Monday, June 02, 2008

Through a Glass, Darkly: Secrecy and the Catholic Church

One of the charges that we sometime hear in Orthodox Church circles is that this or that bishop or idea is "Catholic" and not Orthodox. Often by "Catholic" what is meant is a decision or idea that (rightly or wrongly) appears to its critic as authoritarian.

Over the years as I have heard this type of complaint made I've had a number of different thoughts. One is to question criticizing an idea or policy by associating it, unfavorably, with another Christian community. This isn't like saying "You throw like a girl" when we mean to say that a boy lacks athletic skill.

The second though I have is that, frankly, there are times when I wish the Orthodox Church was as well run as the Catholic Church (and yes, I heard the gasps--from both my Orthodox readers who are appalled and my Catholic readers who must be wondering "How poorly is the Orthodox Church run if he admires us?!") Let me say quickly, I don't have desire to throw over Orthodox ecclesiology. Nor have I any illusions about the administrative operations of the Catholic Church. What I do have is a desire to see both communities draw closer together and as a step along the way I think both can learn from each other about the day to day goverance of their respective communities.

All this is by way of a longish introduction to an interview with Russell Shaw posted on Inside Catholic. Shaw, a regular contributor to Inside Catholic, has just published his 20th book, Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), in whcih he "takes a candid and sometimes surprising look at the abuse of secrecy in an ecclesiastical context."

While the whole interview is worth reading, I would draw the attention of my Orthodox readers to some of the following in Shaw's interview (my emphasis and my comments).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
Inside Catholic: What moved you to write a book about secrecy in the Church?

Russell Shaw:I guess I first became conscious of the problem in 1969, when I went to work for the bishops' conference as director of information. At the time, the bishops' relations with the press were in terrible shape, and much of the tension focused on the bishops' general meetings. They were entirely in executive session, with no reporters and observers allowed in. Yet the bishops invited reporters to come to the meeting and cover it -- which they did, partly by means of briefings and partly by means of leaks. Needless to say, there was no good reason for all that secrecy. The situation was a mess and very harmful to the bishops' own best interests.

Don't you think there's a place for secrecy and confidentiality in the Church?

Of course there is. As a matter of fact, I make the case for secrecy in the book. The seal of the confessional is the strongest example of strictly obligatory secrecy, but the duty to preserve privacy pertains in pastoral counseling situations. Furthermore, the Church has the same right to confidentiality to protect its legitimate interests that any other group has, along with the common obligation to respect people's privacy rights.

My point isn't that there has to be total disclosure of everything. It's that the assumption in doing the Church's business should be in favor of openness and accountability, with the burden of proof resting on those who favor secrecy in any particular case. [One of the things that the parish I serve does very well is hold open monthly parish council meetings. In addition to annoucing the time and date of the meeting, they also post the minutes on the parish bulletin board. Most important, in my view, is that comments and questions form visitors are encouraged by having a visitors' forum on the monthly agenda.]


[Is] there anything special about the abuse of secrecy in the Church?

Yes, there is. The clergy are the management class in the Church, and in that context the abuse of secrecy becomes a typical tool of the clericalist culture. It's clericalism at work.

Furthermore, abusing secrecy is contrary to the Church's nature as communion -- a communion or hierarchically structured community of faith in which all the members, as Vatican II taught, are fundamentally equal in dignity and rights. But you can't have real equality in dignity and rights in a community in which a large body of members are routinely denied information that they need to function as full, equal members. That's how things are now.


But ever since Vatican II haven't we had structures and processes of consultation to prevent what you're talking about -- pastoral councils, finance councils, things like that[and the Orthodox Church had had these in place especially in America since the beginning of our time here]?

On paper, yes. But in many places, if not most, they don't seem to be working very well. What did diocesan and parish councils do to detect and prevent sex abuse? Nothing -- evidently they were frozen out, kept in the dark. In lots of parishes and dioceses, nobody knows who the council members are or when they meet or what their agenda is or what they do. There's a common impression that very often -- there are exceptions, of course -- the main role of these bodies is to be a sounding-board and rubber-stamp decisions by the authorities.

Isn't the problem larger than secrecy?

Yes, it is. As I say in the book, the abuse of secrecy has a number of cousins -- stonewalling, happy talk, spin, deception, failure to consult, rejection of accountability, things like that. The family resemblance is that, like secrecy, these are all breakdowns in the open, honest communication that ought to be the rule in the communio of the Church.

Has the Church officially taken a position on this question?

Well, it hasn't said a whole lot. But you will find some excellent statements of principle in Communio et Progressio, a pastoral instruction on communications published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 1971. It calls for a "steady, two-way flow of information" between Church authorities and the faithful, and says people have a right to "all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church," while secrecy should be limited to cases of necessity.

This Vatican agency has returned to the same subject several times in documents it's published since then, and Pope John Paul II touched on the theme in his last public document before he died, Il Rapido Sviluppo (The Rapid Development). Pope Benedict laid down the basic principle of internal communication in the Church several years ago. "We cannot communicate with the Lord if we do not communicate with one another" is how he put it.

What do you suggest be done?

My book ends with some practical recommendations. For instance: adopt policies that guarantee openness in conducting the business of dioceses and parishes and religious institutes; make a fresh start with pastoral councils and finance councils by giving them a real say in decisions and making their proceedings public; give qualified lay Catholics a consultative voice in the choice of their bishops and pastors; put freedom-of-information policies in place in Church institutions; allow diocesan newspapers to be more than house organs and operate as reliable sources of information and vehicles for public opinion. We have to revive the ideal of shared responsibility, too -- not as part of a power struggle, but so that we can all work together for the welfare of the Church.

Basically, what's needed is a new way of thinking -- a commitment to the proposition that openness and accountability really are the way to go because they're expressions of what the Church is and how it's meant to operate. When people grasp that, the abuse of secrecy ought to fade away But I'm realistic enough to recognize that, human nature being what it is, the temptation to go behind closed doors and practice secrecy will always exist.

This is the third entry in a multi-part, multi-week series on the issue of clericalism in the Catholic Church. The project will continue tomorrow with a discussion/dialogue on whether or not faithful Catholics may criticize a bishop publicly, and will conclude Friday with an online symposium, including dozens of prominent Catholics from various perspectives, offering their own analysis and solutions. All the articles will be gathered into a single printable volume, available for free download at the end of the week.

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