Copyright and the Catechism of the Catholic Church Make for Some Legal Surprises

Father Mike Schmitz, the Diocese of Duluth priest who hosts the popular podcast The Bible in a Year from the Catholic publisher Ascension, has said that he had originally hoped to read both the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church over a one-year period.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (photo: Carl Bunderson/CNA / EWTN)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church was released in 1992 after years of development. It has helped generations of Catholics to deepen their understanding of their Christian faith.

But those who want to use the Catechism text for internet projects have to deepen their understanding of something else: U.S. copyright law and the requirements of the Catechism’s U.S. copyright holder, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Matthew Warner, founder of the Texas-based church communications software company FlockNote, once faced a cease-and-desist letter from USCCB attorneys for a daily free email that sent excerpts from the Catechism to those who subscribed. Though he eventually secured the necessary legal permissions for this project, he wonders if there’s a better way.

“I don’t think they should be hesitant at all to give permission to everyone,” Warner told CNA. “These essential documents of the Church should be freely licensed to anyone who wants to promote their usage in any way. There are ways to do that where the USCCB still retains the legal right to protect the integrity of the texts.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. bishops’ conference, however, says there are good reasons for the paperwork.

“Each year, the USCCB receives hundreds of requests for commercial and other uses of the Catechism in the United States,” Chieko Noguchi, director of public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA.

“Each request is reviewed in light of our contractual obligations to the Holy See, due respect for copyright law, and other considerations,” Noguchi said. “We are required to ensure an accurate use of the Catechism in a manner that respects intellectual property for the license granted to us by the Holy See. The Catechism plays an important role in the faith formation of Catholics, and we look forward to continuing to find ways to make it more accessible.”

Warner’s company ran afoul of copyright restrictions on a project involving the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In response to Benedict XVI’s 2012 Year of Faith exhortation to Catholics asking them to read the catechism, Flocknote launched a “Catechism in a Year” email at no charge to subscribers.

“You get one email per day with a little bit of the Catechism,” Warner recounted. “365 days later you’ve read the whole thing.”

“We had over 100,000 people sign up, and it very quickly became the largest group in history to study the Catechism together,” he said. “We’ve had over 300,000 (users) participate since and it is still going. It’s been phenomenal.”

The project’s initial use of the Catechism prompted a reaction from the bishops’ conference that Warner didn’t expect.

“(P)art way through that first year the USCCB had their lawyers send us a cease and desist letter to shut it down,” he said. “I told them what a tragic idea that was and even offered to give the whole thing to them. They simply asked again for us to shut it down. It was very sad for me.”

The Flocknote project eventually pivoted to using texts like YouCat, the 2011 Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the 2005 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The latter is also a USCCB publication.

“Luckily, we were able to work with Ignatius Press to get permission to use the YouCat as a substitute, and were able to finish the year,” Warner said. “A few years later we were able to get permission from the USCCB to use the Compendium of the Catechism, which has been a really good fit for a daily email.”

Though Noguchi did not discuss particular requests to use the Catechism text, she explained there are legal constraints on the USCCB.

“Unfortunately, not every request can be granted,” she said. “Other considerations, such as honoring the exclusive contract granted for the original mass-market paperback and gift editions must be considered. We make every reasonable attempt to work with publishers. At times, it has been necessary to notify groups of copyright infringements, but we will not comment further on negotiations between the USCCB and those seeking permissions.”

The Catechism’s second edition runs to 924 pages in the English-language paperback edition. This version is available through the USCCB website at a cost of just under $30.

St. John Paul II authored an Aug. 15, 1997 apostolic letter marking the Catechism’s publication. He praised the work as a “genuine, systematic presentation of the faith and of Catholic doctrine” and urged Catholic bishops “to intensify their efforts to disseminate the text more widely.”

The USCCB’s website provides an online version of the Catechism and offers several resources, including a question-and-answer document with 48 sections.

The website also discusses copyright issues and permission for the use of the Catechism.

“The Holy See has given the United States Conference of Catholic (USCCB) specific rights and responsibilities regarding the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” the website says. Written permission is required for all editions of the catechism published or imported for commercial distribution in the U.S. Excerpts from the English, Spanish or French language catechism may be used only in compliance with USCCB guidelines.

Both the USCCB Subcommittee on the Catechism and USCCB Publishing oversee how the Catechism is used. Their goals are to preserve the integrity of the text, to seek its “widest possible distribution,” and to encourage “the proper use of the text” in secondary and derivative works.

Warner questioned whether the USCCB’s approach is in the best interest of the Catholic Church’s mission.

“I think their view of how to ‘control’ or ‘protect’ the texts of the Church is outdated and, in practice, ends up hurting the promotion of these important and essential texts, therefore working against the Church’s mission,” he said, reflecting on the obstacles his company faced.

This put a group like Flocknote “in a tough spot of trying to keep the USCCB, which represents my Church, from looking bad while also hopefully working to bring about positive change,” Warner said. “I do think it’s gradually gotten better and I hope it continues in that direction. We are very grateful they let us use the Compendium and many people have benefited from that. I hope those kinds of partnerships continue.”

Warner had advice for small projects or volunteer groups want to adapt the Catechism for new efforts and new media: “just ask the USCCB and see what they say.”

“Give the USCCB the benefit of the doubt and engage in good faith, even after hitting those initial roadblocks. Keep trying. There are good people working there. Make connections and let’s work together to improve the situation. It’s possible. And we’ll be most productive if we work together on it as brothers and sisters,” he said. “They do give permission sometimes. If they don’t, find out why. Share the answer with your bishop and hopefully we can all work together to make it easier to use and promote these texts.”

Flocknote makes no money from its catechism project, said Warner, who added: “In fact, it costs us lots of money to provide it for free. But we’re fine with that.”

The guidelines for use of the Catechism discuss various ways to include copyright notices and to ensure accuracy in using the text. Printed works, recordings, or other electronic media that use the text do not need to secure USCCB permission, provided the use of the text is fewer than 5,000 words.

If this word limit is exceeded, further permission is required regardless of whether the work is commercial or non-commercial. It is still necessary to secure written permission from the USCCB and a USCCB review of non-commercial works. Commercial use of the Catechism text faces another requirement: they must pay a pro-rated royalty, under Vatican requirements, calculated based on 10% of the list price.

These measures even apply to the educational works of dioceses or entities directly under diocesan control.  

Father Mike Schmitz, the Diocese of Duluth priest who hosts the popular podcast The Bible in a Year from the Catholic publisher Ascension, has said that he had originally hoped to read both the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church over a one-year period. A catechism-in-a-year project is now in the early stages of development, Father Schmitz told EWTN Nightly News anchor Tracy Sobol in December.

“We wanted to give people a time to be able to finish the Bible podcast before they had this other thing, you know, on their shoulders,” he said, “and so we’re going to start it in 2023, God willing, if we get all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted.”

CNA contacted Ascension, which declined further comment.

The USCCB website also notes the legal permissions required for use of the New American Bible, whose English edition is copyrighted by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.