Unmaking Silence, Secrecy and DenialC


Silence, secrecy and denial 

Jesus’ was sent

 ”to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives“(Luke 4: 18)

Public proclamation of this “good news” of God’s love for us and healing of the sick and suffering are the keystones of Jesus’ mission. He rejects secrecy and silence in the light of this:

“… nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26-28)

He is relentless in naming false news and confronting false prophets. Because he speaks God’s truth to power, he experienced lies and secret plots against him. He also condemns hypocrites who speak one way and act in another as “whitewashed tombs” (Matt 23:27)


COVID-19 has revealed the crucial role of leadership truth-telling in a time of common crisis. Secrecy and leadership denial of the significance of the new coronavirus as it emerged in rural China has resulted in millions worldwide experiencing serious illness and death. Egregious failures of responsibility have been demonstrated by some world leaders, including President Donald Trump’s denial of science and defiance of public health policies.

Even as the nightly news provides gruesome graphs tracking disease and death across the globe, there has been widespread denial of personal risk. The pandemic has demonstrated the crucial importance of providing accurate, accessible information to all who are at risk. Paradoxically in our information age, this has become difficult because authoritative science and religious and ethical reflection are in conflict with personal and celebrity opinion.

Lesson: The pandemic reveals significant moral and practical challenges to truthful and courageous responses to common risks and the protection of the most vulnerable among us.

The clergy sexual abuse crisis

Silence, secrecy and denial are operative in every aspect of the crisis from abuse of individuals, the responses to allegations of abuse and minimization of the harm done, active cover up of cases, ‘gag orders’ and opposition to necessary changes to statutes of limitation to failure of acknowledgment of the underlying systemic beliefs and practices operative in the crisis.

Dominated by “The Pontifical Secret”, oaths of secrecy, secret files and an internal canon law separate from civil law, responses crossed national and ethnic boundaries manifesting a culture of silence and secrecy in the Church. A management strategy of protection of image and institution in order to avoid scandal, understood as loss of reputation dominated. (Doyle et al 2006)

Clergy sexual abuse of minors was not made public by examination of ecclesial conscience as information regarding the harms became known, but from civil and criminal law and investigative journalism. It was a sin that could be confessed and forgiven no acknowledgement of the person affected.

There is ongoing silence from many clergy, and some laity, who are unable or unwilling to address the issue due to burn-out and ‘tragedy fatigue’. There is continual secrecy and lack of transparency in not making public confessed, convicted or “credibly accused” priests. Some have become obsessed with naming all possible offenders and the retribution of legal suits.

The Church can learn from other disciplines. Psychology recognizes denial as a powerful and pervasive unconscious defense mechanism for coping with fear, guilt, anxiety and disturbing realities in personal, social and political life. Sociology studies the importance of social relations and recognizes that conspiracies of silence stem from our learning the bounds of acceptable discourse and the rules of denial. Political science brings attention to power in controlling the agenda and access to information.

Leaders are recognized as critical in creating the culture of an organization but power and self-focus can limit their ability to respond to moral issues. Forces fostering organizational silence include a distant and unapproachable management; a high level of dissimilarity between management and others in the organization; and policies and practices that centralize decision making and avoid negative feedback.

The long-term outcome of an organizational public moral failure is determined by how the moral and ethical contradictions are discussed and understood. They have also studied successful restoration of credibility after public moral failure. Apologies are necessary but not sufficient.

Dialogue and Synodality

The Church should be a powerful force for truth-telling and unmasking “false news” and denial of harm and injustice in society. While the Church has a record of speaking out about many ills in society, sadly, its own history teaches more about secrecy and denial than courage in confronting evil within the Church, recalling Jesus’ piercing question

How can you say to your neighbor, Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first, take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Luke 6 41-42)

Dialogue is key to fostering an understanding of both individual and ecclesial limitations and sinfulness. In the Church there is no real tradition of dialogue understood as a dynamic communication, with all participants functioning as both speakers and listeners. Dialogue has been understood in terms of obedience to authority which limits dialogue to obedience to authority and one-way communication from the top down. Dialogue requires recognition and respect for the gifts of all in the Church.

Pope Francis calls us to synodality which requires the participation of all the baptized at every level – in parishes, dioceses, and national and regional ecclesial bodies – in a discernment and reform that permeates the Church. It is rooted in a dialogic approach that finds its inspiration in the life of the Trinity – where there is continual dynamic communication of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – brings demands for conversion that arise from the dialogue itself. It also needs to recognize the different ways of communication especially for the marginalized…not used to ‘formal’ consultation. (Pope Francis 2021) Pope Francis has wisely said:

We are all living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values. (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 64)

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago created the Catholic Common Ground Initiative in 1996 to create a space and discourse to address divisions, reaffirm basic truths and to pursue their disagreements in renewed spirit of dialogue. Chief among those truths is that our discussion must be accountable to the Catholic tradition and to the Spirit-filled living church that brings to us the revelation of God in Jesus. Tragically, a movement to restore unity received little support from Church hierarchy because of their concerns about diminishing magisterial authority. (Bernardin & Lipscomb 1997)

UPDATE re Vox estis and reporting of bishops

Lesson: Unmasking secrecy, silence and denial requires attention to organizational culture and deep theological reflection and discernment

Key references

G.A. Arbuckle, 2019, Abuse and Cover Up: Refounding the Catholic Church in Trauma, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.

Brueggemann, W. 2001, The Prophetic Imagination (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

Nichoals P. Cafardi, 2008 Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’ Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

Donald Cozzens, 2002, Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Church, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.

Thomas P. R. Doyle, R. Sipe & P. J. Wall 2006, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. Los Angeles: Volt Press.

Bradford Hinze, 2006 Practices of Dialogue in the Roman Catholic Church: Aims, Obstacles, Lessons and Laments Continuum, NY

Pope Francis 2021 Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, Simon & Schuster, NY

Timothy D. Lytton, 2008, Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

The Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe, 2002, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church Boston: Back Bay Books.

Angela Senander, 2012, Scandal: The Catholic Church and Public Life, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN

Edgar H. Schein, 1985, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Reviving a Morality of Conscience and Virtue

“Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to complete them.” (Matt 5:17-18)

 “Alas for you Pharisees! You who pay your tithe of mint and rue…and overlook justice and the love of God…Alas for you lawyers also…because you load on men burdens that are unbearable, burdens that you yourselves, do not move one finger to life.” (Luke 11: 42-46)

Jesus is a faithful son of Israel and he keeps it laws. He does not hold to the strict letter of the Law but sees into the heart. He uses God’s standard of mercy in judgment. He is harsh with those who observe minor laws but fail to do justice and mercy.

Pope Francis has warned:

“We are all living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data-all treated as being of equal importance-and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.”(Evangelium Gaudii, no.64)

Church fathers were concerned with reflections on Jesus’ words and witness. Starting in the early medieval time, the focus had shifted to sins to be avoided and rules for hearing confessions and assigning penances. This sin-centered, act-oriented morality shaped responses in and through the abuse crisis.

Beginning in the 1950’s, there was an evolution in moral theology. Vatican II called for a restoration of the theological focus on the whole of the Christian moral life that integrated moral theology with Scripture, spirituality and theology. It taught that moral theology’s basic tasks were to providing the right vision for Christian disciples to assess perspectives on moral issues, and to present those truths and values that should inform decisions taken in faith.

Unfortunately, Pope Paul VI’S Humanae vitae reasserted the manualists’ approach. This created an ongoing rift between many of the faithful and Church teaching and between the hierarchy and moral theologians as demonstrated clearly in Veritatis Splendor.

Ancient Catholic doctrine on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience is clear.

“In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.” (Dignitatis humanae)

However, it was displaced in the 19thand early 20th centuries by magisterial authority, rules and demands for submission. Church teaching assumes an informed conscience. This formation comes from Scripture, tradition – especially magisterial or formal Church teaching – experience and science. For centuries, Catholics have believed that strictly following Magisterial teaching was following conscience. Conscience literally means ‘to know together.” While it is an intensely individual experience, it is formed and supported by a community.

Little pastoral attention has been given to the topic in recent times and there is significant difficulty in forming Catholic conscience in the contemporary culture of social media and blogs. Conscience, built upon strong virtues and the will to do good, becomes an instrument of discernment rather than strict application of the law.

UPDATE conscience info

In keeping with Jesus’ focus on the heart and linking morality with Scripture, there has been a revival of interest in virtue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of [her]self. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; [s]he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions” (no. 1803). 

The infused theological virtues are faith, hope and charity. The moral virtues can be learned. The cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. In the spiritual sense, attention to virtue focuses on forming and supporting hearts and minds. They focus on the question “What type of person ought I become?” Virtues empower us to act in certain ways. Individuals become virtuous with and through the inspiration and guidance of others. In such a view, rules and laws are not discarded but provide guidance and wisdom from past experience that helps a person discern the right or good action in a particular situation.

Love, mercy, reconciliation and hope characterize our understanding of Christian virtue ethics. Ultimately, it is the theological virtue of charity/love that must be paramount, as charity is the animator and binder of all of the other virtues. Any reform and renewal in the Church must be animated by love: love of God and love of others. This love mirrors the love in the Trinity



Key References

Conscience refs UPDATE

Joseph Bernardin. & O. H. Lipscomb 1997, Catholic Common Ground Initiative: Foundational Documents. New York: Crossroad.

John Mahoney, 2006,The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition Oxford Clarendon Press.

Bernhard Häring, 1967, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, Vols. I–III, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser, Westminster, MD: Newman Press, vii.

Daniel Harrington and James Keenan, 2002, Jesus and Virtue Ethics: Building Bridges between New Testament Studies and Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward Lanham, MD.

 James F. Keenan, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences (London: Continuum, 2010).


For Discernment:
  • What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?
  • What are the central organizational issues in need of reform consistent with beliefs and practices?