ROME – As first reported yesterday by Loup Besmond of La Croix, Pope Francis apparently is considering imposing pontifical secrecy on the upcoming Synod of Bishops on synodality, not simply on opinions and votes, as was past practice, but on all issues addressed during synod discussions.
The stated aim would be to protect the frankness and honesty of those discussions. According to Besmond, such a provision is currently in the draft regulations for the synod being considered by the pope.
Assuming that report is correct, one certainly understands the underlying concern.
If something controversial or challenging is said inside the synod and then immediately broadcast to the world, it will be swiftly fed through the sausage grinder of left v. right ideological cat fights on social media and whipped up into a cause célèbre before anyone’s even had a chance to think about it, likely hardening positions and making consensus more difficult to achieve.
Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past decade must recognize that’s a real fear, suggesting that a defining challenge for the synod will be to resist the danger of ideological weaponization of its proceedings.
On the other hand, it’s reasonable to ask whether an imposition of pontifical secrecy would counteract that risk, or actually make it worse.
To begin with, there’s a question of optics. Pope Francis is a reforming pope, and one cornerstone of his clean-up campaign from the very beginning has been a pledge of transparency. In a 2015 session with the world’s cardinals ahead of a consistory, for example, Francis called Vatican officials to a commitment to “absolute transparency” as the only way to overcome the dubious legacy of past scandals.
For the pope to begin a summit designed to be the crowning achievement of his papacy with an imposition of secrecy, therefore, would seem in stark contract with those pledges. To put the point differently, in an effort to prevent division, he would risk stirring controversy from the outset – a classic case, perhaps, of destroying the village in order to save it.
On a more practical level, there’s a good argument that an imposition of pontifical secrecy just won’t work.
When I first arrived in Rome more than 20 years ago, Synods of Bishops ended with a set of propositions to be submitted to the pope, each one of which was voted on by synod participants. The content of those propositions and the vote totals were covered by pontifical secrecy, and the bishops and other participants were given strict warnings not to divulge them.
Like clockwork, however, Italian news agencies would publish the full text of the propositions along with the vote totals immediately after the balloting took place, in some cases just hours later.
Very little has changed over the years. During the 2018 Synod of Bishops on youth, for instance, pontifical secrecy allegedly applied to opinions expressed during synod discussions, yet news reports every day were chock full of detail on precisely the opinions voiced during the previous day’s session.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that three people can keep a secret, but only if two of them are dead. In a Synod of Bishops, we’re not talking about just three people but more than 400, counting not just the bishops and other participants but also aides, staff, translators, and others who for one reason or another are present in the synod hall.
The idea that you’re going to bring such a large group of people together for almost a month and keep a lid on what’s being said and done is little more than a fantasy, and one that’s arguably dangerous to indulge.
In truth, the most obvious effect of a decree of secrecy is to ensure that the narrative regarding the synod will be dominated by its most extreme voices, meaning people with agenda to push and axes to grind, who will talk about what’s happening regardless of what the rule book may say.
The people most likely to take a secrecy requirement seriously, by way of contrast, are those moderate voices inside the synod genuinely trying to enter into its spirit and to play a constructive role. If you gag those individuals, the only voices left will be precisely the ones whose penchant for ideological combat organizers most fear.
To be sure, these voices won’t necessarily speak out loud, in full public view. Instead, they’ll do it through well-timed leaks and third parties, but that will be more than enough to fill column inches, air time and social media posts with all sorts of fodder for criticism and snark. Such a dynamic would put synod spokespersons on the defensive from the beginning, struggling to counteract a poisonous narrative with both hands tied behind their backs, because, officially speaking, they wouldn’t be able to offer any information to the contrary.
The bottom line is that however infallible a pope may be on matters of faith and morals, it’s not within his power to prevent public disclosures about a Synod of Bishops. The only real choice is whether those disclosures will happen on his terms or someone else’s, and we’ll see in short order which way Pope Francis opts to go.