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Can the Vatican reform pontifical not-so-secrecy?

“Pontifical secret” is one of those mysterious-sounding pieces of Church jargon that you won’t find anywhere else — the sort of phrase which cloaks the ordinary administrative business of the Church in an air of intrigue, and gives writers like Dan Brown the fodder to drum up fantastical tales about albino monks and hidden codices.

A “Sub Secreto Pontificio” stamp. Credit: file photo/The Pillar.

It’s one of many. The Church calls its privileged personnel files “secret archives,” and has a class of canonical crimes with the mysterious sounding title “reserved delicts.”

In strictly legal terms, the pontifical secret is a defined level of professional confidentiality in the Church’s administrative life, which binds curial officials who work on the composition of papal documents, some canonical processes, the appointment process of bishops, and numerous other projects undertaken in the Vatican.

But among ecclesiastical bureaucrats, there exists also such a corpus of urban legends and myths about what the pontifical secret actually is, and how it works, that the way it functionally operates in chanceries and dicasteries often differs markedly from place to place, and from the Church’s defined rules on the matter.

There are also the well-known pseudo-definitions that aim to capture how the pontifical secret actually works in ecclesiastical circles. One such definition says the pontifical secret means “you can only tell one person at a time.” Another says it means that “everyone knows but the pontiff.”

The pontifical secret is, in short, the sort of thing that even those responsible for applying and overseeing don’t always entirely understand, or apply in the manner defined in canon law.

Consider a papal effort to redefine the pontifical secret’s scope.

In a December 2019 text, the pontiff stated that “the pontifical secret does not apply to accusations, trials and decisions” related to the crimes delineated in Article 1 of Vos estis lux mundi. Those crimes include, inter alia, clerical sexual abuse, and obstruction or negligence in the handling of complaints related to the same crimes.

To date, several bishops in the United States remain the subject of investigations under the norms of Vos estis. Yet, despite the pope’s decree, Church authorities have often remained resistant to confirming even the reception of a Vos estis complaint, still less the opening of an investigation, and never the progress of a canonical process, unless they are compelled to do so by public outcry.

Indeed, journalists who report on previously undeclared Vos estis complaints and processes sometimes find the only responses they receive to their enquiries are angry calls from Church officials, chastising them for asking awkward questions.

Given the confusion over the whole matter, it’s worth asking whether Pope Francis, or a future pontiff, might decide to streamline even more the pontifical secret. As the pope reportedly continues to tinker with his reforms to the structure of the Roman curia, it is possible that the rules of pontifical secrecy might get another overhaul — one designed with consideration for the flow of information in a digital age.

Such an overhaul might look at the place of the pontifical secret in the appointment process for bishops.

On Monday of this week, The Pillar published news that the Archdiocese of Louisville was soon to have a new bishop. The report came some 24 hours in advance of the official Vatican announcement — but it also came after the word of the imminent appointment was floating freely in more than one ecclesiastical circle, and among clerics who could hardly be said to be on a “need-to-know basis.”

The appointment of bishops is the sort of Church business which falls technically under the pontifical secret — although in the practical application of the secret, there are differing accounts about who incoming bishops can tell about their new jobs, and who is actually bound to keep the matter confidential.

In reality, many clerics find out who their next bishop will be when they’re told in winking confidence. Like most appointments, Bishop Fabre’s elevation to Louisville was spread fairly widely among local clergy for more than a week before the formal announcement.

Still, the shroud of the pontifical secret hangs over the whole thing. The appointment is made, the deal is done, people are told in hushed tones, but the secret still binds — and that phenomenon creates a kind of secrecy theater, and a currency of information waiting to be spent, often imparted as a sign of friendship or status.

The theatrical expectation of secrecy - much vaunted but hardly honored - creates a culture of gossip — exactly the kind of thing which the pope has warned against.

How this might be changed is a matter for Vatican deliberations. One consideration is thoughtful reflection on which things actually need to be confidential — especially as the Church increasingly promises transparency in her affairs.

But the status quo, as it stands, leads to the sort of rules Pope Francis says are the worst ones — the unenforced and disrespected rules, which can engender disrespect for the entire rule-making apparatus.

Whether the pope will reexamine the pontifical secret remains to be seen. But if he does, clerics will likely hear about it quickly — but only one person at a time.

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