Although we are still awaiting the official English translation of the final document of the 2018 Synod, journalists and other commentators have been publishing translations of individual sections with their commentary.
One of the passages that has been receiving a great deal of attention is paragraph 146, on the need for the Church to contribute fruitfully to digital culture and to create new tools and systems for evangelization and encounter. The document also suggests that the Church could set up a system to certify Catholic sites, in order to counter the spread of “fake news.”
The paragraph reads (Google translation):
146. The Synod hopes that in the Church appropriate offices or bodies for digital culture and evangelization are established at appropriate levels, which, with the indispensable contribution of young people, promote ecclesial action and reflection in this environment. Among their functions, in addition to promoting the exchange and dissemination of good practices at a personal and community level, and to develop adequate tools for digital education and evangelization, could also manage certification systems of Catholic sites, to counter the spread of fake news regarding the Church, or looking for ways to persuade public authorities to promote increasingly stringent policies and tools for the protection of minors on the web.
Naturally, anti-Francis bloggers and news outlets are up in arms about this proposition. One site described it as “Soviet-style censorship.” Another traditionalist site suggested,
“You can just imagine that a man in the shape of Uncle Ted McCarrick could be in charge of this “Vatican Digital Commission” that would promote the “Vatican Certification” of acceptable websites: those promoting sodomy would be accepted, while those promoting the Baltimore Catechism would be rejected…”
What we see here is the reactionary imaginations of the characters behind these sites running wild. Naturally, Michael Voris saw his website “Church Militant” as one of those targeted by this “censorship”:
“Since Church Militant specifically has already been unfavorably singled out by a semi-official publication of the Vatican, La Civiltà Cattolica, in June of 2017, Church Militant is presumed to be one of the internet sites accused of fake news and thereby targeted.”
While I would be thrilled to see an official Church denunciation of Church Militant, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and other dissident sites that pose as orthodox Catholic news outlets, I doubt that’s really what’s being proposed here.
It strikes me as quite unfeasible for the institutional Church to certify ANY lay-led apostolates (or even clergy-led ones, like Word on Fire) — let alone independent news sites, personal blogs, or that sort of thing. Not that those sites are bad, some are very good (like this one, for instance), but it’s unreasonable to expect active oversight for every personal website from the institutional Church, even if an outlet was open to such oversight.
It would be nearly impossible to create universal standards for policing content on independent sites and very risky for the Church to preemptively approve a site whose owner could theoretically go rogue at any point. Deacon Greg Kandra echoes this thought:
A blog or website is a different creature from a book; it is a living thing, whose content might change every day, if not every hour. What appears “free of doctrinal or moral error” on Monday might be a cesspool of bungled theology and inaccuracies on Tuesday. And if you wade into the comments section, forget it; certifying that comments and outside opinions are always free of error is fundamentally impossible.
So how would you “certify” fidelity? And whose idea of “fidelity” are you certifying?
Can you even do it online?
It’s not at all clear from the synod document what types of sites would qualify for this sort of certification or who would oversee it. If I had to guess, such certification would most likely only be granted to official Catholic entities: bishops’ conferences, dioceses, religious orders, the Vatican, and seminaries. Organizations like these are already accountable to the institutional Church, so it would make sense to extend that accountability to their websites. Certainly, some exceptions could be made for various lay or clergy-led apostolates, but the guidelines would have to be very clear that such organizations must strive to maintain fidelity to the official teachings of the Church and open themselves to corrections or retraction if needed.
We at Where Peter Is strive to be orthodox and faithful to Church teachings, but only a few of our contributors are formally trained theologians and none of us have episcopal authority. While we’d certainly welcome input and feedback from our bishops, we’re not expecting it any time soon.
I’m not even sure that official Catholic media outlets, such as diocesan newspapers and the USCCB’s Catholic News Service would be amenable to this sort of oversight, as many of these outlets have journalistic independence and probably want to maintain that.
On the whole, I think the proposal (as I believe it’s most likely to play out) can be helpful because it could help distinguish chatter from what is actually coming from the Church.
For example, if someone wanted to know the official Church teaching on the death penalty, that person could be directed to the teaching in the Catechism, as opposed to a blog or commentary site that disagrees with the teaching. The certification on the site would make clear to the individual that the site is presenting the actual teaching, as opposed to one person’s opinion.
Likewise, questions about the Liturgy could be referred to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and those with questions on immigration can be directed to the Catechism’s teaching, as well as the guidelines provided by their bishop or their national bishops’ conference.
Rather than seeing this type of certification as censorship, it should be seen as an attempt by the Church to safeguard Church teaching and to give the faithful an official standard from which to assess the competing voices on the internet.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.