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The first thing to understand about the AOD vs. Voris/RCTV dispute

January 3, 2012

The first thing to understand about the dispute between the Archdiocese of Detroit and Michael Voris and/or RealCatholicTV is that the dispute turns essentially on canon law. As a canonical dispute, it will not be decided by seeing who musters more or louder supporters in the blogosphere; it will be decided by recognizing what Church law says about such matters and then abiding by that finding.

With this being firmly understood, however, we may still use the dispute to set out some aspects of Church discipline for those wishing to understand such things better. I comment here not as an advisor to the AOD, but as an established observer on public canonical issues, and I reiterate what is noted to the right of every ITLOTL post, namely, that this blog represents my opinions only.

Canon 216 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law contains two sentences, the first of which is not at issue: “Since they participate in the mission of the Church, all the Christian faithful have the right to promote or sustain apostolic action even by their own undertakings, according to their own state and condition.” As far as this part of c. 216 is concerned, Voris/RCTV may disseminate whatever they want, whenever they wish, about whatever they please. Whether Voris/RCTV speak correctly or mistakenly on a given matter, or whether they show appropriate prudence and charity in expressing their positions, is their responsibility. Catholics are free to reach differing opinions about those questions.

But sentence two of Canon 216 is another matter: “Nevertheless, no undertaking is to claim the name ‘Catholic’ without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.” The plain text of this canon unquestionably puts the burden on those behind an undertaking to secure consent from the competent ecclesiastical authority before claiming the name “Catholic” for their project(s). Voris/RCTV expressly (indeed, pervasively) use the word “Catholic” to name their undertakings. They repeatedly proclaim that theirs is “Real Catholic TV”, that theirs is a “Catholic Investigative Agency”, and that theirs is “The Catholic Critic”.

The Archdiocese of Detroit demurs, whence the dispute.

Let me suggest an analogy.

Say that I’m a pretty smart lawyer, that my legal advice is usually right, that it secures for folks a better situation than they had before, and that it saves them lots of time and tons of money. All of this would mean zilch if, along the way, I held myself out to be licensed for the practice of law in some state where I was not authorized to practice. The state would not have to prove that I don’t have a law degree (in fact I do) or that my advice was unsound (it might be sound or not, depending on the issue) or that I am profiting by my work (perhaps I don’t). The state would simply have to show that I am claiming to be something I am not, namely, someone authorized to act as an attorney. I would be lucky if I got-off with just a Cease-and-Desist order.

Similarly, the AOD does not have to prove that Voris does not have a degree in theology (in fact he does), and/or that Real Catholic TV, and/or the Catholic Investigative Agency, and/or The Catholic Critic, etc., is wrong about something they said (frankly, much of what they say is sound), and so on; instead, the AOD simply has to show that one or more Voris/RCTV undertakings claim the title “Catholic” without having secured canonical authorization to make that claim.

Some people apparently don’t like how Canon 216 reads; they are free (per c. 212 § 3 no less) to make their complaints to the competent ecclesiastical authority (postage for first class letters to Rome starts at 98 cents). I can even think of some arguments they might offer (just as I can think of some counter-arguments they would need to anticipate) but, in the meantime, Canon 216 means what it plainly says: as long as Voris/RCTV claim for their undertakings the title “Catholic”, Canon 216 is applicable; but drop appropriation of the name “Catholic” for these undertakings, and Canon 216 has nothing more to say.

Surveying the blogosphere, I see a number of secondary or tangential issues (some reasonable, and some ridiculous) being raised in this matter. Most of these, however, seem resolvable by looking at what Canon 216 actually says—and doesn’t say. Perhaps I will address these issues in another post.

For now, I simply encourage Catholics to do here what I have encouraged them to do in many other contexts: pay attention to what canon law actually says when what is at issue is the operation of canon law.

Update, 5 Jan 2012: A few more things to keep in mind about the AOD and Voris/RCTV

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