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The USCCB: Criminalizing the Use of Church Documents

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2006

We used to include many significant documents in our database from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, but not any more. The USCCB goes after web sites which make use of USCCB documents, threatening legal action for copyright violations. This policy is in marked contrast to that of the Vatican, which enforces copyrights only to prevent others from releasing advance copies of documents before their official promulgation dates.

Many organizations, including Trinity Communications, have received letters from the USCCB listing the unauthorized documents displayed on their web sites, and requesting immediate removal. USCCB staff actually track this stuff down. Clearly this is within the USCCB’s rights under copyright law, but just as clearly it is a short-sighted policy which significantly limits the circulation of episcopal documents. If other web sites were allowed to post them, these documents would be substantially more widely read among the Catholic faithful.

This policy is also based on a view of truth more governed by contemporary positive law than by the traditional Catholic dictum that truth is the property of all. When bishops release documents in which they purport to expound the truth, they should be more than happy to have their words picked up by others and circulated as much as possible. This should be true even if criticism sometimes accompanies such circulation. Legal remedies should be employed only if altered texts are passed off as authentic.

The USCCB’s policy is a throwback to an era of limited communication and jealous guarding of insider secrets. Nonetheless, it is what it is. The policy explains why Trinity Communications can no longer include USCCB documents in the CatholicCulture.org document library, and can no longer provide users with the convenience, the value-added search capabilities, the printability, the key word highlighting, and the personal storage features which inclusion in our library entails. The USCCB does, of course, permit other organizations to link to materials on its own site, but not all its documents are available there, and such links undermine complex data-driven systems (like ours) which are designed to provide special benefits to users.

Sometimes, however, a USCCB document is demanded too frequently by users to leave it completely untouched. Such is the case, for example, with the 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal which, unfortunately, was published in English (for American use) by the USCCB instead of directly by the Congregation for Divine Worship. To work around this problem, Trinity Communications recently included the CDW’s original Latin text in CatholicCulture.org’s document library, with links to the English translation on the USCCB web site.

It would be far better to give you the value-added English text of these instructions for the sacred liturgy right here on CatholicCulture.org. But according to the USCCB, distributing these instructions—conformity to which is a canonical right of the Catholic faithful—would be a criminal act.

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