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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyAre there rules for publishing on religious matters?

One major section of Book III of the Code of Canon Law is entitled “The means of social communication and books in particular” (canons 822 - 832). After explaining that the church is to use the means of social communication to promote the good news of the Gospel, canon 822 asks pastors to teach the faithful how to work together so as to imbue the media with a human and Christian spirit.

When the code was promulgated in 1983, the term “social media” hardly existed. Nor did the various means we use today to share messages. The Internet did not exist at the time, nor did the other forms of communication we now take for granted. So, not surprisingly, there is no reference to them in the church’s legislation.

This development raises serious problems for the church. Although there are appropriate controls in place before books and articles are published on behalf of the church, there is nothing established to let the faithful know whether or not the contents of a given website or an e-mail communication truly correspond to the thinking and teachings of the church.

Unfortunately, there are so many self-proclaimed “Catholic” websites and news services that are not in any way acocuntable to church authorities in relation to the truth of the statements found therein. The faithful would have a right to expect that what is presented as “Catholic” would indeed correspond to catholic teaching and thought.

Until some means is found to identify appropriate sites and give them some form of recognition, we are still living in a free-for-all situation.

However, when it comes to published works (in the traditional sense of the term), the matter is much clearer. Canon 823 insists that these writings be submitted beforehand to competent church authorities to make certain that they contain nothing against faith and morals.

For this reason, special norms are in effect when it comes to publishing the Sacred Scriptures and liturgical books; the same applies to books of prayers destined either for public or for private use. There are also detailed provisions for the publication of catechisms.

Likewise, when it comes to more general works, such as commentaries on the Scriptures, theology, canon law, church history, and other religious or moral subjects, there are canonical provisions in place (see canon 827.3). In these cases, it is the local Ordinary, usually of the place where the book is published, who is to give his authorization, generally called an imprimatur (“let it be printed”).

However, before he grants such authorization, the work is to be examined by one or more censors. These censors can be chosen at the national level and be available for consultation by individual dioceses. A diocesan bishop is not bound by the opinion of the censors, and may refuse to grant permission to publish, even though their report was favorable (nihil obstat – “no objections”).

The conference of bishops in each country has the right to issue more detailed norms determining the requirements for priests and members of religious institutes to take part in radio and television programs which concern Catholic doctrine or morals. In Canada, the bishops decided that permission of a person’s bishop or major superior was required, particularly in the case of an ongoing collaboration.

While these norms might be considered by some to constitute censorship and an impediment to free speech, we have to keep in mind that the deposit of faith is something that the church guards jealously. It does not want doctrinal issues to be subject to the ebbs and flows of any opinion whatsoever, as if this or that opinion were the final and official word on the matter.

Of course, the church has no say over what is written in the secular press or in other forms of the media. Some writers have determined what they consider to be the only “catholic” issues, and all church statements are measured against their standards. They generally overlook the church’s teachings on matters relating to issues of justice, peace, the integrity of creation and other social questions. This is unfortunate because there is a wealth of great insights to be found in these teachings but, for a great part, they are mostly unknown.

Beyond a doubt, we have fantastic sources at our disposal to make the gospel message known. Pope Francis’ regular use of Twitter messages is a great example of this. Many bishops have their own blogs and diocesan websites. We can rely on the truth found in these sites, keeping in mind that, at times, we are dealing with matters of opinion and not formal church teachings.

No matter which procedures are used, the overall purpose of the norms found in Book III of the Code is to ensure the integrity of doctrine, so that the rights of the faithful to receive Christ’s message with integrity and clarity are duly respected.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 44th, and last, article in a series.