It was in 2012 that I last wrote on this subject of secrecy. Only a year before, Archbishop Hepworth still had secret dealings with Rome and “everything would be all right”. A month later, the bombshell exploded about the sexual abuse allegations. Blogging, secrecy and accountability – meaning someone was trying to keep a sinking ship afloat by denying the gash in its hull and the flooded compartments. After a time, all that is left on that bit of the ocean are a few lifeboats full of grieving survivors and a lot of dead bodies and debris.
Is the big secret the fact that nothing is left?
I remember the padded double door of my old superior’s study, in case a curious seminarian should be listening at the keyhole. I often speculated about tapping his phone or installing an electronic bug, just like in the James Bond films… We didn’t, because we only half-believed in what lay beyond the door of the Finis Africae, and we thought that spying would be morally wrong. I recommend reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – and I mean reading the book and not watching the film with Sean Connery and the 007 associations. Set in fourteenth-century Europe, this book is a fine psychological study of the psychology of secrecy. The Venerable Jorge is as twisted a character as anyone could imagine!
“It was the greatest library in Christendom”, William said. “Now”, he added, “the Antichrist is truly at hand, because no learning will hinder him any more. For that matter, we have seen his face tonight”.
“Whose face?” I [Adso] asked, dazed.
“Jorge, I mean. In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, who does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth”. “But, master”, I ventured, sorrowfully, “you speak like this now because you are wounded in the depths of your spirit. There is one truth, however, that you discovered tonight, the one you reached by interpreting the clues you read over the past few days. Jorge has won, but you have defeated Jorge because you exposed his plot….”
“There was no plot”, William said, and I discovered it by mistake”.
The assertion was self-contradictory, and I couldn’t decide whether William really wanted it to be. “But it was true that the tracks in the snow led to Brunellus”, I said, “it was true that Adelmo committed suicide, it was true that Venantius did not drown in the jar, it was true that the labyrinth was laid out the way you imagined it, it was true that one entered the Finis Africæ by touching the word ‘quatuor,’ it was true that the mysterious book was by Aristotle. … I could go on listing all the true things you discovered with the help of your learning…”
“I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental. I arrived at Jorge seeking one criminal for all the crimes and we discovered that each crime was committed by a different person, or by no one. I arrived at Jorge pursuing the plan of a perverse and rational mind, and there was no plan, or, rather, Jorge himself was overcome by his own initial design and there began a sequence of causes, and concauses, and of causes contradicting one another, which proceeded on their own, creating relations that did not stem from any plan. Where is all my wisdom, then! I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe”.
“But in imagining an erroneous order you still found some-thing…”
“What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you. The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless.
We are often tempted to think that secret knowledge confers power on us, an advantage over common humanity. It was the worst aspect of Gnosticism and modern Freemasonry. A selling point many conspiracy theory authors have is to persuade the buyer that the knowledge he is divulging is secret. In fact it isn’t – the fact the book, documentary or whatever is published. Many films attract the viewer’s attention by simulating the private divulging of a secret. An example is the Hunt for the Red October and the message that nothing of what you will see ever happened. We are stimulated, even when we know that the secret isn’t secret.
Obviously I’m not talking about state or military secrets, for example, how to make and arm an atomic bomb. Most of modern warfare is intelligence and counter-intelligence. I am not talking about information a parish or diocese holds on persons, for example, details about a nullity trial and the intimate information about the lives of the man and woman concerned. I am not talking about the seal of the confessional. There are things about which we keep our mouths shut because they are nobody else’s business.
I make distinction between things we just cannot divulge about ourselves or other people – on one hand – and the unhealthy culture consisting of making everything a secret and making it a tool for gaining domination and power over others.
Very often, we get people saying I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anyone. If we accept the information, we create a dependency on that person and accept being bound. We have to discern. If it’s a part of our Church business, it’s part of the job. With other individuals, it’s perhaps best to reply that we don’t want to know.
Christ told us that the truth would make us free. Keeping secrets can ruin our lives, keep us on a tether, ruin relationships, waste us away. I recently read this quote of Goerge Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” The secret is an illusion of potency and power, but when we possess it, it takes away a part of our consciousness. It becomes a useless piece of baggage getting in the way of everything in our home. Secrecy, even when legitimate, is often the cross a priest carries throughout his life. It is a part of life, but has to be reduced to what is truly necessary to protect ourselves or others.
Secrecy can also be criminal, like in the Mafia where they use the technique of omertà. It is often used in the institutional Church to cover up heinous scandals and crimes against humanity. It was a part of the seminary life I knew a little over twenty years ago.
Perhaps our greatest fear is being “outed”, revealed to the world. We have to keep or regain our innocence, that there may be no secrets or fear of “coming clean”. Secrets are in a way like lies, and ever increasingly intricate webs have to be woven to protect them. To be a good liar, you have to be absolutely and rigorously logical and coherent. Contradict yourself just once and you are refuted and outed. The opposing lawyer has got you, and then you have to come clean – and you lose your credibility. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. You can gnash your teeth but you are finished.
Secrecy should be used only for the gravest of reasons and for the sake of integrity, like for example the seal of confession. Someone’s sins don’t even concern the priest. The priest is only ministering on behalf of God, to help the penitent make a sincere examination of conscience and to give the sacramental Absolution. I have had the experience, and the grace of forgetting the information so that I would be incapable of divulging the secret. It isn’t even a secret, because the information is gone, forgotten, forgiven by God. Not so with the frivolous secrets of power-seeking clerics…
Only the truth and a limpid soul can set us free. As I said in another posting, I am glad that there is no culture of secrecy in my Church. There are things I don’t talk about, because they are nobody else’s business, at least not until things are seen in their entirety and worked through. Things discussed in meetings are usually implemented rapidly or put through Synod, and then they concern everybody. We don’t let things fester on for years without anything being done. In some Churches, I just see a kind of cloying inertia, obstructed by big secrets, but in reality containing nothing of substance. We need to grow up.
It is time for some people to stop playing games and get on with life!