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Some thoughts on the ‘jurisdiction’ question in the AOD – Voris/RCTV matter

January 9, 2012

Part One

Further to the “jurisdiction” questions being raised about two public statements made by the Archdiocese of Detroit concerning Michael Voris and Real Catholic TV, and with the same provisos in place regarding my earlier posts (here and here) on this matter, it seems to me that some people (a) are unaware that I addressed this question in my earlier blogs; or (b) know of my answer but don’t follow the point I made; or (c) know of and understand my answer, but disagree with it.

Group A, of course, I may simply refer to my original post.

For Group B, perhaps I can rephrase things this way: every time someone asks what “jurisdiction” the AOD has over Voris/RCTV to make the statements it made, they imply, without stating, that the AOD needs “jurisdiction” (however that is to be understood) in order to make the statements it has made. I reject that unstated assumption: the AOD does not need “jurisdiction” over Voris/RCTV in order to make the public statements it has made, most recently, that it “does not regard [Voris/RCTV] as being authorized to use the word ‘Catholic’ to identify or promote their public activities.” Indeed, as declarations of fact, the statements could have been made by anyone with adequate knowledge of the situation; had those persons direct responsibility for the welfare of the Church in their area, their statements would carry all the more weight. In any case, given that Voris resides there and that RCTV programming is produced there, coupled with the fact that AOD is frequently asked about Voris/RCTV, the right of the AOD to make the statements on them, is obvious, I think—this, without any need to find and prove “jurisdiction”.

Group C offers several variations on a theme, but I’ll address them jointly.

Let’s suppose, pro arguendo, that some canonical “jurisdiction” is, now or later, needed in order for the AOD to take cognizance of the activities of Voris/RCTV. Okay, well, the jurisdiction of the AOD over Voris, as an individual residing in the archdiocese, would be clear; most of the “jurisdiction” discussion so far, however, seems to be whether the AOD has jurisdiction over the internet project(s) called “RCTV”. It is claimed by some that RCTV is not owned (or controlled, or registered, or etc) by/to anyone residing in the AOD, and therefore, the AOD has no authority over it.

Notice, once again, however, that an implicit assumption is being made, namely, that ownership (or control or registration, etc.) of an internet operation is not just a basis for canonical jurisdiction over a cyber-undertaking, it is the sole basis for the exercise of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, to the exclusion of all others (save Rome, of course). That, folks, is quite a claim, and one not even expressly stated. But it’s there, subtly shaping an answer before the question is fully grasped.

Setting aside factual disputes over who exactly owns/controls what in this matter and where, may I ask, what canon do people propose as granting exclusive competence over an internet undertaking only to the ecclesiastical leadership in the territory in which the operation is, say, commercially registered? Absent such an exclusivist canon, however—one precluding canonical jurisdiction over internet operations to any diocese except that one wherein a human owner lives who registered the subject website—the argument being alleged against AOD jurisdiction fails.

Now, I’d be happy to save folks the trouble of looking for that canon, but some might not want to take my word that it’s not there. That’s fine; while they go look, I’ll just say that discussions about “canonical jurisdiction” (1) assume as necessary something that is, so far anyway, not necessary; (2) assume the accuracy and completeness of one version of the ownership-control aspect of this matter; (3) assume as being obviously settled by law some issues that are not expressly treated in the law; and (4) assume that canonical jurisdiction over an internet undertaking can be based only on the civil ownership/registration of a website, to the exclusion of any other factual or canonical basis for jurisdiction.

That’s four pretty big assumptions. In a row. None of which, as I have mentioned earlier, are going to be settled in blogosphere, but all of which suggests that this matter is more complex than some are making it out to be.

Part Two

Speaking of more complex, while the above should suffice to contextualize the “jurisdiction” challenges being raised so far, for the more speculatively inclined among my readers, let me add a few points.

Personally, I am open to canonical arguments (and they would necessarily be arguments by analogy, as the 1983 Code does not deal specifically with internet questions) whereby, say, registration of a web address by a human being residing in diocese X accords the ecclesiastical officials in diocese X some jurisdiction over the canonically relevant activities of that website and the persons associated with it. Open to, I say, not necessarily advocating for, at least not here.

But surely it’s not hard to see that construing such jurisdiction as being necessarily exclusive would be disastrous of good ecclesial order in regard to activities claiming the name “Catholic” on the internet. Consider: ownership of a website can be divided among several entities, it can be masked (not necessarily for nefarious reasons), it can changed almost at will, it can be re-registered across diocesan lines or across oceans, it need not be held directly by Catholics, or for that matter by human beings (at least not immediately). Even if, therefore, something as ephemeral as, say, a domain registration were found to confer a degree of jurisdiction over an undertaking regulated by canon law, making such a slender reed the sole and exclusive basis of canonical jurisdiction would be to surrender, in very short order, any effective ecclesiastical authority over certain undertakings by Catholics on the internet, no matter how much said activity impacted the welfare of the Church and the salvation of souls. Couple that with the fact that civil protection for the name “Catholic” is slim to none, and one sees that the interest of the Catholic Church in canonically protecting her name against being misappropriated on the internet, especially by those known to be her own sons and daughters, is quite high.

As the public begins to consider certain questions that some canonists have been thinking about for quite a while, let me just say for now that, although the Code of Canon Law came out before the internet was a pervasive fact of life and a powerful tool for the proclamation, or distortion, of the Gospel, that does not mean that canon law is bereft of ways to approach new jurisdictional matters. Canon law has dealt with novel questions of jurisdiction over many, many centuries. It has sophisticated jurisprudence for determining such things as personal and territorial jurisdiction, shared and exclusive competence, preemption, prorogation, and so on. And these questions, however rarified they might seem, are ultimately driven by the pastoral responsibilities of the Church.

Put another way, if the Church has an interest in what happens on the internet, then canon law has an interest in what happens on the internet. The task before us, then, is to apply those laws in such a way that, while respecting the rights of Catholics to share in the mission of the Church, we carefully preserve the freedom of the Church to proclaim as she decides best the Good News that Christ left in her care.

Here’s hoping these thoughts help make that goal clearer. + + +

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn’t have time to write a short post, so I wrote a long one instead. Sorry.

PS: some thoughts on related matters occur to me, but for now I must plead pressing prior commitments. I’ll try to return to them soon.

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