After the success of his Bible in a Year podcast (it hit the number one position in the Apple podcast charts for multiple weeks), Father Mike Schmitz’s new project was just announced. He’s started working on a catechism-in-a-year project. This isn’t the first time something like this has been developed. But, unlike when I attempted this project, it seems that Father Schmitz’s work won’t be barred by the USCCB.
In 2015, I started building a team to promote the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Daily Catechist would be a website run by Catholic millennials, where we would daily post a paragraph from the Catechism with short, accessible reflections, available by email and/or on the site. I had assembled an eager team, including a chief director, a social media director, two site directors, a communications a director, an editorial director, and an editorial team. But as word started getting out about the project, I was warned about past attempted initiatives.
In 2011, Matt Warner attempted to start a similar project, called “Read the Catechism in the Year.” Participants would receive daily emails with portions of the Catechism and, after a year, would have read it in its entirety. The project attracted more than 100,000 subscribers. But several months into the project, the USCCB sent him a cease and desist letter, stating that he did not have permission to share the Catechism and to immediately shut down the project.
Wanting to avoid this problem, I reached out to the USCCB and was connected with a member of their Permissions Office staff. This was our exchange
Hi Ms. _______,
My name is Chris Damian. I’m a 3L at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, also getting my M.A. in Catholic Studies this spring. I had put in an inquiry about using the catechism in a project I’m hoping to start up, consisting of a website that puts up a daily catechism paragraph with a brief reflection by a Catholic millennial. I understand that the Catechism is under copyright by the USCCB, requiring written permission for its use under most circumstances. I was wondering how and whether it would be possible to get such permission.
I received a response the following day.
Dear Mr. Damian:
Thank you for your inquiry.
The USCCB holds an exclusive license from the Holy See for use of the Catechism in the United States of America. Under the terms of our agreement with the Holy See and the guidelines that define our use of the text, we are unable to grant the requested permission.
I was in law school at the time, and did a bit of research to understand copyright law. I knew someone had to have capacity to give permission. So I asked who to reach out to.
Dear Ms. _______,
Thank you very much for your email. So in terms of getting permission for the use, are you saying that the USCCB is unable to get permission from this use and that permission needs to come from the Holy See? And if so, is there a contact from the Holy See that I would be able to get permission from?
I received a curt response.
No, I am saying that this project may not be granted permission.
There are two ways to interpret this response. Either the project “may not” be granted permission because the USCCB does not want to grant permission, or it “may not” be granted permission (again) because the USCCB does not have capacity to grant permission. So I followed up with additional background, hoping that my goal to evangelize might help move things forward.
Dear Ms. _______,
The point of this project is to make the Catechism as accessible to people as possible. Very few of my Catholic friends have read the Catechism, but they may be drawn to a well-done website that makes it readily available to them, especially if there is a brief reflection that draws upon the passage. If I simply link to the Catechism, I doubt they’ll actually go to the link and will just read the reflection instead, which would largely defeat the purpose of trying to get them to engage with and appreciate the actual text. Is there no possible way to get permission for this?
And are there concerns that the USCCB would have for a project like this? I’d be perfectly happy to have some form of oversight if needed, but I’m sure you all are very busy. I’d also be happy to sign an agreement stating that we will use paragraphs from the Catechism that are unabridged and include all footnotes/citations in a format the USCCB would be comfortable with.
Please let me know if you have any questions about the project or our approach. And thanks for taking the time to help me with this.
I received another curt response.
Given the restrictions in place through the various contracts and guidelines, there is no possible way to grant the requested permission.
Again, because of the way copyright law works, someone has capacity to grant permission. A license to use a text can always be granted by someone, usually the owner of the license. Because I was a law student, I offered to give assistance in reviewing the agreements myself.
Are these contracts and guidelines publicly available? I have some experience reviewing corporate agreements, and most copyright protections give the copyright owner significant discretion in granting permissions. I’d be happy to look over them and find the specific restrictions, if you’re busy. Is the USCCB the sole owner of the copyright, or is there another entity I should contact? If the USCCB doesn’t have capacity to give written permissions, I’d be happy to reach out to someone else.
Again, I received a very curt response.
They are not public documents. I assure you that the USCCB has counsel and that the counsel has reviewed these documents extensively in response to past requests.
No one has the ability to give the permission you have requested.
At that point I gave up. I knew that the above statement was simply false, but it seemed like things weren’t going anywhere. Our project just never moved forward, and I haven’t attempted a similar project since.
A reasonable solution
I certainly understand if the USCCB wants to ensure that the Catechism is shared appropriately and with integrity. This was partly why I offered to have limited permission, or some sort of ecclesial oversight. But, ultimately, the issue wasn’t about that. The issue was about letting the prerogatives of rights-maximizing American legal practice set the prerogatives for our ecclesial practice. This isn’t a new problem. It’s just one extension of a myriad of issues that come from the current legal posture of the USCCB. (More on this below.)
There are some reasonable solutions to the issue of Catholic copyrights, however. Brandon Vogt gave a helpful overview several years ago:
Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be like this. There are plenty of solutions that both protect the integrity of Church teaching while also granting free access to share it. One stands out and it’s been suggested by many people: Release all magisterial teaching under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NoDerivs license.
Here’s what each of the elements in that fancy, technical name means:
– Creative Commons – A type of license that lets you share your work generously without losing your control over it
– Attribution – Requires that proper credit be noted on any reproduction
– NoDerivs – Prohibits changing or altering the work, or producing derivative versions
Under this license, people may copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of the work. It’s an extremely popular way of safely distributing texts, especially digital content. In fact, over 400 million Creative Commons licenses have been deployed by individuals and large organizations, including Wikipedia. (The Creative Commons is partly why Wikipedia appears at the top of nearly every Google search page. The site is so popular because people routinely share its content. If the Church allows us to share her teachings freely and easily, we too would rise up in the search rankings.)
Just to be extra clear, the Holy See and USCCB would still hold the copyrights to magisterial documents. They would still maintain their legal right and ability to prosecute anyone caught manipulating the text. Therefore they would maintain the textual integrity as much as they do now.
But the Creative Commons license would allow people interested in spreading Church teaching to do so freely. It would help bloggers, podcasters, artists, catechists, writers, publishers, and mobile app developers to freely integrate this content into their work and share it with the world.
Though the issue received some attention, I am aware of no changes that have been made to the USCCB’s approach to its copyrights.
This is connected to the other crises in the Church
The Church has been having a rough time. Attendance is down, baptisms are down, disaffiliation is up, dissatisfaction is up. The Church has improved in some ways in responding to the crisis of the clerical abuse of minors. However, that particular crisis in the Church has not gone away, despite major scandals and promises of change in the 1980’s, 2002, and 2019. The crisis, so far, has not proven to be historical, but to be cyclical. I would argue that this is in large part because the bishops continue to see the clergy abuse crisis as one discrete issue, rather than as a serious symptom of a number of underlying issues.
Certainly, one issue is specific to sexual abuse. The Church continues to not hear victims, despite the significant about of time spent listening to them. Victims need more than new protocols. They need significant cultural shifts in the presbyterate and ecclesial offices, with people and processes that are truly trauma-informedand victim-centered.
Another large issue is the Church’s approach to civil law. In 2004, The National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People released a report on the crisis of the Catholic Church in the United States. As part of the report, the NRB listed an inappropriate overreliance on civil lawyers as a key problem driving the crisis. Church leaders “relied too heavily on the advice of attorneys whose tactics often were inappropriate for the Church, and which tended to compound the effects of the abuse that already had been inflicted.” Such a relationship with legal counsel has not changed, however. When one looks at legal briefs submitted by the USCCB over the last several years in religious liberty cases, for example, one sees the same arguments presented as those in briefs against clergy sexual abuse victims. Robert Vischer helps identify the problem: the legal profession has its own morality, and over-deference to the profession leads to a replacement of the Church’s pastoral morality with the profession’s adversarial and rights-maximizing morality.
One sees the same problem with copyrights. Rather than having a legal strategy for copyrights which serves the Church’s interests in lay participation and evangelization, the current approach is an over-protective approach which seeks to maximize the legal rights of the USCCB and minimize the legal rights of others. This is a situation where the Church’s attorneys, once again, get in the way of the Church’s pastoral mission.
This is also related to the issue of clericalism. Matt Warner wasn’t allowed to present the Catechism in a Year, but Father Mike Schmitz is allowed. Many might hear the announcement of Father Schmitz’s new Catechism project and think, “Wow! Why didn’t anyone else think of something like this?” Well… someone did. Ten years ago. But the USCCB sent him a cease and desist letter.
Personally, I think change would be great. But I’ve been working in these issues for long enough to not expect it. I hope for change, and I’m always happy to collaborate on how to imagine change. But the clericalism and distorted approach to the law on the part of many Church leaders is deeply engrained. This is widely spread among our current leaders, and it passes down through often subtle and non-explicit communication to our seminarians and the younger Catholics who are allowed into positions of power and influence in the American Church.
What I can hope for, however, is a future with a vibrant laity that does not need the official endorsement of the USCCB to evangelize. You do not need to work for the Church to work for the Church. You do not need a legal license to promote the life of the Church. I don’t do things anymore that require asking permission of Church leaders. That’s why I write here, and start my own initiatives, and work with whoever wants to work with me.
The bishops are not “the Church.” We are all the Church. I’m happy to be here with you.