Russell Shaw, a long-time communications spokesperson for the Catholic bishops in the US, has issued here a cri du coeur beseeching the hierarchy to reform their ways of communicating with laity and the larger public. Writing from the vantage point of a devout and conservative Catholic, he exposes how their reliance on secrecy has corrosive effects for both their own status and the life of the Church. The immediate cause precipitating his reflections, of course, is the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the disastrous cover-up attempted by the Catholic hierarchy. But Shaw’s treatment of the issue is much more extensive and substantial, in that he attempts to uncover what he believes are some of the underlying causes for this abuse of authority and to offer his recommendations for addressing the problem.
The core of Shaw’s claim is that the pervasive abuse of secrecy by the bishops is a systemic, structural, and ecclesiological (that is, theological) problem. It is grounded in “clericalism,” by which he means an elitist mindset, along with the social patterns and practices sustaining this attitude, which holds that clerics are somehow intrinsically superior to other members of the Church and thus deserve automatic respect and deference. The lay persons are expected to be passive and dependent upon this clerical caste. The attitude of clericalism, Shaw is quick to observe, is not limited to the hierarchy; it is widely shared by the laity as well. This attitude insulates leaders, providing them with an illusory sense of invulnerability and sustaining their reliance on secrecy while making most of their decisions.
After providing a few examples from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of the disastrous consequences of following a policy of secrecy, Shaw explains how, on the theological level, the Church appeared to have come to terms with the modern media, particularly since Vatican II. While the document on the media, Inter mirifica, was commendable, it failed to apply its teaching to the Church. Still, the call for engagement with the world proclaimed in Gaudium et spes and the ecclesiology of communion fostered by Lumen gentium appeared to rule out clericalism and the abuse of secrecy. And Paul VI’s Ecclesiam suam, especially nos. 115-116, was a call for openness and honesty within the Church. Unfortunately, according to Shaw’s account, the habit of clericalist dominance supported by the continuing use of secrecy squelched the incipient growth of shared responsibility. Shaw claims that this was sealed by a letter from the Vatican in the early 1970s that discouraged the practice of national pastoral councils.
Shaw tries to make a case for openness and accountability within the Catholic Church by appealing to moral principles enunciated by Germain Grisez. He acknowledges that this presumption of openness must function within reasonable boundaries, such as the seal of confession. To account for what he takes to be the divine establishment of the episcopal office, for example, Shaw concedes that the hierarchy is not strictly accountable, but they are accountable in a “loose” sense of the term. This is a way for public opinion to function as a way of informing the hierarchy of the success (or failure) of their policies in a variety of areas, including (but not limited to) finances. This sort of practice, he argues, fulfills the theological vision of the Church as “communion” much more adequately than one dominated by a clericalist culture.
This is an inviting vision, yet one that is not likely to be implemented by the hierarchy even with all the qualifications offered by Shaw. His conservative orientation cannot allow him to countenance the notion of a “sharing” of power between the laity and the hierarchy. Any group with a power sharing agenda – as he might characterize the VOTF – is beyond the pale. He is left, then, with appealing to the bishops to accept “cooperation by consultation” as his way of implementing a spirituality of communion. As Shaw’s study shows, however, unless there is a real sharing of power, the likelihood of his attractive vision of openness and accountability within the Church being implemented by the hierarchy is practically nil.