Synodal Secrecy: Is a Tightly-Controlled Information Flow the Best Way to Go?
COMMENTARY: The Vatican spokesman has said media will have limited access to Synod on Synodality's sessions in keeping with past synods, and information reports on discussions will keep participants comments anonymous.
One day 30 years ago, a priest engaged in media work for the Church and I stood chatting outside the Vatican’s massive, modernistic audience hall, the place where synods are held, when I had what I thought was a good idea: Why not a synod on communication?
“Bad idea,” my companion corrected. “The media would tear us to pieces for holding a synod on communication behind closed doors.”
So now the Synod on Synodality is here — it opens at the Vatican Oct. 4 and continues to Oct. 29 — and, like its predecessors, it will be held behind closed doors, with carefully tailored information fed to reporters concerning what’s happening.
That suggests an unavoidable question: If the “synodal Church” that Pope Francis wants is to be the open, transparent affair he speaks of, is a closed-door synod with tight controls on the information flow the best way of launching it?
The Holy Father explained the thinking behind the synod’s information procedures during the flight home from his recent visit to Mongolia.
There had been talk about livestreaming the synod, but the Pope said a firm “No” to that.
“We must safeguard the synodal climate,” he explained. “This isn’t a television program where you talk about everything. No, it is a religious moment, a religious exchange.”
At a news conference several days later, Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican communication department, said there would be some limited livestreaming — the opening Mass, talks by two synod officials and a few other events, but none of the sessions in which the synod participants would speak their minds.
Instead, Pope Francis had said on the plane, reporters would get information about the proceedings via a daily summary prepared by a committee headed by Ruffini. It would not identify any speakers by name, Francis explained, but the Ruffini group would be “very respectful of the speeches of each person and will try not to gossip but are to recount things … that are constructive for the Church.”
One can certainly share the Pope’s desire that the synod retain its character as a spiritual event. But why would naming people who spoke at the synod be in conflict with that? Can’t everyone involved be trusted to say what is “constructive for the Church”? And however conscientiously the Ruffini group does its work, doesn’t the whole procedure smack of trying to manage the news?
In the end, of course, the biggest practical problem with the plan is that it isn’t practical. It is ironic that the synod, sometimes described as completing the work of Vatican Council II — which after its first session became a model of open communication — should take place in semi-secrecy behind closed doors.
Considerably more than 300 participants plus some staff will be at every synod session, and some will have no hesitation about talking privately to reporters. The journalists can be counted on to locate those inside sources — or the sources will locate them — thus creating an underground information flow beyond what the official summaries provide.
For those with long memories, all these precautions mirror attitudes prevailing half a century ago among U.S. bishops opposed to opening their closed general meetings to the media. After twice rejecting the idea, however, they eventually voted in November 1971 to admit credentialed press and designated observers. The vote for the observers was 169-76, while the reporters were okayed less enthusiastically, 144-106.
The first open meeting took place the following April in Atlanta, with 75 accredited journalists there. Time magazine called it “extraordinary.” As far as is known, the U.S. bishops’ conference was the world’s first to allow direct coverage of its meetings by Church-related and secular media.
In opting for open meetings, the bishops reserved the right to meet in executive session when they chose. In the decades that followed, they stuck by that policy, generally having one closed-door session per meeting but otherwise allowing journalists to be present.
In recent years, though, the pendulum has swung the other way, with more and more time in executive session at assemblies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The usual explanation is that the bishops don’t want to be seen disagreeing among themselves. But it’s common knowledge that bishops sometimes disagree, and letting themselves be seen doing that would educate people to the complexity of issues they often must face.
Similarly, the argument that the synod’s character as a spiritual event requires closed-door sessions would seem to apply even more strongly to the truly sacred events on the program like the Mass and moments of prayer. Yet the plan for the synod calls for those things to be livestreamed but not the substantive discussions.
Against this background, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that conducting the synod in semi-secrecy is an odd way of moving ahead in creating a synodal Church where communication among all the faithful is supposed to be honest and transparent. And as that suggests, what is fundamentally at issue here is not media relations but ecclesiology.
In a book called Nothing to Hide (Ignatius, 2008) I discussed the events surrounding the U.S. bishops’ decision to open their general meetings to the media, as well as other situations in which the practice of secrecy worked to the disadvantage of the Church. Notable among these latter was the sex-abuse debacle, which one bishop whom I quoted called “the very worst scandal of our times.”
At the end of the book I wrote that failures of communication reflect the reality of a Church “which at one and the same time is the spotless bride of Christ and a band of sinners. … When we speak of reforming the Church by open, honest communication and accountability, we are speaking of reforming ourselves.”
As the Synod on Synodality prepares to get underway, I still think that’s true.
Russell Shaw was in charge of media relations for the Catholic bishops’ conference of the United States from 1969 to 1987 and director of information for the Knights of Columbus from 1987 to 1997. He was a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications for 15 years and is a visiting professor of communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.