Bishop Robert Barron, the Los Angeles auxiliary and Catholic media personality, recently suggested to the National Catholic Register that bishops “introduce something like a mandatum for those who claim to teach the Catholic faith online, whereby a bishop affirms that the person is teaching within the full communion of the Church.” Critics pounced, arguing that this would amount to censorship of lay criticism of bishops. But these responses misrepresent and miss the value of the bishop’s suggestion. A system like the one Bishop Barron proposes could make the online world much more useful to Catholics, lay and clerical alike.
Once upon a time, the faith was mostly taught locally. Professors taught in classrooms, priests in churches. Books and information moved slowly, physically, expensively.
Canon law developed to reflect this. According to the 1983 Code, professors must receive a mandatum from the local ordinary (canon 812). Many dioceses require speakers at Catholic events or conferences to be explicitly approved. Priests go through years of theological education and are bound by levels of obedience to their bishops (canon 1032). Finally, bishops give imprimaturs to books and other writings (canon 827). These imprimaturs tell the faithful whether a book is free of heterodoxy. Though these tools are not always employed perfectly, they help maintain some clarity in teaching.
But today, much has changed. Information distribution is instant. What people publish on the Internet spreads immediately throughout the world. Catholics can write what they please about the faith—without checking whether a legitimate authority approves of the content or the means of the teaching. Many now learn the faith via websites, blogs, and Twitter. Catholics who go online for news and commentary find a variety of sources purporting to take a Catholic perspective. On social media, it is no small task to sift through the hundreds of Catholic accounts that, upon inspection, reveal deep-seated distrust and even hatred of the hierarchy and the Church. These Catholic writers, bloggers, and media figures can often mislead the faithful with their answers to questions about faith and morals (not to mention their analyses of ecclesiastical politics).
The online free-for-all also forces Catholic writers and personalities to jockey among themselves for attention. Often only the most controversial voices find audiences. For the growing number of Catholics who get their information online, this often leads to confusion, anger, alienation, and sometimes even schism.
It makes sense that bishops, who possess teaching and governing authority by their consecration, would want to regulate online content. The principle for this regulation is already in the law (canon 823). Bishop Barron is not proposing wholesale ecclesiastical censorship of the Internet. He is looking for a way to aid the faithful by instilling in Catholic media figures a sense of their obligation to magisterial authority.
Building on Bishop Barron’s idea, the bishops should consider implementing a system of simple, voluntary, low-stakes ecclesiastical approbation for Catholics who publish online. Much like the system of imprimaturs, a system of ecclesiastical verification would impart “yellow checks” to Catholic writers and media figures who agree to abide by a basic set of norms. Participants in online discourse could simply contact local ordinaries to request this verification, as they already do when seeking imprimaturs or mandata.
Lack of a yellow check would not prevent someone from publishing. But it would show ordinary Catholic readers which Catholic media figures and outlets have not agreed to abide by the Church’s expectations. Of course, some bishops may not agree with the verifications given by other bishops. But bishops are capable of addressing such conflicts among themselves—just as now, every bishop is free to voice his concerns to his flock.
The proposition is unlikely to be problematic from a canonical standpoint, at least if properly implemented. The law would simply need to develop in line with the precedent of imprimaturs and other verifications (see canon 823). One common argument against Bishop Barron’s proposal is that canon 212 creates a kind of soft free speech right, since it affirms that the faithful “have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion” concerning ecclesiastical matters. Since the canon requires the faithful to be “attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons,” it does not give anyone the right to blaspheme, calumniate, or incite animosity or insubordination (cf. canons 1369, 1373). But even if one interprets canon 212 extremely liberally, as creating a free speech right within the Church, a yellow check system would not restrict that right. It would simply recognize those who have agreed to guide their public speech by the Church’s standards.
A yellow check system would also be a step toward restoring something like the Hays Code, which governed movie production in the United States in conjunction with the National Legion of Decency prior to introduction of the modern film rating system in 1968. Social media companies would have an interest in such a system as well. Many people avoid Twitter and Facebook due to their toxic discourse. A broader system of check marks, involving major societal stakeholders, might facilitate more civil discussion.
Bishop Barron’s suggestion is a modest one, but it could serve to modernize the process by which bishops have long sanctioned authors and works. An accessible, universal method for indicating who abides by the Church’s expectations for discourse could help our increasingly polarized Church.
Gladden Pappin is assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and deputy editor of American Affairs.
Gregory Caridi, a civil and canon lawyer, is chancellor for the Diocese of Dallas.