Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 26, 2005
Media coverage of council inhibited by wall of secrecy
By JERRY FILTEAU
Catholic News Service
The Second Vatican Council generated what was then unprecedented media coverage of the Catholic Church, but journalists trying to tell the council story to the world had to overcome high walls of secrecy.
"The Church missed an immense opportunity to reveal itself to the world by its secrecy," Canadian journalist Bernard Daly told Catholic News Service.
Daly covered all four sessions of the 1962-65 council for the Canadian press as director of the Canadian bishops' English-language information service.
In his 2003 book Beyond Secrecy, on Vatican II and the role of the Canadian bishops, he wrote, "The more we learn about how the council worked and about what was said and done at it, the more we should regret the heavy price the Church paid for the secrecy that blanketed every stage of Vatican II."
History of Vatican II, a five-volume work by an international team of scholars headed by Giuseppe Alberigo, director of the Institute for Religious Sciences in Bologna, Italy, says, "The importance of the press becomes clear when we reflect that, for people who did not themselves take any part in the work of the council, the council meant what they learned about it from the press."
"From this fact," the book adds, "also followed the great responsibility of the press in relation to the council; it may be said that in very large measure it met this responsibility in an outstanding fashion."
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, who as a young priest attended the entire council as one of its theological experts, does not entirely agree.
He told CNS his participation on the daily English-language press panel "was a very good experience for me because I could see, on the one hand, how poorly prepared the Church was to respond to the media questions, how we needed to find ways to say things simply and comprehensibly, but on the other hand, how reporters with their deadlines had very thin preparation - they weren't prepared to cover theological issues or scriptural issues or liturgical issues."
In question-and-answer sessions following hundreds of talks he gave on the council in the 1960s, he said, "80-85 per cent of the questions were due to misunderstandings caused by the media."
Robert Blair Kaiser, whose award-winning coverage of Vatican II for Time magazine played a significant role in informing Americans about the council, said when the bishops arrived in Rome for the council they were startled at the media attention and "weren't quite sure why" they were making front-page news.
In a recent article in Just Good Company, a cyberjournal of religion and culture, Kaiser wrote that the Roman Curia worked hard to keep the council under wraps, with rules ordering council fathers and their theologians to secrecy.
"But the council soon became an open affair, thanks mainly to some hard-working reporters and their allies among theology professors in Rome, from men and women of the missionary orders who were stationed there and the liberal theologians who had come to the council with their bishops," he said.
Kaiser, who spent 10 years as a Jesuit seminarian and scholastic before turning to journalism, was one of those who broke the official secrecy, using his long Jesuit ties to cultivate sources who regularly informed him about daily proceedings in the council.
Divine Word Father Ralph Wiltgen, an American who ran Divine Word News Service during the council, got around the official secrecy by interviewing council fathers on the implications of the council deliberations for their own dioceses.
He would write up the interview, quoting the bishop extensively, and let the bishop review it for accuracy before translating it into six languages. He would then convene a press conference for the bishop and give journalists copies of his report beforehand.
A bishop from a remote missionary diocese in Africa or Asia could find his views reported extensively around the world, with far greater impact on his fellow bishops than any speech he might have given in the council hall.
Wiltgen's 1967 book, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, detailed how progressive European bishops north of the Alps, especially from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, joined forces and gained support from most of the world's bishops in wresting control of the council agenda from the predominantly Italian Roman Curia and a small minority of other bishops who were determined to sidetrack Pope John XXIII's vision of Church renewal and "aggiornamento," or updating.
Shortly before the second session opened the following autumn, Pope Paul VI reversed the official policy of secrecy for general meetings. He decreed that speeches could be made public unless the speaker himself asked to have his text kept secret.
All the meetings of the council's commissions, however, remained under a seal of secrecy, and journalists were still excluded from the general meetings as a rule, although later some were allowed in for one or two meetings to let them capture the atmosphere of the council.
Daly was one who, along with fellow Canadian journalist Bonnie Brennan, managed to get a pass to attend the council for a couple of days in its third year.
The passes identified Daly and Brennan, a woman, as priests - a fact not noticed by the guards who let them in the first day. When it was noticed the next day, they were barred and their passes lifted.
Daly wrote later that getting into the council in person "made it clear for me that just getting into that sea of Latin was good for a colour story but meant little for real news. Effective, open press coverage of the council would have required special organization for that purpose."