The people's right to know -- even in the church

by Tom Roberts

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The current back and forth over what Cardinal Francis George and the other bishops may have said or not said about the Catholic Health Association and other Catholic groups prompts a larger question that is rarely discussed at the episcopal level. Do church leaders have an obligation to disclose their discussions about matters that affect the church? And if so, how far does that obligation extend? Indeed, do church members have a right to know?

Increasingly in recent years the substance of the business of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has gone more and more behind closed doors. It's been some time since I've covered one of the sessions, but I understand that reporters no longer have easy access to bishops at coffee breaks to ask questions about what just happened on the floor. Perhaps for all sorts of reasons, such a move was necessary, but it is nonetheless unfortunate.

In the secular world a consensus exists that those who do the public's business should conduct it, as far as possible, in the open and under public scrutiny. The bishops are not representatives in a democracy, but they do conduct business that can deeply affect the lives of many. How open should they be? How much access should we have to their conversations when they are discussing Catholic groups and approaches to public policy?

If the bishops feel they have to create more formal steps to gaining access then they should work all the harder to make themselves available, and to do more of their work in open session. I had the experience of an archbishop telling me last year that most bishops disagreed with those who wanted to punish politicians who did not toe the episcopal line on abortion.

Why shouldn't we know of that disagreement? Why does such information only come from someone willing to speak an opinion about a closed session?

Publisher Joe Feuerherd in his first note to readers this week mentioned one of the central tenets of NCR's founders -- that the intent of Catholic journalism should be to gather as much information as possible about what is going on in the church.

Another principle articulated eloquently in an early 1960s speech by Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray to Catholic journalists was the public's right to know. Even inside the church, he said, the right of a community to know what its leaders were thinking and deciding and discussing was virtually without limit.

The founders of NCR put that speech in brochure form and handed it out when it began promoting the publication. Inherent to the peopel's right to know is a right to access and an expectation of transparency.

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