug, hushed up. Sometimes the Church suffers as a result.

Inquiring Minds

Not long ago Bishop Diarmuid Martin, the savvy Irish secretary of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, stated an important principle of life in society today: “Negotiating things behind the scenes just doesn’t work anymore.” He wasn’t speaking of the Church but of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the wake of street demonstrations that shut down Seattle during the WTO meeting in fall 1999. Making all allowances for differences between the WTO and the Catholic Church, however, his principle applies to both. In both cases, negotiating things behind the scenes doesn’t work anymore because people today expect to be let in on decision-making that affects their lives.

There are many illustrations of the problems arising for the Church from withholding relevant information, or attempting to withhold it, in circumstances where that shouldn’t be done. The most egregious example in modern times was provided in 1962 by the first session of Vatican Council II. Hoping to keep the proceedings under tight wraps, Roman officials put a lid on news about what was going on. The gag rule was a dismal failure. The pseudonymous Xavier Rynne—Fr. F. X. Murphy, C.SS.R.—blew the lid off with detailed reports in The New Yorker, and neither the council nor the Church was the same after that. As is clear today, this misguided effort to use secrecy as an instrument of control simply played into the hands of Rynne and his sources.

Closer to home, there is a painful example of the harm excessive secrecy does in the handling of cases of clerical pedophilia in years gone by. When an incident came to the knowledge of Church authorities, they typically took steps to hush up what had happened, while sending the erring priest away for a spell before reassigning him. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, but it was a formula for disaster that, in many cases, set the stage for further acts of abuse and worse problems for the Church. When the truth eventually came to light, earlier attempts to sweep things under the rug added to the embarrassment and pain—as did the (now, fortunately, abandoned) no-comment policy with which many bishops, acting on lawyers’ advice, greeted the revelations.

A Tangled Web

The best historical study of truth-telling in Church affairs may be a book called Secrecy in the Church, published in 1974 by Richard N. Ostling, who was to become religion editor of Time and now is chief religion writer for the Associated Press. Ostling examined the roots and rationale of what he called “an entrenched culture of secrecy” in Catholicism.

A fair-minded man, he acknowledged that Rome’s opposition in the 19th century to freedom of the press and the right to know were partly a reaction against the virulent anticlericalism of the liberal press of that day, especially in Italy and France. But even so, Ostling argued, a “closed-door culture” was, at bottom, a contradiction for the Catholic Church. Catholic thinking traditionally expressed “great confidence in the reason of the individual human being,” but the practice of excessive and unnecessary official secrecy was “an admission that Church leaders look upon Christians as children, rather than as fully responsible members of the Body of Christ.”

Eventually, change set in. Confronted with repeated efforts by totalitarian states and dictatorships in the 20th century to suppress information and free speech and manipulate public opinion, Church leaders increasingly came to value freedom of information and expression. Ostling summarized the “theology of social information” developed by Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI in these words:

Access to information is justified, because it improves individuals and the community, but to do this the information must be ethical, sensitive to the nature of man, true, factual, and objective. Sin and untruth can be caused by omission as well as by commission…. Information should not be degraded into propaganda, appeal to man’s passions, or arouse one group against another. Information must stop short of harming a person’s right to good reputation and to legitimate secrecy in his private life.

Although Vatican II’s Decree on the Means of Social Communication (Inter Mirifica) contained a muted affirmation of a “right to information” in civil society, it was left for Communio et Progressio, the Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication published in 1971 by the Pontifical Commission (now Council) for Social Communications, unreservedly to affirm that there is also a right to know and a right to express oneself within the Church. Although not every opinion deserves a hearing, still, the Pastoral Instruction declared:

Since the development of public opinion within the Church is essential, individual Catholics have the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church…. The normal flow of life and the smooth functioning of government within the Church require a steady two-way flow of information between the ecclesiastical authorities at all levels and the faithful as individuals and as organized groups…. On those occasions when the affairs of the Church require secrecy, the rules normal in civil affairs equally apply…. Secrecy should therefore be restricted to matters that involve the good name of individuals, or that touch upon the rights of people whether singly or collectively.

Other official documents have taken the same line. For example, the 1983 Code of Canon Law affirms the right of public opinion in the Church. And a document called Ethics in Communications, published last June by the Social Communications Council, remarks that, although the Church sometimes needs—”in fact, is sometimes obliged”—to practice secrecy and confidentiality, this should not be “for the sake of manipulation and control.”

In particular cases, nevertheless, it can be hard to say where the practice of secrecy originates: In legitimate concern for privacy rights? A desire to manipulate and control? A genuine (but sometimes exaggerated or misplaced) desire to avoid scandal? Or simply in the hallowed principle that “we’ve always done things this way”? All of these motives appear to be operative at times.

When Secrecy Backfires

Motives aside, here are some current examples of secrecy at work.

First, the World Synod of Bishops’s deliberations are closed to everyone except participants, official observers, and staff. Journalists are briefed by press officers and given officially approved written summaries of what is said. News conferences, featuring participants chosen by the Vatican, take place in the Vatican Press Office. Bishops are instructed not to provide the texts of their interventions to reporters, give interviews, or have press conferences on their own (some do anyway). The synod’s recommendations to the pope are supposed to be kept secret (they usually aren’t). One way or another, a great deal of information comes out, but the official system reflects a desire to control what’s reported. It doesn’t work.

Second, whether or not it’s a good idea, the question of ordaining mature married men of good character and proven faith to be priests will be raised again early in the next pontificate as a way of meeting the shortage of priests in some parts of the world. When I said something like that to a Vatican official not long ago, he agreed but added at once, “You can’t say that in Rome these days.” This means a serious issue in the life of the Church currently is not getting the airing it deserves. This lack of open discussion could increase the risk that when the question finally is considered, it will be decided in a way that needlessly weakens the normative character of priestly celibacy.

A third example is homosexuality in the priesthood and religious life. There has been much speculation about the incidence of homosexuality among priests and seminarians in the United States. Everyone knows the issue is there, but the authorities have kept mum in public. Is that helpful? Are there reliable official numbers? Is there a national policy on ordaining homosexuals, or do individual dioceses have their own policies, or is there no policy at all? What are religious orders doing? Aren’t Catholics entitled to information— maybe even a voice—about the standards applied to candidates for the priesthood? Or is this the business of bishops and religious superiors only? Here is another area where lack of information and the absence of officially sanctioned discussion erode confidence.

Necessary Secrets

Sometimes, secrecy is absolutely required—consider the seal of the confessional and the confidentiality that necessarily surrounds pastoral counseling. The Pastoral Instruction cites two grounds for secrecy: 1) protecting reputations and 2) defending “the rights of people whether singly or individually” (a generic expression covering a multitude of legitimate interests and concerns). Secrecy is emphasized in Pope John Paul’s 1996 document Universi Dominici Gregis (The Lord’s Whole Flock), setting rules for electing a pope. In view of the precedents—everyone from emperors to angry mobs interfered in conclaves in centuries past—it is right to protect the integrity of the election process and shield the electors from outside pressure as much as possible.

Often, though, secrecy is a bad idea, wrong in itself, and likely to have bad results. A letter from a bishop regarding something I wrote about executive sessions at meetings of the American hierarchy sheds light on the complexity of this matter as well as the bottom line—truth-telling is desirable. He wrote:

Most bishops, I think, are willing to be publicly associated with their positions and do not fear the implications of the positions they support. The protection of personal reputations and the demands of charity are not the main reasons for closing so much business to the public. Most who are reluctant to keep open the channels of communication do so in the belief that the Church needs to be protected from giving any indications of disunity.

As a priest formed in the cauldron of the Second Vatican Council, I don’t have any reluctance to proclaim truth, even in circumstances that seem difficult. More scandals come from attempting to control access to truth than ever came from honesty and openness. The very worst scandal of our times in the Church has been the sexual predations of some priests. The attempt to keep such matters secret on the grounds of protecting reputations through the years simply allowed the evil to fester and grow, and when the dam of secrecy finally broke—as it always will— the whole Church suffered for its lack of candor.

When [measures to ensure secrecy] are employed because the matter is of such moment that it cannot be entrusted to the plebs, that decision seems to contradict not only conciliar documents on the right to know, it also calls into question the overall role of lay people to participate in Church decisions. I do believe, though, that the practice of executive sessions should not be completely done away with. There are some matters that should not be discussed in public.

For the Record

To give credit where it’s due, the U.S. bishops undoubtedly have the best record for openness among all the bishops’ conferences in the world. They voted in 1971 to open most sessions of their general meetings to journalists and observers and have done so ever since—a procedure unmatched by other episcopal conferences, which typically convene behind closed doors and only say what they’ve decided (if they say it at all) after the fact.

But the issue of secrecy and openness doesn’t end with bishops. Who knows what goes on in general congregations and other policy-making assemblies of women’s and men’s religious institutes responsible for so many programs and institutions that both serve and are supported by the Catholic people? By comparison with the religious, bishops are models of full disclosure.

But despite their generally good record, the American bishops sometimes do peculiar things. Before their Ex Corde Ecclesiae debate in November 1999, for instance, the leadership of the episcopal conference, fearing to risk a vote if there was any chance a document so strongly desired by the pope might be defeated, scheduled an off-the-record debate in executive session. It may have been a responsible way to proceed, but there was no public explanation, or even acknowledgment, of what was going on.

And how about those 31 bishops who voted against the “application”? When I asked the bishops’ conference whether anyone knew their names, I was told no. An official explained that when a written vote is taken, the bishops mark their ballots, but do not sign them, and place them in envelopes; then they sign envelopes so that there will be a record of who has voted—but not how—in case absent bishops must be polled. The anonymous ballots are counted without reference to the signed envelopes. “The ballots are retained at the conference, but since they are unsigned, there’s no record of how each individual bishop votes,” the official said.

Like the secrecy rules at a conclave, not saying how individual bishops vote is a hedge against pressure that makes it easier for them to vote their consciences. Unfortunately, the practice also undercuts accountability. And even though the Church is not a democracy and bishops are not the elected representatives of the people of God, who would argue that the accountability of pastors to the people they serve is not an important principle in the life of the Church today?

But, someone might object, the handling of bishops’ votes is not a good example of the secrecy-openness issue, since this is a case where there’s something to be said for both disclosing the information in question and not disclosing it. Quite so—and that’s the point: There is something to be said on both sides, but usually only the claims of secrecy now are heard. Secrecy is often reasonable and necessary in Church affairs. But before opting for secrecy, it would be well if the authorities gave serious thought to the possibility that, here and now, truth-telling would be the better course.

Behind the Scenes

As Ethics in Communications points out, withholding information—in the Church quite as much as anywhere else— can easily become an instrument of manipulation and control, serving the convenience of the governors instead of the interests of the governed. This is an area where self-deception comes easy to people at the top, since secrecy insulates them from second-guessing and shields them from blame when things go wrong.

Today, though, secrecy easily alienates people—makes them angry or just turns them off. Most people understand that not every sensitive fact about the inner-workings of groups they belong to can or should be spread on the record. But they have learned to take openness and candor in the exercise of leadership as the norm and are offended when the norm is violated for no apparent good reason.

The spread of democratic governance in secular society has brought pressure to bear on the Church in this matter in modern times, but fundamental questions pertaining to secrecy and openness in ecclesiastical affairs are not new. At the end of On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, published in 1859, John Henry Newman quoted from an account of the rejoicing of the people of Ephesus when the council of A.D. 431 declared the Virgin Mary to be Theotokos (Mother of God), as they ardently hoped it would do. Newman wrote:

I think certainly that the Ecclesia docens is more happy when she has such enthusiastic partisans about her as are here represented, than when she cuts off the faithful from the study of her divine doctrines and the sympathy of her divine contemplations, and requires from them a fides implicita in her word, which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition.

To put that another way: Negotiating things behind the scenes just doesn’t work anymore.


  • 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.

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