Light of Faith v. Free the Word?

Church communication being tested

Old and new evangelization are butting heads following the July 5 release of the latest papal encyclical, “The Light of Faith.” The battle has been dubbed “Free the Word.”

Soon after the Vatican released Pope Francis’ first encyclical — which explores the theological virtue of faith — Catholic bloggers, promoters of the new evangelization, took the initiative of downloading the encyclical from the Vatican website, then formatting and reposting it online in ways that made the text viewer friendly on websites and mobile devices.

The problem is that papal encyclicals, like most other church documents, are copyright protected. Only authorized Catholic entities such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can reprint official church documents. (An old evangelization practice, in the eyes of some.) Bloggers, or anyone else, do not have permission to copy, create and distribute new versions of church documents.

The dispute recently hit home for Brandon Vogt, a popular Catholic blogger and author of “The Church and New Media” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011). Last Monday, Vogt posted a blog about the incident and proposed a solution to the matter.

In outlining the problem, Vogt said that Catholics “are being restricted from fully sharing Scripture and other teachings of the church in the most effective ways.” He said church policies prevent the widespread dissemination of the pope’s encyclical.

“The current licensing policies for the most essential texts and teachings of the church (e.g. the Bible, the Catechism, encyclicals, etc.) are making it difficult, expensive or impossible for Catholics to fairly reproduce and share them,” said Vogt, adding that the policy hampers the church’s evangelistic mission.

Vogt recounted his efforts to reformat the encyclical and told what happened when church officials discovered it.

“I quickly received a litany of emails from the USCCB and Holy See, explaining that they had a clear and legitimate copyright on the text. And since I had no permission to share it, I was engaging in illegal activity,” he wrote. Vogt complied and removed the documents. The situation left him confounded, wondering why church officials would hinder distribution of the encyclical.

Vogt proposed that the church offer a solution that would “protect the integrity of church teaching while granting free access to share it.” He said the church should consider releasing papal and official church documents under a license called “Creative Commons-Attribution-NoDerivs.” This license allows the church to share its work without losing control over it. It would require proper credit in the reproduction and prohibit changing or altering the work or producing derivative versions. Vogt cited Wikipedia as an organization that uses this Creative Commons license.

“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,” argued Vogt.

In an email to The Compass, Vogt said the response to his blog post, which included a petition, has been overwhelmingly positive. “Over 1,000 people have either ‘signed’ the petition or shared it,” he said.

The strongest supporters of “Free the Word” are “Catholics who were raised in the digital age. They, more than anyone, see the silliness of not allowing people to spread the church’s most sacred texts freely and openly online.”

The new evangelization, often described as “reproposing” the Gospel, requires the church to open its doors to new ideas. Reproposing the way the church shares its teachings and official documents would seem to be in line with the new evangelization.

Church communication and evangelization are being tested in the world of new media. It is critical that the church respond to these changes or find itself irrelevant in the digital age, much like a secondary page on a Google Search.