Commenting on a recent entry, Stanley asked me about why the Catholic Church has historically used censorship, citing the case of the naming of the canon of Scripture (as specifically excluding other books, such as the so-called Gospel of Judas and others that did not make it into the canon).
The New Testament canon is, remarkably, something that Protestants and Catholics agree upon. Its formation is outlined here in more detail than I am qualified to provide. The council that most cite is either that of Hippo (393) or Carthage (397) as the official formation of the canon, but, as the referenced artice makes clear, the canon was more or less formed long before that. The Gospels, in particular, were settled long before then; as the article puts it, "the patristic testimonies have brought us step by step to a Divine inviolable fourfold Gospel existing in the closing years of the Apostolic Era."
That quote hints at the Catholic principle on the formation of the canon of Scripture, namely, the doctrinal witness of Tradition, which is the deposit of the faith left to us by Jesus and his Apostles, passed on through history by the witness of their successors, the bishops of the Church. This is why I just laugh (and am bothered) when the TV shows make inflammatory statements about "new gospels" that "will change Christianity forever." I just don't get it. These "new gospels" were around back then (and in greater numbers than are extant today) and did not make it into the canon then, so while I value their historical significance, that's all it is, historical (not spiritual or religious).
Perhaps the reason that they're seen as so potentially important, revolutionary, or threatening is that there is a perception that censorship in the Church was done by power-and-money-seeking hierarchs, as is constantly suggested by the popular media in movies such as the recent movie The Order, in which the "gospel of Jesus" is rediscovered as well as the centuries old plot to conceal it because it offers credence to the popular notion that organized religion is unnecessary.
This and virtually all other recent flicks that involve the Catholic hierarchy paint them as the most nefarious powergrubbing politicians ever to walk the earth. And this, of course, is why the Church had the Index of forbidden books and supposedly suppressed the reading of Scripture, much less the gnostic gospels. These are the same reasons that the Church at times tries to conceal the weakness of its leaders, or so the implications go. Of course, The Da Vinci Code is just one more in a long line of such fiction to impugn the reputation of the Catholic Church.
While I certainly don't view the history of the Church through rose colored glasses--I am fully ready to see and admit the many failings of Christian leaders through the ages, including St. Peter himself who denied Jesus three times--I also certainly don't see the entire (or even majority of) Catholic hierarchy as corrupt as they are so often painted. My personal experience, my studies, and my watching of current events teach me that the vast majority are more or less (usually more) good men who are living their vocation to lead the Church as well as they are able. And without a doubt they have the best intentions (as a whole) of the Church at heart.
And it is this, in fact, that is and has been the primary motivation behind the various attempts in Church history to smooth over the rough spots where it can and to even censor. Namely, it is out of a care for souls, which is their vocation. The bishops and priests are (and see themselves as, one hopes) our spiritual fathers. That's why we call them father. As such, they are bound to protect us in as much as they can in paternal care.
As my children grow older (my oldest is five now), I increasingly gain a sense of this paternal instinct and care, particularly in relation to what my children are exposed to. How many of us would defend the "right" of our children to view pornography, senseless, graphic, and brutal violence, profanity, or anything else that we think would be damaging to them? Even our secular nation has an enforced rating system that prevents just this thing. Is that not censorship? It is, but we do it for a good reason.
This is precisely the same motivation behind censorship and "cover-ups" by the Catholic Church. We may disagree with the principal that they are our spiritual fathers (and all that it implies), but that doesn't change the truth that this is how they and we (should) perceive their vocation. The desire to avoid scandal is the same. True, there are cases where individuals have probably let their own pride be a more motivating factor than care, but overall, the principal is sound. This has been proven to be true in the fallout from the recent sex scandals. There has been a dramatic damage to the faith of many.
There are many these days, many Catholics and even bishops included, who now seem to think that people have a "right" to know everything, that somehow this helps them. The popularity of shows like Dateline further emphasize this--people think they need to be informed of everything that could potentially affect them.
In truth, I would argue that this is not the case and rather that you can indeed know too much. There is a line between wisdom and paranoia, and the more that you feed your mind with worrisome "threats" that might affect you, the more paranoid and disfunctional you can become. Some people can deal with it; others can't. But I digress.
The point is simply that it is out of a care of souls, a desire that faith and hope not be damaged due to either the weakness of others or of the individuals themselves, that is the primary motivator for such actions. Most people do not in fact take sufficient time to form their conscience to make the right decisions, and even when we do, we have many non-rational implulses that pull us away from the truth.
For better or worse, we are now living in a society where such pastoral control is really not possible. The Church can still try to avoid scandal, but it is much harder due to the exponential growth in the freedom of information provided by the mass media and the internet. Now, in fact, it would almost be unwise to try to conceal potentially scandalous facts because their latter revelation, coupled with their attempts at concealment, only make the scandal worse.
This is why, I think, the bishops have adopted a much more transparent stance in the wake of the sex scandals. The fact that sex abuse was kept in house, so to speak, is not really that impactful on the reality of the sex abuse problem--there are many, far more influential factors that allowed it to become the immense issue that it became. But it is evident that in these post-post-modern days, any attempt at pastorally motivated shielding from scandal will likely only lead to greater scandal because the popular sentiment is that such covering up of sin can only be for bad reasons, which is, in my opinion, manifestly not the case.
So the change in approach is, as I see it, not guilty political maneuvering but rather a frank realization that it is more pastorally wise to do so. And that is why I think the Church has acted in the way it did in the past and why it has changed the way it acts to meet the changing nature of the society in which it is a part.