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open & shut

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jun 02, 2008

There's a very interesting discussion with Russell Shaw at Catholic Insight regarding his new book, Nothing to Hide. Shaw is calling for greater openness and accountability among Catholic bishops -- about which he'll get no argument here -- while admitting the (vital but limited) need for institutional confidentiality and sacramental secrecy. He's right about just about everything. I think Shaw overstates his case, however, and to his disadvantage, in the reply below:

I was one of those who helped get [the U.S. bishops] to open the meetings, starting in 1972. That arrangement worked well for the next 20 years, but starting in the mid-1990s, when I was no longer with the bishops' conference but was covering the bishops as a journalist, I realized that, without any announcement or explanation, they were spending more and more of their meeting time in secret session behind closed doors. Once again, there was no good reason for so much secrecy. So I started writing about that and about secrecy in the Church in general.

Then came 2002 and the sex-abuse scandal. The cover-ups were a big part of it. Now it was clear that the abuse of secrecy wasn't just counterproductive -- it was capable of doing very serious harm in a very serious matter.

The really pernicious secrecy has to do with the double-blackout that permits bad bishops to tell one set of tactically expedient and exculpatory lies to Rome, and another set of tactically expedient and exculpatory lies to the faithful, so as to render their covert misdeeds beyond criticism or reproof. Closing the bishops' meetings to journalists and others doesn't really count as secrecy in this sense -- anything controversial said to a room filled with 300 men is bound to leak out eventually -- and in fact a closed-door session allows good bishops to address the bad guys with a candor that is not possible when the meeting is audited by reporters and nationally televised.

In Shaw's favor it should be said that many of the bishops' flakier initiatives -- especially those concerning women and the liturgy -- were derailed or at least diluted because outsiders were able to attend the open sessions of the national meetings and communicate the looniness of the proposals to the faithful, who in turn passed on the alarming news to Rome and to their fellow Catholics. No one who remembers the fate of the bishops' infamous "Away in a Feedbox" version of the children's lectionary will underestimate the importance of open meetings for the wholesome participation of the faithful.

Yet many of us still remember how Cardinal Bernardin was able to manipulate the "open" sessions so that forthright criticism was seldom voiced and the national meetings served to reinforce the picture of a harmoniously progressive national episcopate united under his enlightened leadership. So for years this system cruised along untroubled. On the other hand, when the clergy abuse crisis was at high tide and the bishops went "on retreat" (their sovietism for excluding journalists from the business session) in their June 2004 meeting, there was at least hope that some candor might be exchanged and some teeth loosened as a result. As I've mentioned before, orthodox Catholics look on the bishops' meetings as Eastern Europeans looked on the Yalta summit: the more smiles on the faces of the men emerging, the more certainly precious possessions have been given away.

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  • Posted by: - Jun. 02, 2008 10:18 PM ET USA

    I'd like to see a poll of real (Mass attending, Sacrament receiving) Catholics on their trust of 1) the clergy, and 2) the hierarchy. Trust of the clergy is certainly declining as parish priests serve multiple parishes and have more time off for retreats and support groups. Because of news reports of clergy misdeeds, it is difficult for the laity to trust someone they don't know. Trust of the bishops, singly and collectively, is declining for obvious reasons.

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