Red Cardigan is understandably puzzled…

by the fuzziness of the application of Canon 216 (the one about Catholic thingies/organizations/blogs/internet undertakings/[insert organization here] not calling themselves “Catholic” without permission from the bish.

I think this is a classic case where the bureaucratic side of Catholicism simply hasn’t caught up with reality, so the normal canon law caveats about “in most cases” is applied with a lot of generosity.

Here’s the deal: The Latin conception of law is to make rules about everything and then list all the possible exceptions and leave still more leeway for ordinary human variety if that doesn’t cover all the bases. Basic watchword: The law was made for man, not man for the law.

In contrast, the normal Anglo-American conception of law is “Make as few rules as possible and then enforce it, even if it’s absolutely stupid to do so.” Basic watchword: “Lex Rex”. Law is king.

This, by the way, explains both Italian drivers and the bizarre phenomenon of Americans who stop at stop signs in the middle of the Mojave desert when there is nobody around for a hundred miles. The Latin conception of law is articulated well in Pirates of the Caribbean: “It’s not really a code. More like a guideline.” The Anglo conception is “It’s not a good idea. It’s the law!”

Canon law is emphatically Latin. We Americans are emphatically Anglo. So we encounter this loosey goosey application of law and are driven mad trying to obey every jot and tittle when the Church often takes a much more casual approach. Canon law is there to maintain a semblance of order in the vast herd of cats that is the Catholic Church. Now and then it gets updated (last time was in 1983, long before the Internet) to reflect reality. Canon 216 simply did not envision the possibility of 50 million people starting blogs called “Catholic Cats and Wacky Videos”. Dioceses simply do not have the capacity to police stuff like that. And, in any case, it is deeply counter to the Catholic spirit to even *try* to police stuff like that. The Church is fond of eccentrics, free associations among members, and people who wear their faith on their sleeve. So there is almost no interest in running around trying to tell people to stop calling themselves Catholic. What then prompts a diocese to (on very rare occasions) enforce canon 216? Basically, if you make a big and loud enough spectacle of yourself saying things that make the Church look bad or ridiculous. Bob Sungenis achieved this with his anti-semitic rants (and to his credit, semi-obeyed his bishop) by changing “Catholic Apologetics International to Bellarmine Theological Forum, the better to continue with his anti-semitic rants and quack science. The National Catholic Reporter and Catholics for a Free Choice have likewise achieved this dubious form of notice, but have simply ignored the command of their bishop to stop using “Catholic” in their names. Not too shocking since we already know their reputation of contempt for the Magisterium when it inconveniences them.

Real Catholic TV has likewise managed to make itself a big enough headache to the Abp of Detroit with its bullying denunciations of innocent people, its smear of the bishop of Corpus Christi as part of a shadowy gay cabal conspiring to destroy the fraudulent Fr. Corapi, its pointless attacks on obedient Catholics as heretics for receiving communion in the hand, it’s ignorant pronouncements on Jews, it’s ridiculous calls for a Catholic monarchy and numerous other claims the Michael Voris’ arrogant private opinion are the litmus test for “Real Catholic” faith. So the archdiocese invoked canon 216 (which it has every right to do). So far, the response of Voris (whose schtick is to constantly proclaim his superior Catholic fidelity, not his badass liberal “fight the power” leftism) is to imitate the National Catholic Reporter and Catholics for a Free Choice. Oh, and to teach other “Real Catholics” that it is perfectly legitimate to do this and to blame the ever-popular “liberal conspiracy” for his troubles rather than consider that patting yourself on the back as a “faithful conservative Catholic” is not license for ignoring your bishop.

It’s one thing when your average Catholic, who knows nothing of canon law, sets up her “Catholicism and Crocheting” blog to chat about how to knit and embroider nice sayings from the Bible and Mother Teresa. It’s quite another when a self-anointed “Real Catholic” is giving scandal by publicly defying his bishop.

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  • Michelle

    Actually, Mark, I think you got it backwards: It is the Anglo-American way to make picayune rules about everything, and then after things go awry, to go back and make more rules. The Latin-Italian way is to make a few set-in-stone rules and adjust on the ground. Prime example: The difference between American football and European football.

    This isn’t my own brilliant insight though. John Allen lays it out in his book All the Pope’s Men, which I consider invaluable reading.

  • Mark, thank you for this. I truly was puzzled not only by the law itself, but by the attitude that says, sure, it’s technically a violation for little blogs and gift stores and whatnot to use “Catholic” in their names, but don’t worry about it unless the bishop tells you to worry about it. With my cultural understanding of the word “law,” there’s no such thing as a law you are a) violating and b) okay to be violating, so I just kept going around in circles between principle and practice, so to speak.

  • M.Z.

    I thought the post marked the point where she became officially batshit crazy.

    How can something so simple be made so difficult? If some one were writing a case study for the application of 218, this would be it. It ain’t no accidental happenstance.

    • I do appreciate your withholding the “official” designation for so long, M.Z. I believe most of my readers awarded it long ago, and would benefit from your example of charitable restraint. 🙂

  • In the 2nd to last paragraph you reference National Catholic Register. Did you mean National Catholic Reporter?

    • Mark Shea

      Yep. Fixed it. D’oh!

  • Jason Petty

    Canon 216 simply did not envision the possibility of 50 million people starting blogs called “Catholic Cats and Wacky Videos”.

    Dude, you can’t tell us about this site and then just not post a link.

    • Mark Shea

      I made it up. But I would be surprised if there is such a thing.

      • Jared

        If the site does not exist, someone must make it!

  • Franciscan

    I think you’ve hit it pretty much on the head, Mark.

    Each bishop is responsible for the well-being of the souls under his care. If he judges someone’s use of the word “Catholic” to be sufficiently harmful, then he has a right and responsibility to take what he deems to be appropriate action within the bounds of his legitimate authority.

    What people seem to be complaining about is that they don’t like the bishop’s prudential/pastoral judgment. I think legitimate questions can be raised about fairness or what have you, but ultimately, it’s still the bishop’s decision to make. And a faithful Catholic will obey it.

    Lumen Gentium #27:

    “The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular Churches assigned to them…by the authority and sacred power which indeed they exercise exclusively for the spiritual development of their flock…This power, which they exercise personally in the name of Christ, is proper, ordinary and immediate…In virtue of this power bishops have a sacred right and a duty for the Lord of legislating for and of passing judgment on their subjects…The pastoral charge, that is, the permanent and daily care of their sheep, is entrusted to them fully…for they exercise the power which they possess in their own right and are called in the truest sense of the term prelates of the people whom they govern.”

  • freddy


    I’ve even known a priest whose opinion is that only priests should be canon lawyers, as they need the graces available through ordination to be able to understand fully and apply wisely the ecclesiastical laws.

    I’m not *entirely* sure he was joking! 🙂

  • victor simon

    “In contrast, the normal Anglo-American conception of law is ‘Make as few rules as possible . . . ‘ ”

    Does not ring true.
    Sounds opposite.
    Ever try to read the ObamaCare law?
    Ever try to transport the US Tax Code without a dolly?
    Bureaucracy is the air we Americans breathe nowadays.
    Full time legislators creating full time havoc trying to cover every base.

    • Mark Shea

      Your talking about our Ruling class. I’m talking about our culture.

  • antigon

    Mr. Shea: Off topic, but is your Chez email working? Tried to post you a WPost piece relevant to your concerns a couple of times last week, but kept being Mailer-Daemoned.

    Pax et B

    • Mark Shea

      Yep. It’s working. But I haven’t gotten anything from you. Weird.

  • Mark Tardiff

    A bishop told the National “Catholic” Reporter that they couldn’t use “Catholic” in their name? When did this happen? I don’t remember hearing about it before, though I have often thought that the rule should be applied to them. I have a suggestion for the Reporter and other such groups: why not use the term Catholyc in their name? Hey, if a little change can work for copyright laws, why not for canon law?

    • Andy, Bad Person

      A bishop told the National “Catholic” Reporter that they couldn’t use “Catholic” in their name? When did this happen?

      Way back in the 60s. In short, the Reporter already has established that they don’t care what any of the bishops say; it’s no surprise that they would continue to operate in violation of Canon Law.

  • Joannie

    I have just recently read somewhere that the Bishop of Kansas City at the time of October 1968 himself wrote a public letter to the National Catholic Reporter and requested them to stop using the name “Catholic” because of the way they were talking about Pope Paul VI and “Humanae Vitae” which had been released just a few months before and the dissenting voices starting up, so there was one attempt back in 1968, which obviously was ignored by the paper and so they are still to this day calling themselves “National CATHOLIC Reporter”

  • Marie

    1968 Condemnation of the National “catholic” Reporter:

    If only bishops would speak with such clarity today.

  • godescalc

    “This, by the way, explains both Italian drivers…”

    I think you mean French drivers. Italian drivers cannot be explained so easily…

  • Kirt Higdon

    We generally end up with the worst of both worlds – lots of laws on the books and most of them enforced rarely but arbitrarily. This leads to contempt for the entire body of law, an attitude of getting away with whatever you can, and the impression (most of the time accurate) that formal law is simply the tool of the rulers and that those taken to task under formal law are simply dissidents whom the rulers want to get for “offenses” unrelated to those they are charged with.

  • The Latin conception of law is to make rules about everything and then list all the possible exceptions and leave still more leeway for ordinary human variety if that doesn’t cover all the bases. […] In contrast, the normal Anglo-American conception of law is “Make as few rules as possible and then enforce it, even if it’s absolutely stupid to do so.”

    I’ve been saying this for years. I first came up with it trying to understand why half the Evangelicals in the church I grew up in were lapsed American Catholics who while growing up had experienced their still-very-European church and its “rules” not as an instrument for structuring a beautiful Christian way of life in the society of the Church but rather as an arcane system for guaranteeing personal salvation in which the slightest misstep was subject to severe condemnation. When a huge percentage of the Church experiences the sacraments not as Grace but as a condemning Law then you know there’s a mixup somewhere.

    Rules and laws are properly the ground rules for universal participation in a common good. Since American culture tends to downplay such universal and intentional participation in any “common good” (even sometimes to the point of denying the existence of a common good), it generally sees rules as either

    1. the merely absolutely basic safeguards of minimal human decency in this war of all against all that we call a free market society (in which case these rules must be obeyed inflexibly and there is minimal room for “interpretation”) or else

    2. as attempts by a ruling cadre to impose its own will – for its own good – on another group. (This is often how lapsed Catholics understand the church.)

    Sports are an exception to the rule since they are one of the few examples in American culture where there is an obvious and universally recognized common good.