Sunday, 22 March 2020 09:20

Understanding balance between confidentiality and openness

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After the death of Jean Vanier on May 7, 2019, I wrote about his groundbreaking work in establishing relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.

I in fact had a personal memory: Mr. Vanier had spoken to my seminary nearly 40 years ago. I felt the genuineness of his willingness to carry out this most important work.

Nearly one year after his death, the world learned of some profoundly disordered dimensions of Vanier’s life. Within his apostolate, he had entered into abusive relationships with several women. If you missed this revelation in the news, I recommend the article “A Light Extinguished” by Michael W. Higgins at

These disturbing facts lead me to consider the role of what we call, positively, the roles of confidentiality and openness in the lives of all of us.

In the Vanier case as in so many other situations of abuse in the church, guilty people relied upon the secrecy which they expected confederates to maintain. We all know how unhealthy this sort of dynamic is. Many of us who have experienced recovery from various mental-health issues have identified, in dysfunctional family systems, the misery resulting from people misusing power by saying, “You have to keep my malignant secret.”

On the other hand, we all know how important confidentiality is for all of us. There are plenty of things which people do not need to reveal to us, and likewise plenty of things which you and I do not need to reveal in most contexts. We are grateful that confidentiality is institutionalized in the inviolable seal of confession. We also recognize that therapeutic and counseling relationships are appropriate and most helpful to nearly everyone.

We are likewise grateful when people see fit to share with us their own struggles. I know, for instance, that many people have gained — they have told me so! — when I have shared the fact of my having experienced a major depressive episode in 1985.

We are well aware of what is called “oversharing,” about which people signal discomfort by saying “TMI,” for “too much information.”

So how do we make the best use of the obvious good which comes from balancing the values of confidentiality and openness?

I have found tremendous help in the wisdom of St. John Henry Newman, who once commented, in a Christmas sermon:

“Perhaps the reason why the standard of holiness among us is so low, why our attainments are so poor, our view of the truth so dim, our belief so unreal, our general notions so artificial and external is this, that we dare not trust each other with the secret of our hearts. We have each the same secret, and we keep it to ourselves, and we fear that, as a cause of estrangement, which really would be a bond of union. We do not probe the wounds of our nature thoroughly; we do not lay the foundation of our religious profession in the ground of our inner man; we make clean the outside of things; we are amiable and friendly to each other in words and deeds, but our love is not enlarged, our bowels of affection are straitened, and we fear to let the intercourse begin at the root; and, in consequence, our religion, viewed as a social system, is hollow. ”(Emphasis is mine.) This is from volume 5, no. 9 of Parochial and Plain Sermons.

I offer these words as helpful steps on the way to understanding the balance between confidentiality and openness, and treating one another with the reverence to which our Christian faith calls us.