Is There too Much Secrecy?

“Is your book like Scott McClellan’s?” an interviewer asked me that the other day, thereby suggesting a possible parallel between the former White House press secretary’s insider tell-all volume about the Bush administration and my new book about the issue of secrecy in the Church.

I had to disappoint him.

I haven’t read McClellan’s book, I said, but from what I’ve heard about it, Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church is very different. As a former information director (1969-87) of the Catholic bishops conference of the United States, I’m not out to settle scores, I’m not trying to make myself look good, and the points I make are meant to be constructive — to help the Church to be more fully in fact the communion of persons that in essence it already is.

But is there really too much secrecy in the Church? I’m convinced there is. The sex abuse scandal and cover-up provided the great horrible instance of that. The financial scandals that pop up now and then in dioceses and parishes are other examples. And leaving spectacular disasters aside, there is a seemingly widespread, day-in, day-out default of candid, comprehensive communication about Church affairs. To put it simply, too many key decisions affecting everyone get made behind closed doors.

Not many official Church documents address these matters, but those that do point in the opposite direction — away from secrecy toward openness. The clearest and best statement along these lines remains this passage from in the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio published by the Vatican’s Council for Social Communications in 1971:

“The spiritual riches which are an essential attribute of the Church demand that the news she gives out of her intentions as well as of her works be distinguished by integrity, truth and openness. When ecclesiastical authorities are unwilling to give information or are unable to do so, then rumor is unloosed, and rumor is not a bearer of the truth but carries dangerous half-truths. 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” (n. 121).

Since Vatican II, the Magisterium has repeatedly embraced the understanding of the Church as a communion or community of persons. This goes by the name communio ecclesiology.

It is a rich, complex concept that I don’t have the space to develop here. But open, honest communication among the members of the ecclesial community — and especially between the pastors and the people — clearly is a necessary part of it. Pope Benedict XVI several years ago got to the heart of the matter in this lapidary sentence: “We cannot communicate with the Lord if we do not communicate with one another.”

That doesn’t mean the Church may never practice secrecy — sometimes it should and must. But the presumption ought to be on the side of openness, with the burden of proof resting upon those who consider secrecy necessary in a particular case. When differences arise, the virtue of prudence should be exercised in deciding who’s right.

In talking with people about these things, I’ve found that most Catholics recognize the existence of a problem. But the problem has seldom been examined closely — up to now, that is. In writing Nothing To Hide, newly published by Ignatius Press, my hope was to launch what I see as an overdue discussion for the good of the Church. Sorry, but if you want to know what Scott McClellan has in mind, you’ll have to ask him.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • JimAroo

    I have tried communication with my Bishop about several matters of concern, from mildly disturbing to serious liturgical and financial abuses. I always present an attitude of concern for the diocese, its people and their salvation and that I am sure he would want to know about these problems. I do not use a sarcastic or accusatory tone.

    Every time my letter is treated like the FBI in the Nixon White House – passed from person to person, lies are told, everyone acts like they are criminals. No one ever says simple words like these: “Thanks for writing, JimAroo. I can understand why this situation is of concern to you. I will look into it and be assured of our concern. Amen” I know such words are a simple sop to the complainer but they would be far better than the way I am treated.

    The secrecy is NOT just about “the abuse of young adolescent boys by homosexual priests” (that is the accurate title for the sex abuse scandal). It is about financial management, liturgical questions (not even real complaints sometimes),
    requests for clarifications about public statements,priest behavior, or even minute details. As soon as the letter is opened the obfuscation begins – it is an inherent response in church officials. From big things to little thing, lies and secrecy always. Tell me, Mr. Shaw, what are these people so afraid of? Or is my experience only typical of the Archdiocese of Cardinal Roger Milhous Mahony?

  • Cooky642

    No, JimAroo, it is not!

  • mkochan

    I am posting this message to Jim Aroo on behalf of Russell Shaw :

    I don’t know anything about internal practices and procedures in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, so I’ll pass on that. In general, however, what’s described here is a response typical of the clericalist mentality to what it perceives as uninvited criticism from a lay source. I discuss this in my book. Vatican II called on pastors to listen to what the laity have to tell them, but it’s clear that after 40 years many haven’t gotten the message yet.

  • nativity



    1. The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided.(1) Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.