Endemic secrecy in the Catholic Church

Throughout the child sexual abuse Royal Commission the inquirers regularly asked why institutions not only tolerated child abusers but actively concealed their crimes. Secrecy was endemic in the culture of these institutions.

Those in positions of power and influence chose to abide by the mainly unspoken rule that scandal had to be avoided and the truth not revealed. When it came to the Catholic Church this overt hypocrisy has undermined the community’s trust and fuelled the increasing cynicism that now confronts its leaders.

For those of us who have worked within the institution and remain loyal to its faith community, living with the culture of secrecy is not new. In many ways it has been ingrained into the clerical/lay divide. From the sacrament of reconciliation to the ‘clerics only’ advisory committees, there has been an aura of secrecy that somehow has been deemed acceptable as part and parcel of Catholic culture.  The assumption was that clerics knew best and would always work in our best interests. Secrecy was too easily confused with confidentiality, as was concealment with prudence. That is why the Catholic community itself has been complicit in perpetuating an opaque culture, where calls for accountability and transparency have been marginalised by those obsessed with control and ‘issues management’.

Frankly it comes as no surprise to find the same secret approach being adopted for the Plenary Council. Take for example the recent concern about the preparation of the official strategic working document for the Plenary CouncilInstrumentum laborisThe fact the its contents remain secret raises questions of trust. Can the laity be trusted in a genuinely open dialogue? Why else would such a central document not be shared with the Catholic community in the spirit of synodality that is meant to underpin the Plenary Council? Is it because the Plenary organisers don’t wish to declare that they are not placing on the table all the issues raised during the consultations? Does the document reveal the drafting of recommendations that in turn demonstrate a nuanced, less even handed interpretation of the issues? Again, how will we know? One thing for sure,  we will be left in the dark over the changes made by the Vatican to the document before a public version is circulated.  Is this to protect the image of the Vatican, and in turn that of the Holy Father?

For bishops and those who aspire to higher clerical posts the Plenary Council poses a cocktail of challenges. Some see it as the last shot in the locker to generate enthusiasm for an increasingly irrelevant institution. Others shy from the prospect that traditional church teachings may be publicly challenged. Still others are simply non-plussed as to how to negotiate the ‘non negotiables’ with an ever evolving out spoken laity. No wonder the default is to control any aspect of the process that canon law enables.

From the outset the restraints of canon law on the prospects of a democratic and representative Council were recognised. Whether it was exactly who would and wouldn’t be eligible to vote at the Plenary, through to who could chair the proceedings, canon law sets the rules. Consultation and participation of the laity have been encouraged, though novel ideas like a ‘people’s congress’ alongside the formal Plenary have not.  Even the appointment of a lay woman as co-chair of the Plenary seems to be a bridge too far. Why? Is it canon law or is it ideology? Is it inertia or has it never been realistically considered? We don’t know because no-one is saying. No-one in ‘the know’ that is. And that is the issue. The Church is adept at playing ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. It is a power play. The laity are brought into the fold when it suits. And with it compliance and orthodoxy go hand in hand. The culture expects it and the leaders insist on it. Mainly because the leaders are likewise bound by the same obligations to ‘hold the line’ both ideologically and organisationally. Despite what is said, when push comes to shove all eyes turn to Rome when serious decisions concerning Church life are on the tableCanon law effectively is the template of what can or cannot be permitted. The fact that the laity, like most clerics, have not been educated in the canons, leaves the situation open to subtle manipulation. Yet it could be so different.

There clearly was a time when the lay Church took all this on the chin. It was the way things were. Internal Church processes, to the degree that they if they known, were trusted by the laity as being in the best interests of the Church. But the days of blind trust are over. The outing of secrecy and Machiavellianism have put paid to that. Yet the leaders appear to have ‘tin ears’ when it comes to recognising the mood of today’s Catholics. It beggars belief that claims of a lack of accountability and transparency can still be levelled at the Church‘s processes after the revelations of the Royal Commission. Even more confounding is that some of those with the influence to insist on accountable and transparent measures are themselves standing idle or remaining mute as disenchantment in the lay community festers.

Action trumps rhetoric. There is still time to retrieve the situation and at least release a precis of Instrumentum laboris. The time is ripe to announce a lay woman as co -chair of the Plenary proceedings. And given the delayed start a ‘people’s congress’ can still be organised to interface with the Plenary Council so that a more comprehensive and inclusive assembly can enliven what otherwise appears to be a constrained and clericalized canonical chatter

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Francis John Sullivan AO is a teacher, administrator, and leader in health care organisations, who was CEO of the Catholic Church in Australia's Truth, Justice and Healing Council, in addition to being the previous Secretary-General of the Australian Medical Association.

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