The Limits of Transparency in a Broken World

Can’t the truth set us free?

In the last couple weeks, it was revealed that the US Justice department has secretly (ironic) charged Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange with publicizing government secrets. Also recently, the US Catholic bishops voted down a resolution which would have encouraged the Vatican to release all its documentation on the disgraced Archbishop McCarrick. 1 Last month, Harvard University released a cache of classified admissions data in the context of a lawsuit alleging that the school was discriminating against Asian Americans.

The popularity of Assange, Edward Snowden, and other anti-secrecy activists runs parallel to a deep-seated distrust of institutions, particularly prevalent among young people. The demand for transparency and suspicion of institutions are signs of a desire for truth and goodness, which can so often be absent from human endeavors. Positive results have come about as a result of pressure by folks who stand up to secrecy in institutions: greater accountability for clandestine government operations, more conversation about the inadequacy of the Church’s response to abuse, a facing-up to how we tend to think about race. But is transparency a virtue without limit? Does prudence demand that some secrets best be kept?

As a millenial (I’ll admit it), my gut inclination is to be all about transparency. The truth will set us free. Shining a light into darkness drives away the evil. Why would the government or the Church or a university have anything to hide?

But some folks I respect deeply, people older and wiser than I, have encouraged me to reconsider the deep commitment I feel to transparency. As much as I would like to open my heart and history for all the world to see, that would be foolish and an ineffective way of ministering to people.

Keeping secrets helps protect the lives of our military serving overseas. The seal of confession protects penitents from worry of blackmail or loss of reputation. A university should keep its admissions policy on the hush-hush so that applicants won’t try to game the system.

These arguments for secrecy all boil down to the virtue of prudence, which deals with discerning a good and choosing the best means for achieving it. Sometimes, just given the way that the world works, keeping something secret is the best course of action for saving lives, protecting people’s reputations, or preserving fairness in college admissions. Keeping a secret is not an inherently bad thing.

For example, say a friend tells you that years ago she cheated on an exam in high school, you will likely feel obligated as a good friend to keep that secret. Friendship is a good thing and if keeping a secret in that situation is the best way of maintaining that friendship, you ought to keep the secret. If she was clearly qualified enough to graduate and the effects of her cheating have no bearing on today, it doesn’t make sense to risk her reputation and your friendship just to get the truth out there.

Of course, the argument could be made that secrecy is not the best means in a given situation. If it turns out that the friend’s secret is of a greater magnitude, say that she planted evidence that got a teacher fired. It might be more prudent for you to reproach the friend and encourage her to apologize to the teacher or make some restitution, or in extreme situations, tell the authorities, rather than to simply keep a secret.

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I think most would agree that the secrecy around the Church abuse scandal fails the prudence test miserably. The result is that the trust of the faithful in the hierarchy is severely undermined. Secrecy was highly imprudent and transparency must be a part of the path forward.

It is simply worth noting that secrecy, or at least temporarily withholding information, is sometimes the best means to achieving a good. I encourage other transparency champions not to lose sight of prudence as well.

Yet, while I find the arguments for prudence convincing, I still can’t shake the desire for transparency, or perhaps truth may be a better term. The truth does set us free, but the reality is that we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a broken, fallen world. In this fallen world, prudence sometimes dictates that secrets be kept. My longing for truth is a reminder to me that there is another world beyond this one, in which truth and justice reign supreme. My desire can only be satisfied by Truth itself, which is Christ.

  1. In fairness, part of the reason they voted it down was because the Vatican has already promised to release all findings of their on-going investigation into McCarrick.

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