Daniel Ellsberg, olim Cold Warrior, who grew increasingly disillusioned with the US government’s mendacity regarding the success of “containment” efforts in southeast Asia throughout the bottom half of the 1960s and eventually became the whistleblowing protagonist of the Pentagon Papers affair, exchanged time for eternity late last week at the age of 92.
Ellsberg left a legacy of public-spirited engagement in favor of anti-war and peacebuilding efforts, against the military-industrial complex and especially nuclear war and weapons proliferation. Most of all, he advocated for whistleblowers like himself and for the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
From the moment he decided to copy the 7,000 pages of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s secret study on the decision-making processes that informed U.S. policy in Vietnam and began walking the pilfered pages out of the RAND Corporation offices where they were stored, Ellsberg was destined to become a controversial figure – a cause célèbre – at once a champion of the disaffected and a lightning rod for criticism.
“I felt,” Ellsberg said when he voluntary surrendered to authorities in 1971, “that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”
“I did this clearly at my own jeopardy,” Ellsberg said, “and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
Folks are free to interrogate Ellsberg’s motives and to question the prudence of his behavior both in the Pentagon Papers and his subsequent disclosures, which included secret nuclear war plans. Nevertheless, when it came to his willingness to accept the consequences of his actions, Ellsberg put his money where his mouth was.
He faced several investigations and legal trouble throughout his long life, never shying from any of it.
One of the really interesting things about Ellsberg is how thoroughly-made a “company man” he was, hence how unlikely was his “dove-turn” and subsequent whistleblowing advocacy. Unlikely, that is, on the surface of it. At bottom, he let himself be guided by the idea that the American people have a right to know what their government is up to and why the government is up to it.
The great Founding Father from Massachusetts, John Adams, once said the people “have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”
Catholics do not lose this right of nature when they receive baptism. That means they – we – have a right to “that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge,” i.e. of the characters and conduct of our rulers in the faith.
So, the question is: Will we ever get an ecclesiastical Ellsberg?
I don’t mean a “Catholic Ellsberg” – we already have him in the person of Daniel Ellsberg’s son, Robert Ellsberg, whose long association with the Catholic Worker movement and Orbis Books gives him a claim to any such title – but an ecclesiastical Ellsberg, i.e. someone in professional service with the Church’s central administrative and governing apparatus, probably a cleric or religious, who decides to risk it all in the cause of transparency and truth.
After so many egregious failures of transparency, so many squandered opportunities to do the right thing and come clean about who knew what and when, after decades of promises unfulfilled and disastrous policies pursued to the brink of destruction, one wonders what it would take to move a fellow on the inside, out?
It’s worth considering a profile of such a figure.
He would not likely be a figure in high leadership, but a middling sort highly trained and not too far removed from grunt work, intelligent and principled, one who has got his hands dirty and believes in the Church’s core mission strongly enough to risk the opprobrium of his fellows as well as the crumbling of his ambitions along with the destruction of institutional elements very dear to him and to others, ready to see his own character and conduct subjected to the most unsparing public scrutiny and willing to cause loss of reputation to men he admires.
He – or she, I hasten to note, as the number of women who fit the bill is not small – would also have to make peace with small likelihood of financial security from the Church or from Church-adjacent occupations in whatever came after his or her ecclesiastical career and be willing to resist the urge to meet financial needs by capitalizing with a salacious tell-all.
That is a tall order.
What could an ecclesiastical Ellsberg hope to accomplish?
Disclosure of the Pentagon Papers effectively ended public support for the Vietnam War. The disclosures accomplished this by smashing the official narrative of slow but steady progress in containment of Communism in southeast Asia. They revealed war-planners to be bankrupt of ideas worth trying and showed that the real reason political leaders were unwilling to end American involvement in the conflict was their reluctance to take a hit in the polls when they inevitably became the ones who “lost” the war.
So, the question really is: What sort of disclosures could make the ecclesiastical status quo untenable, and in what area of ecclesiastical government or administration would they be likely to come?
Although there is a great deal, indeed, that the faithful and the broad public ought to know about the policies and cultural defaults that perpetuate the abuse and coverup crisis in the Church, a scenario involving a curial lifer in one of the financial departments would be more likely.
Say, for example, a mid-level official in the APSA – the Vatican’s central bank – who could bring before the public enough information to make it impossible for the Vatican to maintain a charade of financial responsibility punctuated by isolated and disconnected cases of incompetence or avaricious profligacy.
That could push Catholics finally to insist en masse on independent financial management and oversight for the Vatican, effectively saying to the pope, “We’ll give you money for your mission, but you’re not going to manage the pot anymore, not on your own.”
If anything like that were ever to happen – if an ecclesiastical Ellsberg were to emerge – the resulting disruption would make a return to business as usual very difficult. The knock-on effects are impossible to predict, but it is almost certain that few of them would be comfortable and some of them would be baleful, at least in the short and in the medium term.
History is always messy.
History is also replete with cautionary tales, the most obvious of which in recent memory is Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador to the U.S. who may at first have appeared to be a credible candidate when he stepped out of obscurity to reveal details of the handling of accusations against then-Cardinal (now Mr.) Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.
Viganò always struck me as a different sort of whistleblower, more Joe Valachi than Frank Serpico (as I’ve said before). Viganò eventually surrendered whatever initial and provisional credibility he enjoyed when he decided to make himself the unofficial chaplain to every conspiracy theory and crackpot notion about the Vatican in the Pope Francis era.
A real ecclesiastical Ellsberg would be far more disciplined, sticking to what he actually knows—and can prove with receipts—and refusing to become swept up in broader ideological crusades beyond the simple, but towering, centrality of telling the truth.
History is always messy, sure, but guys who are good soldiers and true believers who get fed up with mendacity and become sick and tired of being sick and tired and decide to do what they think is right, torpedoes be damned, have a way of making it.
They don’t come along too terribly often.