Hiding behind altars

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone "with a good reason for wanting to know" emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

"There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn't know -- for sure -- who those 31 bishops where," said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book, "Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.

"The secret ballots were destroyed," he noted. "These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they've voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there's no way to do that."

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

Of course, noted Shaw, few leaders of powerful institutions enjoy discussing their crucial decisions -- let alone corporate or personal sins -- in public. When Catholic insiders complain about "clericalism" they are confronting a problem that affects all hierarchies, from government to academia, from the Pentagon to Wall Street.

"It's a kind of elitism, a way of thinking and behaving that assigns to the managerial class a superior status," he said. "They are chiefs and everyone else is an Indian. They set the agenda. They always make the final decisions. They get to tell everyone else what to do."

Of course, there's truth in the old image that puts the pope at the top of an ecclesiastical pyramid, with ranks of clergy cascading down to the pews. Catholicism is not a democracy and there are times when leaders must keep secrets. That's "a truth," said Shaw, but it is "not the only truth," since the whole church is meant to be knit together in a Communion built on a "radical equality of dignity and rights."

Part of what is happening, he explained, is that some bishops are protecting a "facade of unity" that hides their doctrinal disagreements with the Vatican. While Shaw believes the bishops are more united with Rome now than they where were about 25 years ago, some bishops may be pushing for more and more closed "executive" sessions as a subconscious way to protect themselves.

Take, for example, the brutal waves of scandal caused by the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. For several decades, argued Shaw, the bishops have been afraid to openly discuss "the causes of the dreadful mess -- nasty things like homosexuality among priests, theological rationalizing on the subject of sex and the entrenched self-protectiveness of the old clericalist culture."

That's the kind of scandal that creates global headlines. But, for most Catholics, more commonplace forms of secrecy shape their lives at the local level, said Shaw.

Consider another story reported in Shaw's book, about a woman who quietly confronted a priest after a Mass in which he omitted the creed. When he failed to acknowledge the error, she said, "Father, you teach your people to be disobedient when you disobey the Church."

The offended priest was silent. Then he leaned forward and whispered, "You know what honey? You're full of it." The priest walked away, giving the woman and her husband what appeared to be "the single-digit salute."

Truth is, said Shaw, "clericalism is often alive and well at the local level. That's the kind of secrecy and dishonesty that really cuts the heart of many local parishes, destroying any hope for real Communion there."