ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT DECISIONS the bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made was their refusal to go along with the secrecy that Vatican officials tried to impose upon them. The Vatican bureaucrats of the Roman Curia had long been used to the notion that they knew what was best for the pope's "subjects." The subjects needed only to pray, pay, and obey.
Instead, the bishops took their cues from Blessed Pope John XXIII, who believed that power is not to dominate but to serve. If they were going to serve the people, they concluded, they would have to make the people privy to what they were doing at this council, which wrote a charter that would give the church back to the people. Journalist John Cogley probably summed up the council best with one of his "Poems on Postcards" in America magazine:
Who Is the Church?
And so the giants of the council— Cardinals Leo Josef Suenens, Julius Döpfner, Josef Frings, Bernard Alfrink, Franz König, Augustin Bea, and the Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV— started leaking their speeches to the press. Breaking the rule of secrecy at that time seemed like a deliberate affront to members of the Roman Curia. But it wasn't only the rule-breaking that bothered the Vatican bureaucrats. The leakers were also giving us an inside look at a process that helped demythologize the church, and diminish curial power as a result.
For more than a month the bishops were locked in argument over whether to have the Mass in Latin or in the vernacular— the everyday languages of the people. As we overheard the pros and the cons, we realized that the church of God was pretty darned human. The church's pyramidal structure— God telling the pope, the pope telling the bishops, the bishops telling the priests, the priests telling the nuns, and the nuns telling us— just collapsed.
During the council's four sessions, many of the church's unnecessary rules also went kerplop. We stopped thinking, for example, that the church could send us to hell for eating a hamburger on a Friday. Instead, we began to focus on who we are and what we are here to do: trying to establish Christ's reign of justice and peace, here and now, on Earth, and, this way, obtain salvation. The Mass was no longer a thing in itself. The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist compelled us to go out and change the world.
All that should have helped create a new kind of people's church, but a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Members of the Roman Curia took the power back and bound it up with the glue of secrecy.
Over the past 22 years, we have seen 21 synods— meetings of bishops from various parts of the world— in Rome. In continuation of Vatican II, they were supposed to bring about a measure of democracy, but the synods were declared secret on the grounds that bishops who came to Rome were "accountable to no one but the Holy Father, and the Holy Father accountable to no one but Jesus. The Coca-Cola Corporation doesn't invite the press into its board meetings."
The quote comes from Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, who is in charge of the synod process. It was his answer to my asking him at a news conference to provide members of the Vatican press corps with a live TV feed of the synod's deliberations last October.
He seemed momentarily stunned when I suggested that the church shouldn't take its cue from Coca-Cola but from the gospel. If the Holy Father wants to be accountable to Jesus, I said, he should remember that in Matthew 25 Jesus identified himself with the poor and those who didn't have enough to eat. If the synod's deliberations were for the people, then the people needed to know about them. If they didn't know, then they were poor and deserved to be fed.
Schotte didn't know how to answer that. Later, after the news conference, he asked me if I had anything to do with a one-page story in Newsweek about the consistory of cardinals last May. He wondered how Newsweek could give such a detailed report on an event that was closed to the press. I said I was amazed myself, because the pope's own press chief, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, had tried so hard to cover it up. But Navarro-Valls' move was trumped by a few Vatican reporters who succeeded in finding cardinals— like Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Theodore McCarrick of Washington, and Godfried Daneels of Brussels— who were happy to give us copies of their talks.
Only a week before, I had written an open letter to Navarro-Valls, complaining that his press briefings were thin and sometimes even misleading and asking him what he was trying to hide. I pointed out that the Holy Father had called the cardinals to Rome "to present their ideas for a new evangelization," which means finding new ways to bring people the Good News.
"If this news is so good," I wrote, "why conduct your discussions about it in secret? Or is the church preparing to launch a new kind of stealth gospel?" I suggested that Navarro-Valls was captive to those curial officials who feel they needn't tell anyone anything except what they choose to parcel out. "Are we talking about a power problem here?" I asked. Navarro-Valls didn't respond.
Now, all unwitting, Schotte was answering my question about power. He told me that American presidents have to be accountable to the people, because "in the United States, the people are sovereign. In the church, the pope is sovereign. We cannot do anything to destroy his soverneignty."
Now it was my turn to be speechless. As someone who became fully formed in the faith at Vatican II, I could not believe a high Vatican official was still speaking of the pope as an absolute ruler, much less say he is accountable only to Jesus.
Other than Schotte, I cannot find many in the Vatican who hold that view, in theory at least. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the chief defender of the faith, is fond of using the concept of communio to describe the family of the church, which he says is supposed to model the perfect communication that goes on between the three divine persons of the Trinity itself. No secrecy there. Archbishop John Foley, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, has written beautifully about the church's need to follow the communications model of Jesus, who insists on "candor and truthfulness in others, while condemning hypocrisy . . . and any kind of communication that was perverse." Foley quotes Pope John Paul II: "We want to make the church into a house of glass." That doesn't sound like secrecy either. In theory.
In practice, however, the official church, in Rome at least, falls far short of Ratzinger's communio. Ratzinger himself stays aloof from press inquiries, Navarro-Valls has issued an order that no one inside the Vatican is to speak to the press without his prior approval, and, while the pope seems to like the house-of-glass metaphor, Schotte is still going around and pulling down all the shades.
Sometimes the official church seems to do its darnedest to cover up for priests in trouble. Last summer, my colleague Rory Carroll, a correspondent in Rome for The Guardian in England, took a trip to Signa, a village outside Florence, to hear an African priest, Father Athanase Seromba, explain to parishioners why the United Nations Tribunal for Rwanda sought his extradition on charges of genocide.
Seromba, 38, is alleged to have participated in the 1994 extermination of 800,000 minority Tutsis by the ruling Hutu tribe. Survivors claim the priest, a Hutu, herded up to 2,500 Tutsi parishioners into his church at Nyange before ordering two bulldozers to crush them in one of the genocide's most notorious bloodbaths.
Carroll didn't find Seromba in Signa. Neither did U.N. officials who had come looking for him. The Italian government refused to hand him over. A church spokesman, Riccardo Bigi, said the hierarchy had provided a hiding place in Tuscany to help Seromba escape media attention. "We know where he is but would rather not say where. He will spend a few days in peace to avoid curious journalists. I don't know when he will return."
Sadly, as numerous recent revelations of scandals in the United States as well as other countries have made clear, the official church has also frequently covered up for priests accused of sexual abuse.
The crux of the problem is that the official church simply isn't accountable— and won't be until a pope will take the practical steps to make it accountable. One good way to start: Renounce this sovereignty dodge. Another way: End the culture of secrecy.
Robert Kaiser is a contributing editor of Newsweek in Rome and the dean of the Vatican press corps. He recently published his memoir, Clerical Error: A True Story (Continuum).All active news articles