UPDATED WITH RESPONSE: Were the Vatican & USCCB “unjust” to order a Catholic blogger to take down reformatted versions of Francis’s encyclical?

UPDATED WITH RESPONSE: Were the Vatican & USCCB “unjust” to order a Catholic blogger to take down reformatted versions of Francis’s encyclical? July 5, 2013

Readers of New Advent this morning got a surprise when, after clicking on a headline promising free downloads of Pope Francis’s encyclical Lumen Fidei for “Kindle, Nook, iPad, and more,” they instead found the following on the website of popular blogger/author Brandon Vogt:

In the last couple hours, I’ve received a litany of emails from both the USCCB and the Vatican accusing me of “[violating] both civil and moral law” and “stealing from the pope” (actual words used) by making the encyclical available in other formats. They’ve ordered me to remove the documents with full knowledge that this would prevent hundreds of people from reading it who otherwise wouldn’t read the encyclical online or in print.

In my view, this is tragic and unjust. It’s valuing profit over catechesis, and I have to believe Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict) would be extremely perturbed. Their goal and the goal of the Church is to evangelize—to spread the message of Jesus Christ, especially through papal encyclicals—not to make a dime off each copy printed.

I’m heading out the door for a three-day spiritual without access to the Internet, so I’ll save my fuller reaction for another time. But per their request, I’ve removed the documents. Feel free to read the encyclical online or pre-order the Ignatius hardcover version. [Source*

Although I have never met Brandon in person, I consider him a friend. Through his website, he has given generous support to my apostolate spreading the word about healing sexual wounds with the help of the saints. What follows is not by any means intended to detract from the vitally important contribution he has made, and continues to make, to spreading the Catholic faith through the media (which includes some wonderful charitable work).

In fact, I am writing this not so much for Brandon personally as for those who might share his sentiments that depriving readers of unauthorized reprints of a papal encyclical can only be “tragic and unjust.” My aim is to show that there are legitimate reasons for restricting access to such encyclicals to outlets that are officially licensed to share them.

What then are those reasons?

  • First of all, just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right. How often do we Catholics have to emphasize this in our daily interactions with those outside the faith, as well as with fellow Catholics tempted to “go with the flow.” In this case, just because “mainstream” Catholic websites reprint papal documents at will does not mean that it is morally licit to do so. Which brings me to my next point:
  • The Church recognizes the rights of societies to make their own laws (Compendium of Social Doctrine 45). When laws are not enforced, they cease to have force. If we as a Church did not uphold this, we could not register protest at the Supreme Court’s rejection of the rule of law in its same-sex marriage decision. While it is true that the natural law is prior to, and supersedes, human laws, the right of the Holy See to decide how its writings are to be distributed is not a prima facie violation of the natural law.
  • The “universal destination of goods” spoken of in Catholic social teaching does not overturn the right to private property. Catholic social teaching recognizes that it is unjust to deprive human beings of those goods and technologies that necessary for human thriving. But it also recognizes the value and social function of private property (CSD 91). To prove that Lumen Fidei is by rights a “universal good” and not subject to the laws pertaining to private property, one would have to show that those who need it are being unjustly deprived of it. That is simply not the case. Anyone who can access the Internet can find and download Lumen Fidei for free from the Vatican website, either in HTML or PDF format. Those with mobile devices also have the convenience of the Vatican’s free Pope App.
  • A copyright owner’s failure to defend the right to his intellectual property can result in the loss of that property. In the words of Indiana University School of Law professor Kenneth D. Crews (whom I hope will accept this quotation as “fair use”), “American copyright law…includes an amorphous concept of  ‘abandonment,’ whereby a copyright owner might be deemed to have lost legal rights by virtue of not protecting them or asserting them against infringers.”
  • The owner of a creative work has the right to determine how his work is to be sharedAs an author, I cannot emphasize the importance of this point strongly enough. The context of an artistic work matters. Once the reproduction of a creative work escapes its owner’s authority, there is the risk that the person who reproduces it may, through visuals, ads, typographical errors, or (in a worst-case scenario) intentional alterations, create a context that undermines the owner’s intentions.
  • By the same token, the Pope has every reason to want people who are interested in Lumen Fidei to track it down on the Vatican website (not that it’s all that difficult to find, given the site’s current pop-up ad for it). The Holy Father knows that if a reader finds the encyclical on the Vatican website, he or she may go on to explore other writings on the site. And isn’t that what all of us, as Catholics, should want people to do—to go from reading about “The Light of Faith” to delve more deeply into what Catholics believe?

In closing, some pertinent thoughts from Philip F. Lawler, who addressed this same issue in a 2006 article, “Even the Pope Has Rights”:

The Pope is a universal teacher, and when he speaks or writes, his aides at the Vatican hope that his message will go out to the widest possible audience. The Vatican’s policies are designed not to restrict public access to the Pope’s teachings, but to ensure that the teachings are conveyed fully and accurately.

Copyright laws are enacted to protect authors from potential exploitation. The Vatican argues, not unreasonably, that even the Pope deserves that protection.

For more information, see this recent article from an Italian legal journal that details the Vatican’s 2011 update to its copyright laws: “Copyright and the Vatican.” 

UPDATE, 7/11/13: Brandon Vogt has posted a general reply.

Image via Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “Images for #SocialNetworks.”


* There is a category in copyright law called “fair use,” which permits quotation of copyrighted works in news articles, such as my quoting Brandon’s blog entry above. As Philip F. Lawler notes, the Vatican does not protest when news articles make fair use of papal writings. The problems with copyright arise when entire works, or large portions of them, are used without permission, or when the Pope’s license or trademarked insignia are illicitly appropriated.

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