Does the Church Have too Many Secrets?


Is there too much secrecy in the Church?

The Catholic Church has a right and a duty to practice secrecy when it is necessary to protect important human goods, especially the good name and privacy of individuals. The need is particularly clear and compelling in regard to the seal of confessional—the serious obligation imposed on priests (and anyone who overhears a confession) never to disclose what is said in the sacramental context.

The Code of Canon Law says the sacramental seal is "inviolable" and adds: "It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason" (canon 983). A confessor, the Code says, is "absolutely forbidden" to make use of information acquired from confession "when it might harm the penitent" (canon 984).

The Church’s right and duty to keep secrets exist in other situations as well—for example, information obtained in pastoral counseling. These rights also extend to situations beyond the strictly religious sphere where religious groups have the same rights and duties as any others: for instance, the right to protect legitimate economic and business interests; the right to keep policy deliberations about sensitive matters out of the spotlight if premature publicity would jeopardize the working of the policy itself; the right to respect the privacy of people who haven’t done or said anything that others need to know about.

In these matters as in many others, the right and duty of the Church to practice secrecy and confidentiality are immensely important to the Church’s leaders and members. At a time when identity thieves and other snoopers are serious problems, the values at stake here merit respect and protection.

A Less-Than-Candid Approach

The abuse of secrecy is another matter. It’s been a factor in some of the most serious problems of the Catholic Church for a long time. The problem exists at all levels in the Church, from parishes to the national level and beyond. The sex abuse scandal is a particularly painful case in point. So are the financial scandals in Church-related institutions and programs that periodically have plagued Catholic life in the United States and other countries. So is much else—for instance, the way bishops are chosen, the way religious institutes that depend on public support conduct their internal affairs, and on and on. Secrecy doesn’t cause sex abuse or financial hanky-panky or any other specific form of misbehavior. But repeatedly it has been a contributing factor making offenses more likely as well as harder to detect and correct.

Responding to something I had written about this problem, a bishop once sent me a long, heartfelt letter that said in part:

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 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.

As for Church finances, in the spring of 2006 the Archdiocese of Boston, in desperate economic straits, published a highly detailed financial report showing a $46 million operating deficit. The report was praised as a model of transparency that other dioceses should follow. But at least one archbishop brushed off that idea. "It’s easy for the data to get misinterpreted," he commented dryly (Emily Stimpson, "Seeking To Restore Trust, Boston Discloses Finances," Our Sunday Visitor, May 21, 2006). Here was a variation on a theme heard in many settings besides the Church: "If we tell them the whole truth, they won’t understand. Let’s tell them a little less than the whole truth."

It’s no mystery why people who’ve done something wrong often try to keep it secret. But they aren’t the only ones. People in leadership positions in many fields not uncommonly keep a lid on information in order to manipulate others.

When they find out what’s happened, people who’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes typically react with anger and alienation. Ethicist Sissela Bok says victims of deception typically are "resentful, disappointed, and suspicious. They feel wronged; they are wary of new overtures. And they look back on their past beliefs and actions in the light of the discovered lies" (Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 20). It hardly needs saying that this was the immediate reaction of many Catholics to the sex-abuse scandal.

An Attitude of Superiority

In the Catholic Church (and probably in other churches and religious bodies as well, though other churches aren’t my concern here), the abuse of secrecy is repeatedly linked to clericalism and the clericalist mentality. That statement needs careful explaining, though, lest it be taken as more inflammatory than it’s meant to be or as an anticlerical cheap shot at priests.

In speaking of clericalism, I’m not talking only about the clergy. The jumble of ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that make up clericalism and the clericalist mindset are by no means limited to the clergy, either in the Catholic Church or in any other denomination. The clericalist mentality is at least as common—today, it may even be more common—among lay people than it is among priests.

The essence of clericalism is a certain mindset, a way of thinking about persons, relationships, and roles within church settings. The clericalist mindset assumes that priests (and, to a lesser degree, religious) are always the people in charge—the natural decision-makers, direction-setters, and initiators of action in the Church. Lay people make up a permanent ecclesiastical under-class. They are by nature passive and subservient, in need of clerical direction.

A distorted idea of vocation lies at the root of all this. It’s an idea that equates vocation with what is usually called "state in life," overlooks the reality of personal vocation, and takes for granted that the clerical state is intrinsically superior to all others (i.e., the consecrated life, the married state, the single lay state in the world).

If the clericalist idea of vocation were correct, it would follow inescapably that being a lay person was an inferior calling. In that case, the laity could move up in the Church only to the extent that they somehow resembled priests. (This way of thinking underlies exaggerated enthusiasm in some circles for lay ministries—roles like reading Scripture and distributing Communion that only clerics could formerly perform.)

Cover-ups Breed Corruption

Secrecy props up clericalism. As in secular settings, so in the Church, the abuse of secrecy serves as a useful tool in the hands of a managerial class bent on keeping outsiders in the dark.

The cover-up of clergy sex abuse provides terrifying examples of that. With few exceptions, bishops and religious superiors who hushed up crimes by priests they supervised—thereby making it possible for them to repeat the crimes—were intelligent, conscientious people acting on behalf of what they saw as the welfare of the Church. That included avoiding both scandal and potentially huge settlement costs. But the clericalist mentality in combination with the abuse of secrecy also played a big role in what happened.

Speaking in general terms, Sissela Bok says:

Long-term group practices of secrecy . . . are especially likely to breed corruption. Every.aspect of the shared predicament influences the secret practice cumulatively over time: in particular the impediments to reasoning and to choice, and the limitations on sympathy and on regard for human beings. The tendency to view the world in terms of insiders and outsiders can then build up a momentum that it would lack if it were short-lived and immediately accountable. (Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, 106, 110)

There’s an echo of that in a groundbreaking document published by the all-lay National Review Board established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 to monitor the bishops’ tough new policy on child sex abuse. In a report on "causes and context" of the sex abuse crisis, this document specifically links clericalism and secrecy to the abuse scandal.

Clerical culture and a misplaced sense of loyalty made some priests look the other way . . . Clericalism also contributed to a culture of secrecy. In many instances, Church leaders valued confidentiality and a priest’s right to privacy above the prevention of further harm to victims and the vindication of their rights. . . . The impulse to avoid scandal at all costs manifested itself in several ways. . . . [C]hurch leaders kept information from parishioners and other dioceses that should have been provided to them. Some also pressured victims not to inform the authorities or the public of abuse. (Report: Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse Crisis, Origins, March 11, 2004)

The Review Board also spoke of the need for Church leaders to hear and heed the concerns of lay people. "To accomplish this," it said, "the hierarchy must act with less secrecy [and] more transparency . . . "

Doors Opened . . .

General meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—the episcopal conference of the United States—reflect the ups and downs of policy and practice regarding secrecy over the last four decades.

At present, the American bishops hold two such meetings, in June and November, in most years. Every third year in the spring they substitute a retreat-style session for a business meeting. These retreats, devoted to prayer and reflection, are entirely closed to outsiders—and no one can reasonably object to that. (But there are grounds for objecting when closed-door "retreat" time is used to transact business pertaining to matters of major concern to all the members of the Church. That happened in June 2004, when, at a closed-door gathering billed in advance as prayer and reflection, the bishops heatedly debated and finally adopted a statement on communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians.)

As for the bishops’ business meetings, they are in principle open to accredited journalists and designated observers. This policy apparently is unique among episcopal conferences of the world, which generally prefer to meet in private. The American bishops also preferred that for many years.

A half-century ago, annual assemblies of the American hierarchy took place in November on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington. The quiet, closed gatherings rarely were noticed by the press. Then came the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when enormous media attention focused on bishops and what they did. Accordingly, when the U.S. bishops resumed their general meetings in 1966, they had a new structure, a new agenda, and a new way of doing business.

The assembly had moved from a university campus to a downtown Washington hotel. Representatives of the media were invited. Unfortunately, though, the bishops sought to be newsmakers from behind closed doors. Journalists and observers were physically excluded from the meeting. Information was supplied to the press corps through briefings that were subject to censorship. Leaks were common. Spin abounded. The reporters grew increasingly annoyed at what they considered an attempt to manipulate the coverage. The system came close to breaking down in November 1968, when the bishops debated and adopted a lengthy document setting out their response to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, which had appeared in July, together with their views on the Vietnam war.

I joined the bishops’ conference staff as director of information shortly before the general meeting a year later. The annual meeting was still entirely closed, and relations between the bishops and the press had hit rock bottom. The bishops were defensive, angry, and remote. The journalists, hostile and suspicious, got their revenge with sometimes hateful coverage. Clearly the bishops were hurting themselves by holding their meetings—for no good reason, it must be said—entirely in executive session. For their own sake, they needed to change.

Two years later, in November 1971, they did. The bishops voted 144-106 to allow reporters to be present at their deliberations and extended similar approval to designated observers, 169-76. (That the observers got quite a few more yes votes than the journalists says a lot about the bishops’ view of the latter.) The first open general meeting took place in April 1972 in Atlanta. Richard N. Ostling of Time called it "extraordinary." He wrote: "This had never before been permitted in the U.S., or hardly anywhere else, in modern times. The U.S. bishops’ move . . . was the end of an era in which secrecy was virtually an unquestioned fact in policy formulation" (Secrecy in the Church: A Reporter’s Case for the Christian’s Right to Know, 30).

The open-door policy has been in place ever since. On the whole, the bishops, the media, and the people of the Church have been well served. Open meetings are not a mere favor to media. They are a service to the Church, since only via the media can most Catholics track what the national conference of bishops does.

. . . And Doors Closed

Some time in the early to mid-1990s, however, change gradually set in. From the start, the bishops had exercised their unquestioned right to conduct some portion of the general meeting in executive session. This usually meant one afternoon during a meeting that ran, in the fall, three-and-a-half days. But now, little by little, the time spent behind closed doors started to expand.

By June of 2006, at the assembly in Los Angeles, two days out of three were closed. In November 2006, it was one day out of three. In November 2007, out of a total 22 hours’ meeting time, eight hours were closed to reporters and observers, including four hours for executive sessions, three for "prayer, reflection, and [a] holy hour," and one hour in which the bishops met in regional groupings.

Why this shift in the direction of secrecy? No explanation has been offered up to now. Some items on the agenda of the bishops’ conference these days very likely do warrant the closed-door approach. Lacking any publicly stated rationale, however, it’s hard not to think the present generation of bishops simply feels more comfortable that way.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as information director of the bishops’ conference, I argued for openness on the essentially pragmatic grounds that bishops were doing themselves harm by maintaining a secrecy policy that didn’t even work very well: The policy was making the media angry for no good reason; people who cared about the bishops and their work were confused and upset; everybody would benefit if the bishops cut way down on the secrecy.

I still think that’s true. As noted above, the Church has a right and a serious duty to keep secrets and preserve confidentiality in certain matters. But unnecessary secrecy is counterproductive. In 1971 the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission (now, Council) on Social Communications published a "Pastoral Instruction"—still the Church’s most comprehensive official statement on media work—which says religious authorities are entitled to practice secrecy on two, and only two, grounds: "matters that involve the good name of individuals, or that touch upon the rights of people whether singly or collectively" (Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, Communio et Progressio, 121).

Now, though, I understand that the reasons for openness go far beyond the merely pragmatic. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Excessive use of secrecy in the conduct of Church affairs makes difficult, even impossible, the full realization of the Church’s identity as a communio —a community of human persons in communion with one another and with God. Bishops’ meetings are only one example among many of that principle at work.

We Need to Talk

In any group or community, communication among the members is necessary for its health and proper functioning. But communication is doubly necessary among the members of the Church. Echoing popes in calling public opinion within the Church "essential," the Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communications says Catholics have "the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church." This applies to "the faithful as individuals and as organized groups," it adds (Communio et Progressio, 119-120).

Ecclesial communion has a vertical dimension, of course (it begins in the relationship with God), but it also has a horizontal dimension (it involves the relationships of God’s people with one another). The systematic abuse of secrecy in Church affairs conflicts with this fundamental principle concerning the nature of ecclesial communion by rendering some members of the Church unable to act as full, active, responsible, and essentially equal participants in its life and mission.

That doesn’t mean the Church should never practice secrecy—sometimes it should and it must. But the presumption should be on the side of openness and accountability, with the burden of proof resting with those who think secrecy is needed in a particular case. When differences arise, prudence is the standard for deciding who’s right.

Communion in the Church is a spiritual reality that far transcends ordinary human community and communication. But grace builds on nature, and ordinary human standards of community and communication must be respected for the sake of ecclesial communion itself. Pope Benedict XVI got it just right a few years ago when he said: "We cannot communicate with the Lord if we do not communicate with one another" (Homily to the Italian Eucharistic Congress, May 29, 2005).

SIDEBARS

Not Just a Catholic Problem

Abuses of secrecy aren’t a problem only in the Catholic Church. The same problem seems to exist just about every place in contemporary society—in government, the military, and the private sector. And, it should be added, in public schools.

Last year an investigation by the Associated Press covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that from 2001 through 2005, at least 2,570 public school educators had had their teaching credentials revoked or denied, or had surrendered them or were otherwise sanctioned, following charges of sexual misconduct. But the problem is even larger than that number suggests. "Most of the abuse never gets reported," the AP reported. It found "deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse" among fellow public school teachers, educational administrators, and state and federal lawmakers.

(Source: "Sexual Misconduct Plagues Schools," AP Story, October 21, 2007. AOL News. )

Further Reading

  • Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok (Random House)
  • Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church by Russell Shaw (Ignatius)
  • Communio et Progressio (Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication) by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications (available at www.vatican.va)
  • To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity by Russell Shaw (Ignatius)

 


Russell Shaw is the former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and author of 20 books.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 4.