Free the Word: Why the Church Needs to Release Her Teachings to the World

Free the Word

“We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people.”

Pope Francis

The problem: Right now, many of the faithful are being restricted from fully sharing Scripture and other teachings of the Church in the most effective ways. We need to be flooding the world with the lumen fidei—the light of faith—yet there are current Church policies preventing this from happening.

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. This well-meaning but imprudent policy is directly hampering the Church’s evangelistic mission (as is clearly shown below).

It doesn’t have to be this way! There is a just and easy solution that will both:

  • protect the integrity of these important texts
  • and free them to be shared and consumed by more people throughout the world.

(The solution I propose distributes these essential texts using a Creative Commons-Attribution-NoDerivs license. I explain this below. Though it wasn’t planned, Jonathan Sullivan coincidentally published a great post today titled Publishing Under Creative Commons: A Primer for Parishes and Dicoeses.)

But we need your help in asking the Holy See (and, by extension, the USCCB) to update this policy.

If you would like to see Scripture and the official teachings of the Church set free so that more people can share and consume them (while still protecting the integrity of the texts), we need your support!

What you can do:

  1. Share this post with all of your friends [tweet it or use the social media icons above]
  2. Charitably contact the Holy See and USCCB and ask them to read this [contact info]
  3. Sign this petition by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post (e.g. “Free The Word!”)

If you still have questions or want to learn more about the background behind this movement, and the unfortunate stories that inspired it, please read the full manifesto below.

Let’s #FreeTheWord!

Lumen Fidei and Mea Culpa

A couple weeks ago, Pope Francis announced that on Friday, July 5 he would release his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). The “work of four hands” would explore the theological virtue of Faith and I was thrilled. I had already gobbled up Pope Benedict’s encyclicals on Hope and Charity, and could not wait for this one.

I was particularly excited to share the document with others. I wanted to discuss it with friends and invite unbelievers to read it, too. To that end, I had an idea: when the encyclical was released, I’d convert it, free of charge, to other popular formats like Kindle, Nook, iPad, and more. That would help thousands of people immediately engage the text, many of whom would otherwise never check it out (like people who exclusively use e-readers).

At 6:01am ET on Friday morning, the Holy See posted the text online. As I expected, it was only available as plain text on difficult-to-read parchment background.

(The Holy See later made two great adjustments. They switched to a white background, which is much easier on the eyes, and added helpful social media icons to share the encyclical via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and email. A couple hours later they also posted a PDF version, but it’s oddly sized (5.5″ x 8.5″) making it difficult to print. And since PDFs don’t scale or flow on e-readers, they’re almost impossible to read anywhere but a computer.)

As soon as the encyclical went live I copied it over to a blank document, and over the next seven minutes I translated it into several eBook formats. I put them online, shared the links, and soon hundreds of comments and emails began pouring in from people saying, “Thanks! I only read on Kindle so without this, I probably wouldn’t have read the encyclical” or “This is great! Now I can read it on my iPad.”

I was so happy to help, but there was one big problem: I was wrong. 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. The folks could have, perhaps, used softer language—I was accused of “[violating] both civil and moral law” and “stealing from the pope”—but they were unquestionably within their rights to ask me to remove the eBooks.

In good faith, I complied. I took the documents down, admitted I was wrong, and publicly and privately apologized (especially for accusing them of valuing profit over catechesis, which was a regretful knee-jerk reaction.) Just to be clear, I’ll apologize again here: to the USCCB, the Holy See, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV), and our Holy Father, I’m deeply sorry for overstepping my bounds and disseminating the encyclical without permission. I was wrong and should not have done that. My intention was simply to spread the Pope’s teaching but good intentions do not justify violating the Vatican’s copyright.

So if that’s the case, then why this post? Well, I’m not writing on that particular incident but on a much deeper and more serious problem it brought to light: the fact that Church institutions are restricting the spread of the most important truths of our faith—Scripture, the Catechism, papal and conciliar documents, the Roman Missal, and other liturgical texts—through needlessly prohibitive licensing.

Before going further, I want to be very clear. I’m not claiming in this article that the USCCB and Holy See were wrong to enforce their legitimate copyright on Lumen Fidei. Nor am I suggesting they had no right to copyright that and other texts. In fact, they should retain their rights to these texts.

What I’m proposing is that there must be a better way to license their copyrighted material. The Holy See has a right to restrict its texts as much as it likes. But as we’ll see, its current policy hampers the Church’s evangelistic mission. Pope Paul VI reminded us in 1975 that “[the Church] exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). That’s our first and most basic task, and any policy the Church institutes should help that mission, not limit it.

“Then John said in reply, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.'”

Luke 9:49-50

What’s the Problem?

The Lumen Fidei situation provoked lots of discussion about the Church’s copyright policy, but this is a conversation that has been going on for years. Some commentators, such as Dawn Eden and Phil Lawler, like the current policy. Phil writes:

“The Pope is a universal teacher, and when he speaks or writes, his aides at the Vatican hope that his message will go out to the widest possible audience. The Vatican’s policies are designed not to restrict public access to the Pope’s teachings, but to ensure that the teachings are conveyed fully and accurately.

Copyright laws are enacted to protect authors from potential exploitation. The Vatican argues, not unreasonably, that even the Pope deserves that protection.”

(UPDATE: Apparently I misunderstood Phil’s article. He just tweeted me to say, “Not sure why you cite me as disagreeing with you on this; actually I agree 100%.”)

It’s important to note here that the question is not, as some suggest, whether the Holy See should retain copyrights. They should. What I’m concerned with is the restrictive licensing and access to those texts.

Many others agree. In 2006, Dr. Jeff Mirus articulated the main criticism:

“This policy is…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.”

Several commentators have since added their voices in agreement, including:

Many have made the same point, that the current copyright policy curbs evangelization, and this resonates with my experience. Over the last year or so, I’ve heard from several Catholics, each attempting little more than to spread Church teachings, who have been shut down because of the restrictive policy.

Perhaps the most egregious example was Matt Warner and his “Read the Catechism in a Year” project. Anticipating the Year of Faith in October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged all Catholics to study and reflect on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a book his predecessor called “a sure norm for teaching the faith.”

That gave Matt an idea. He launched the “Read the Catechism in a Year” project as a simple way to help people read it throughout the Year of Faith. People signed up and began receiving excerpts of the Catechism each day in their email. By reading the little excerpts they would read the whole Catechism in a year.

It was a great idea and really took off. Within weeks, the project attracted over 100,000 subscribers, making it the largest catechetical study group in the history of the Church.

However a few months in, Matt was surprised by a letter from the USCCB. It explained that he did not have permission to share the Catechism and that he needed to shut down his project immediately. Confused and frustrated, Matt replied with an apology, asking if there was a better solution than shutting it down—perhaps partnering with the USCCB, or someone else with proper permissions. He was willing to do anything to keep the project running for the readers’ sake. But in response, he received another cease and desist letter, mailed to his house, this one from the USCCB lawyers.

Despite helping thousands of people read the Catechism each day, most of whom would never have read it otherwise, there seemed to be no openness to continuing the project.

(Thankfully, Ignatius Press stepped in and allowed Matt to excerpt from the simpler YOUCAT. It’s nice, but not the same as spreading the official Catechism.)

I’ve heard many other stories like this. For example, Verbum Domini, one of the first Catholic podcasts online, recorded the daily Mass readings so people could download them on their iPods. Yet they were ordered to stop the recordings. Despite being a volunteer project, given away for free to listeners around the world, they couldn’t spread the readings proclaimed each day in Mass.

Other podcasters have received aggressive cease and desist emails for simply praying or reading texts from the Roman Missal. Some were shut down for posting free audio recordings of the breviary. One friend, who worked as the Director of Web Development for a major Archdiocese, was reprimanded three different times for simply integrating the Bible, Catechism, and Mass translations into diocesan websites and apps.

More recently, my friend Jeff Miller shut down his popular “Weekly Francis/Benedict” project where he collected the Pope’s audiences, speeches, and writings. Each week he formatted them for free into a single eBook, downloadable in Kindle or ePub formats. Thousands of people downloaded the eBooks and discovered the Pope’s teachings, many for the first time.

This frustration hasn’t only hit bloggers and podcasters. Catholic publishers have been affected, too. Some publishing friends shared that the licensing fees they’re forced to pay in order to print the Bible, Catechism, or papal documents make it nearly impossible to break even. They’re forced to either mark up their books or just not publish them at all. Neither is a good option if the goal is to spread the teachings far and wide.

The problem ultimately boils down to this: the Holy See (and thus, by effect, the USCCB) has constricted the spread of the most basic Church teachings by making it difficult, expensive, or impossible to reproduce and share them.

The debilitating effects of this well-meaning policy are tragic and should frustrate all Catholics intent on evangelizing the world.

“It is quite unbecoming for the Church’s children idly to permit the message of salvation to be thwarted or impeded by the technical delays or expenses, however vast, which are encountered by the very nature of the media.”

Inter Mirifica, 17

What’s a Good Solution?

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.)

Surprisingly, the USCCB already does this for many of the resources available on its web site. For instance, the 2013 Catechetical Sunday materials contain this disclaimer:

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

It’s a great idea and should be applied to all official Church resources, not just some.

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.

“Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give”

Matthew 10:1

Anticipated Questions

Q1: But what about print versions? We can’t just give books away for free!

I agree and that’s not what I’m advocating. It costs large sums of money to print, edit, market, and produce print documents, and publishers should be justly compensated. But they shouldn’t have to pay extra licensing fees on top of that to print and distribute basic Church teachings.

These extra and exorbitant fees, which often run thousands of dollars, prevent many groups from ever publishing these texts—which seems counterproductive—or it inflates the price and discourages consumers from buying them.

Q2: What about personal writings like Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth series? Should those be released for free?

Of course not. We must distinguish between the core teachings of the magisterium like the Bible, Catechism, and papal documents—official Church texts meant for the entire world—and the work of private men and women. There’s a substantial difference between a Catholic writing a personal book, and the Pope or bishops exercising their magisterial role.

In the case of Pope Benedict, he chose to have the LEV manage all his private writings and collect the royalties. That was his decision to make and there is nothing wrong with it. But magisterial texts are a different story. Those should be freely available for everyone to copy and distribute.

Q3: What about providing a just wage to those who labored to produce these documents?

Catholic social teaching affirms that “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice” (CCC, 2434). I wholeheartedly agree. But we must ask, haven’t we already paid just wages for these texts? The New American Bible was produced decades ago and the Catechism is twenty years old. It’s not clear how much money Catholics are still on the hook for. If there is a specific dollar amount, we could perhaps fund-raise that money and fulfill our obligations, then allowing free distribution.

But here’s the bigger issue. Whatever wages the Church still owes to authors and translators should, if nothing else, be considered sunk costs. In any organization, there are resources you must expend to fulfill your basic mission—rent, furniture, electricity, equipment, and even costs related to staffing.

Translating and disseminating Church teaching is in the same category. It shouldn’t be an extra task we have to support through outside means. Making these texts available is among the Church’s most basic and foundational responsibilities. Those costs should already be accounted for through the giving of the faithful, not recouped through excessive royalties and licensing fees. As Lumen Gentium reminds, “The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God…” (LG, 37).

When Catholics give money to their parishes, dioceses, USCCB, or the Holy See, at the very least they should expect to receive free and open access to Church teaching.

Q4: Why are you trying to undermine the magisterium’s authority?

I’m doing just the opposite. I’m trying to honor and extend their authority by spreading magisterial teachings. I’m not trying to undermine or change these texts, I’m trying to promote them. I want millions more people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike—to discover the treasures of the Church, specifically the writings of our remarkable Holy Father and his brother bishops. However, it’s hard to spread these teachings freely and quickly when there’s so many restrictions.

Q5: Why publicly criticize the bishops and the Pope? Why not address this in private?

I’m not criticizing any groups or individuals, only the policy. In my experience, the people behind this policy are kind and well-intentioned. But the unforeseen result of the imprudent policy is that it restricts evangelization. I think we can fix it and I’m simply suggesting a better solution.

Also, it should be noted that in the spirit of Matthew 18:15-20, I and others have addressed this issue privately over the last year. We’ve exchanged several messages with the USCCB, we’ve discussed it with multiple bishops, and we’ve reached out to the Vatican. Yet we were met mostly with resistance or ambivalence. We hope that by bringing this issue to the public light we will not only draw more attention to the problem, but raise the chance that together we can come up with a better solution. The more minds working on this conundrum, the better!

Q6: What about canons 828 and 829?

Canon 828 reads:

“It is not permitted to reprint collections of decrees or acts published by some ecclesiastical authority unless the prior permission of the same authority has been obtained and the conditions prescribed by it have been observed.”

According to the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law by John Beal, “The obvious concern [of this canon is] the accuracy and completeness of [Church documents]…The canon is a rather curious remnant of Pope Leo XIII’s 1887 constitution on the prohibition and censure of books on which the 1917 code’s treatment of this whole area was based.”

Canon 829 reads:

“The approval or permission to publish some work is valid for the original text but not for new editions or translations of the same.”

The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law explains, “When ecclesiastical approval for a publication is obtained, it applies only to the original text submitted for judgment, not to subsequent editions of translations of it. Those latter texts could vary substantially from the original. However, a simple reprinting of the original work is not considered a new edition.”

From the canon law experts I’ve talked with, neither of these canons are concerned with copyright issues, much less digital permissions. They’re primarily interested in maintaining the doctrinal integrity of Church documents. And of course, I and others would agree with that noble end. The solution I proposed achieves that. (I certainly welcome other canon law perspectives in the comment boxes.)

Q7: The documents are already available free at and so what’s the problem?

This is perhaps the most common response I’ve heard from critics. On the surface it makes sense: why should the Vatican let websites, apps, and publishers reproduce Church texts for free when they already offer it free on their websites?

The problem is that from an evangelistic perspective, posting documents in one or two places is simply not enough. St. Paul never said, “Well, Peter is preaching the Gospel so I probably don’t need to.” Mother Angelica never thought, “Well, there’s already some Catholic television shows so mine aren’t needed.” No parish has ever said, “People can hear the Bible at Mass so what’s the point of stocking paper versions in our library?”

It’s great that these magisterial documents are available free online in a couple places, but they should be freely accessible everywhere. Why only proclaim the Gospel in one place, to one audience, in one format, when we can share it in many more places and ways?

Also, on a more technical note, the documents available at are mostly unreadable on mobile devices. The websites are non-responsive, which means the text doesn’t resize on your phone or tablet, a huge problem since studies show mobile internet users will trump desktop internet users by 2015. Those who want to read Church documents on their computer can do so on these sites, but mobile users find it much more challenging. These are precisely the types of problems we’ll solve by releasing the texts to capable and willing mobile developers. Let’s take advantage of the many technical talents within the Church.

Q8: Why can’t someone just print a document out from or, or convert to an eBook himself?

They can, but this is illegal (even if it’s rarely enforced.) On March 19, 2011, the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State released a revised “Law on the Protection of Copyright and Related Rights”. Article 4, §3 reads:

“Reproduction in another format is considered, to all legal intents and purposes, to be a new publication of the work.”

And if you don’t have specific permission to reproduce that document in a new form (i.e. print it or convert it), then you’d be violating the law.

Now, most of us would think that’s silly and I’m sure many Church leaders would agree. But that’s the result of the current restrictive policy.

Q9: The Church already allows some groups to reproduce the documents online and offline, right?

Sure, but the process is not at all transparent. For instance, it’s not evident why some projects get a green light and others red. It’s also unclear how much someone has to pay to say, reproduce a chapter from the Bible or pray the Divine Office on a podcast.

I and others have asked these questions privately without response. In particular, when Matt Warner’s Catechism project was shut down, there was absolutely no openness to continuing the project even when Matt offered to pay the appropriate licensing fees, whatever they were.

There also seems to be inconsistencies with the policy, such as demanding the removals of Lumen Fidei eBooks while allowing others to post audio book versions of the same text.

Q10: Why not the Creative Commons Non-Commercial license?

Because nobody should have to pay for the right to distribute sacred texts. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a volunteer, a small apostolate, a Catholic business, or a large publisher. If the Church’s goal is to evangelize, we want all of those people spreading the word.

Some of the most innovative Catholics work for Catholic companies and Church organizations. Why prohibit them from integrating the documents into their websites, apps, software, and podcasts?

Q11: What makes you think you’re so bright as to solve this problem? You don’t know what you’re talking about.

That may be true. One USCCB leader said in an email to me, “It is obvious that you have not studied this issue at length” and they could be right. Perhaps the Creative Commons license isn’t the best way to solve this problem, but nevertheless we can’t avoid the fact that there is a problem.

Regardless of which solution is best, or who proposes it, we need to figure out how to solve this dilemma, how to protect the Church’s teachings without restricting eager evangelists. I welcome feedback from the USCCB, Holy See, and anyone else concerned about this issue.

Q12: What benefits should the Church expect if she freely licensed her documents?

Hundreds of talented Catholics have already dreamed up creative ways to spread Church teaching, but aren’t able to implement them (yet) because of the current policy. I’ve seen several exciting, ready-to-go ideas like new interactive websites, mobile apps, podcasts, and video series. These vehicles would spread Church teaching to millions of new people, in new ways, through the new media.

(Note: Many of these Catholics are already doing innovative things with Scripture and prayer, but they are forced to use non-official translations of Church texts. That’s a shame and a missed opportunity to spread official Catholic texts rather than substitutes. Many tech-savvy Catholics end up using non-Catholic Scripture simply because it’s the only version convenient for them on a particular app, website, or interface.)

We only need to turn to our Protestant brothers and sisters to glimpse the potential. The free, volunteer-produced YouVersion Bible App garnered its 100 millionth install last week. Users have so far spent over 58 billion minutes engaging Scripture, and it’s now the most popular religious app in the world.

That’s the innovation you get when you allow Christians to maximize their gifts in service of the Church. It’s time we Catholics followed suit. We need to unleash our own creative energies and help Church teaching go viral.

“What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.”

1 Corinthians 9:18


It’s no secret that the Church faces many problems. Today, we’re particularly plagued by poor catechesis and engagement. Only half of the faithful believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist (and less than half can identify Genesis as the first book in the Bible.) Three-quarters of our own people skip Mass every week. And “former Catholics” make up the nation’s second-largest Christian group.

The best solution to these tragedies is not to restrict the Church’s treasure but to spread it liberally. We must not dampen the lumen fidei under a basket, but flood the world with its brilliant rays.

By tweaking the Church’s copyright policy to allow open distribution, we’ll maintain the integrity of the teachings and ensure they reach millions of new people. That’s what the New Evangelization is all about, and that’s why this change is so desperately needed.

“In the Christian life, even in the life of the Church, there are old structures, passing structures: it is necessary to renew them!”

Pope Francis

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Free the Word

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