Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
Did you hear about the bizarre dust-up over Lumen Fidei and the free downloads?
This is how the conversation should have gone:
Brandon Vogt: Hi, this is Brandon Vogt. I am super excited about the new encyclical, so I'd like to make it even easier for lots of people to read it. Okay if I convert the Vatican's PDF to a bunch of different formats?
Vatican: Of course! Good job, Brandon. What's your address? I'll send you a basket of oranges from the Pope's garden.
This is how the conversation actually went:
Brandon Vogt: Hi, this is Brandon Vogt. I'm super excited about the new encyclical, so I've made it even easier for lots of people to read it. I've converted the Vatican's PDF to a bunch of different downloadable formats so everybody can read what the Pope has to say!
The Vatican: What? How dare you? Stop stealing from the Pope! Take it down right now! Shame on you.
Vogt: What? What? Okay. I didn't ask first, and it's your call, so I'm taking it down. But . . . what is the matter with you people?
The Vatican: What? I can't hear you. Our fax machine is making too much noise.
Here is what Vogt says on his post of July 5th, after he took down the links to the various format downloads:
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.
Seriously. Vogt should have asked permission to convert the document, but they should have granted it instantly and gratefully. Vogt is not disputing that they have the legal right to retain copyright over the document; and he's not disputing the idea that Catholics must obey the civil law. But that doesn't mean that the Vatican is in the right. He acknowledges their authority to ask him to take it down; but he is very unhappy that they exercised this authority.
Several people have accused Vogt of "rash judgment" for assuming that loss of revenue was their motivation for insisting that he take down the links. But that quote, that he's "stealing from the Pope"? That's a real quote. Someone from the Vatican or the USCCB actually said that to him. It's safe to assume that money played at least some part in this decision.
I doubt that's the only motivation, though. It looks much more like something we're very familiar with: what Mark Shea calls the Church's "Ent-like" slowness in . . . well, everything. It's a very good thing when the Church takes her time defining, for instance, the doctrine of the Incarnation. You wanna get that one right! But it's a very bad thing when the Church says no to things simply because they are new. What bad thing could come of making this encyclical and others much more easy to read?
Well, Dawn Eden has compiled a list of some of the bad things that could happen, or the reasons why the Vatican and USCCB were right to swat Vogt down. Many of her reasons are variations on the theme that we must obey civil laws, as long as they are not unjust. Vogt has already demonstrated that he agrees with this point. Eden's most compelling argument is that, by retaining strict copyright control over Church documents, the Church can preserve the integrity of what's in those documents. As Eden puts it,
The owner of a creative work has the right to determine how his work is to be shared. As 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.
Fair enough. We don't want people saying, "Hey, looka what the Pope said!" and then just making stuff up, or doing a well-meant but (classically Catholic) amateurish job of it. But there is a better solution than a blanket copyright, which undeniably limits how many people will be exposed to the teachings of the Church. We can presume that, in this case, the "owner's intentions" included lots and lots of peopel reading his words.
Vogt is not the only one who's been treated poorly by the Church for the high crime of evangelizing. Matt Warner was forced to alter his magnificently helpful "Read the Catechism in a Year" project. The USCCB was apparently alarmed and outraged over the possibility that someone might be -- I don't know, printing out daily emails and sewing them into their very own copy of the Catechism that they didn't pay for. The horror. Warner still offers a daily snippet delivered for free, but it's from the YouCat, which is good stuff. But the CCC was even better.
I hope these are just growing pains. I hope that, within a matter of years, the Vatican and the USCCB will find a way to both protect and share its intellectual and spiritual treasures. A good first step would be to treat her most generous evangelists with a little more respect. When Jesus tells us to do something, the Church shouldn't be standing in the way.