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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

August 12, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 89




Pat Morrison Psst! Wanna hear a pontifical secret?

By Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

At this writing, the buzz about a "secret Vatican document" hasn't yet made it onto Jay Leno or "The Daily Show." But it certainly is getting media play. (See Aug. 15 NCR, page 12.)

The obscure Vatican document, Crimen Sollicitationis in Latin, was issued in 1962. The headlines calling it "a secret document" aren't off target: In fact, instructions on the very first page of the 39-page document direct that it be stored in the secret archives of each diocese, that it not be published or even commented upon. (Apparently Rome was relying on the zipped lips and steel-trap memories of diocesan archivists to remember the thing was there -- and dust it off in the event a bishop might hear about it and want to peruse it.)

The reason a 41-year old internal church protocol is getting U.S. media attention today is that it dealt with establishing a canonical procedure for cases in which priests were accused of abusing the sacrament of penance to sexually proposition penitents -- hence the title, which translates as "The Crime of Solicitation." But what's also feeding the media's interest is the fact that Crimen Sollicitationis deals with yet another arcane church practice: "the pontifical secret." And in the climate generated by the clergy sex abuse crisis, where top church leaders have been accused of cover-ups, it's no wonder that anything having to do with secrets, pontifical or otherwise, makes the media salivate.

What most people don't know is that there are any number of instances when the church can impose pontifical secrecy. In 1974 the Vatican issued Secreta Continere, which outlines 10 areas in which pontifical secrecy can apply. They range from appointments of bishops to Vatican investigations of theologians and other church personnel.

Confidentiality certainly has a place in the church. Every corporation and civic institution deals routinely with issues that require confidentiality, employee salaries and personnel records being just a few that come to mind. Most professionals, from doctors and school principals to parish secretaries and law enforcement personnel, operate within a framework that requires and safeguards confidentiality. Most thinking people understand that confidentiality is part of protecting the common good.

But pontifical secrecy goes considerably further than mere confidentiality. Violate confidential information at most businesses and you'll get a pink slip. Break a pontifical secret and you're excommunicated.

That's right: Anathema, thrown out the church, in danger of losing your eternal soul because you are forbidden from receiving the sacraments.

Some years ago when I was working in a diocese, I was discretely summoned to the bishop's office. Behind closed doors, I was presented with an official-looking document obliging me to pontifical secrecy. The bishop duly impressed on me the seriousness of the situation: By violating this secret, by telling even one other single soul, I would incur excommunication. Did I understand the gravity of what I was doing? Sure. I signed.

Actually the "secret" was no such thing to the small troop of us who were summoned and admitted to the bishop's suite one by one. We looked around at the small cast of characters waiting to meet with the boss and figured it out pretty quickly. The bishop was getting transferred.

(The only reason I was in on the secret was because as diocesan editor I had to produce a 24-page "going away" special section, which was to be published the day the news officially broke. Since I was forbidden from telling anyone on the paper's staff, it meant working through several nights to write, edit and produce the thing -- not breathing a word of what I was up to in the office at 4 a.m.)

Driving home from work after I had been "placed under pontifical secrecy," I mulled over what it all meant. I've always been discrete and was taught to respect confidentiality, so keeping the bishop's (or the pope's) secret was no big deal. But I really couldn't imagine that if I did tell someone I would thereby gravely risk my salvation and severe my relationship with God. I knew all the theology about Petrine authority, the verse about "binding and loosing" applying in heaven as on earth, etc. But it still seemed rather silly that because someone in the Vatican decided to move a bishop, revealing that information was of such magnitude that my salvation was jeopardized because of it.

In the Middle Ages, threats of church excommunication and interdict sent terror into the hearts of the faithful. For one thing, both had political and economic ramifications as well as spiritual ones. His vassals and citizenry had no obligation to obey a king or an emperor who was excommunicated, and in fact could legally depose him (not the least reason that a "penitent" Henry IV knelt for three days in the snow at Canossa to beg the pope's forgiveness). Being placed under interdict -- banned from the sacraments -- meant, to the simple believers, that they would die outside the church's embrace and thus be damned. A city or village under interdict also could be ruined financially or even driven to starvation, as other believers were forbidden to deliver food and other necessities, or to do business with the interdicted populace.

Certainly, certain levels of confidentiality still have a place in the church. But when the institution, perhaps more than ever, is being called to openness and transparency in its dealings, it may be time to rethink -- or at least rename -- the "pontifical secret" with its attendant threat of automatic excommunication. It's no longer the Middle Ages, and thinking, adult Catholics for the most part don't fear being dragged down to hell by gruesome devils for violating confidentiality. God, it would seem, has more important things to do than damn some poor Catholic in Keokuk who slipped and told someone they were getting a new bishop. (To folks in Keokuk: You're not.)

"Secrets" have a big appeal to little kids and pre-teens. They play less of a role in the lives of mature, thoughtful believers. As a grown-up church, let's opt for respect for confidentiality and adult behavior and leave the secrets and their punishments to an earlier era.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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