On February 12, Pope Francis released his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon, Querida Amazonia. No sooner had it been released than the internet was full of contradictory reports about what it had or had not done, as well as commentary on its meaning, import and value. Much of this commentary was written by authors without any relevant theological or canonical training. Few people had time to sift through the barrage of conflicting interpretations to find out what had actually been done or not done.
The Holy Father himself expressed frustration about the media’s response. According to one bishop’s comments summarized by the Catholic News Service, “The pope told the bishops that months or even years go into producing documents and what gets reported by the media ‘is one line’ or that ‘the pope didn’t have the courage to change the rules of the church.’”
After the dust settled last week, many people were left confused and turned to their preferred expert on why the document mattered and what it means for the future. Some suggested that a system of ecclesiastical certification would have been especially helpful at times like this. Such forms of certification would not indicate that the last words on commentary had been made, but would provide readers of information an initial means by which to discern accuracy. We agree. The confusion surrounding important papal documents—in all pontificates and not only the present one—suggests that a “yellow check” system would shine under such circumstances.
Writing at First Things early in February, we proposed a “system of simple, voluntary, low-stakes ecclesiastical approbation for Catholics who publish online.” The suggestion received support but also criticism and important questions. We thought it might be helpful to address a number of common doubts. While there are prudential concerns with any new proposal and while not every criticism can be addressed, the following represent the most common criticisms.
Claim 1: Dioceses are incapable of implementing such a system
One common criticism presented was that bishops would simply be incapable of implementing such a system because it would be too burdensome to manage within a diocese. This may be the case in some dioceses, but bishops would be free to abstain from implementing the system if they felt it could not be properly managed.
Dioceses regularly handle the approval of speakers and organizations in their territories, ensuring that allegedly Catholic events (events branding themselves as Catholic) align with Catholic teaching. Many dioceses have entire departments devoted to just this activity, and of course, if such a system were normalized and popular, further resources could be added. While dioceses can struggle to keep up with the volume of needed reviews, the process is not only normal but expected.
We envision the yellow check as being granted to people who teach the Catholic faith in some capacity, not simply to any Catholic person who applies for it and is not heterodox. This would drastically cut down on the number of people who would be likely to request the yellow check. Who qualifies as “teaching the Catholic faith” would of course be left up to the bishop of a diocese, but it would likely cover those who run websites reporting on the Church or Catholic news, and especially those who claim expertise or have degrees in the fields of theology, canon law, Church history, etc.
Claim 2: People could bishop shop to receive the yellow check. The internet covers the whole world and cannot be managed. People could simply lie about having the check.
The granting of the yellow check would be based on the ecclesiastical domicile of the person seeking the check. In other words, a person (or business) would have to be domiciled in a diocese to receive the yellow check, regardless of where he publishes on the internet. Only one’s own bishop could grant the yellow check, and other bishops could not grant the check. The only exceptions would apply to religious under the jurisdiction of a superior (e.g., an abbot). But the publishing activities of religious are already overseen by their orders.
According to the Code, domicile is “acquired by that residence within the territory of a certain parish or at least of a diocese, which either is joined with the intention of remaining there permanently unless called away or has been protracted for five complete years” (canon 102). In other words, in order to “venue shop” for the check, people would need to, in effect, permanently move to the territory of a different bishop. Such a situation is extremely unlikely, and if a person wanted to do so, it would hardly be harmful to the system itself.
A person would not be able to lie about receiving the yellow check because a list of those who have received the check could easily be published on a diocesan website. As only a diocese is in possession and control of these websites, the issue should not prove problematic.
Media platforms such as Facebook have been vocal in calling for greater involvement of governments in monitoring content on their websites. In a February 16 Financial Times op-ed accompanying a new Facebook white paper, Mark Zuckerberg insisted on the importance of additional government regulation of online content. Catholics face a potentially alarming scenario: in the absence of some ecclesiastical guidance, we are likely to face governance efforts from other, far less friendly sources.
Claim 3: Bishops have failed to properly manage imprimaturs and mandata; they certainly would not be able to handle the yellow check system
Most complaints about the imprimatur and mandatum systems concern their ineffectiveness. If such a claim were true (which we do not argue here), the yellow check system would actually refocus attention on the role of the bishops to manage teaching in their dioceses where such discussions now commonly occur—online.
As we noted in the original article, traditional forms of teaching in classrooms and in books are far less popular than they once were, and bishops have less incentive today to spend time focused on these forms of teaching. The internet, on the other hand, has become a main source of teaching for many Catholics. Seeing its importance may spur bishops to exercise their authority.
Criticism of bishops regarding the imprimatur and mandatum is rooted in the feeling that bishops are not doing enough, not that they are doing too much. This system provides them with a voluntary and nonintrusive means of doing more.
Claim 4: Such a system would require continual monitoring of the internet and burdensome censorship
There would be no need to monitor the whole of the internet. As noted, this system is focused on individuals who have received particular approval. At most, reviewing the work of that group of people would all that would be required. Additionally, the system can also serve as a propriety check on the person in possession of a yellow check. Everyone is put on notice that the person is expected to stay within the bounds of approved standards. Violations of these standards would likely be immediately reported and addressed.
As noted, the system is entirely voluntary and cannot in any serious sense be considered censorship. If a person does not agree with the yellow check system, he or she can simply abstain from submitting themselves for approval and continue to publish online. Even those who do not request a yellow check, however, are still required by the Code of Canon Law not to utter blasphemy, gravely injure good morals, express insults, excite hatred against the Church, incite animosity against the Apostolic See or an ordinary, etc.
Claim 5: This system has no teeth and does nothing to regulate harmful content
A system need not be aggressive to regulate well. The yellow check system acts in a number of ways to promote orthodox teaching. For one, it incentivizes people to seek it out. If the check is only given to those with proper credentials who have submitted to the requirements of the Church, it provides an incentive to content creators to align themselves with these requirements. Instead of seeking popularity through loud marketing or even outrageous commentary, people could simply display their episcopal approval. In other words, magisterial and episcopal authority is what will be guiding people, not a need to get attention or stay ever relevant. The yellow check provides a kind of social cachet that can only be gained through proper teaching and behavior.
If a diocese were to implement such a system, it would be entirely reasonable to also provide training sessions to those seeking the check, in order to provide proper standards for teaching and behavior before a check is granted. If a person has received a yellow check, his or her teaching and behavior would then be bound by the agreed-upon standards. If he steps out of line with those standards, the check can be easily removed. In other words, the incentive act and teach properly remains even after he is approved.
Finally, bishops retain all traditional means of correcting improper social communication, which they are free to use at their discretion. This system does not take away any right of a bishop to properly correct his clerics or the faithful; it simply provides an additional, voluntary system.
Claim 6: Bishops cannot be trusted or are not orthodox enough to make these sorts of evaluations
By far the most common criticism given was that the faithful cannot trust a yellow check system because bad bishops may give the yellow check to bad theologians or teachers. In other words, the risk is simply too great to allow bishops to exercise such a teaching or governing power, as, according to those making this criticism, some bishops are too heterodox or unfaithful. Some critics even went beyond the practical here by arguing that bishops as a whole have lost their authority to exercise this kind of power, and that governing in this way is simply illegitimate and so should be rejected or ignored till some point in time when the laity can trust them again.
The ecclesiological problems with this view should be obvious: the Church has always held that the bishops are successors of the apostles, blessed by their consecration with particular charisms and protected by the Holy Spirit to lead and teach. As Lumen Gentium puts it: “For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock” (§25).
While the bishops surely do not teach infallibly by themselves (canon 753) and do not act well merely because they were consecrated, they are clearly held to be provided grace with which they can cooperate for the governing of the Church. To press the criticism too far implies that the bishops constitute a bloc whose authority can be gained or lost by the determination of individuals or groups within the Church; yet Church government contains no mechanisms for such an approach.
A kind of soft Donatism lurks in sweeping claims about the loss of bishops’ authority. In the fourth to sixth centuries, Donatists held that sinful clerics lost the power to confect the sacraments. But Donatists did not hold that the existence of sinful clerics spoiled the ministry of saintly ones. Today’s criticism goes well beyond that. When critics deny good bishops the ability to govern their dioceses because of the existence of bad ones, they cripple attempts to improve ecclesiastical government. “We cannot let Bishop X to issue yellow checks,” goes the objection, “because Bishop Y would be allowed to as well.” But this is not a sentence that aligns well with the Church’s claim that bishops are “teachers endowed with the authority of Christ.” More simply, it is difficult to imagine how the Church’s problems are to be resolved without bishops exercising their teaching authority.
Let us, however, imagine a worst-case scenario, where a “bad bishop” grants a yellow check to a notorious heretic. The yellow check system focuses attention back to the bishop who granted the yellow check. In other words, the focus would be on the proper, authentic teaching authority—the bishops—to explain or correct.
Claim 7: The bishops will favor certain viewpoints and disfavor others
This objection fails to distinguish between levels of theological discussion and thus highlights a situation that is not in itself problematic. A yellow check would not imply, any more than a mandatum does, that those who have it are not permitted disagreement over matters that are open to discussion. The task of determining what matters are open and closed is already undertaken by bishops as an essential part of their authority. Consider Canon 216: “No undertaking is to claim the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.” This canon permits the bishops to solemnize certain associations and organizations as “Catholic” while denying others.
Among associations deemed Catholic, there can be a divergence of viewpoints on nonessential matters, as well as different emphases. A yellow check system would foster better intra-ecclesiastical discourse by forbidding those with the yellow check from criticizing each other as non-Catholic or the like. At the same time, the yellow check would promote unity around the essential matters of the Church’s magisterium.
While bishops have largely done well in regulating the use of the name “Catholic,” some bishops may have done a poor job in permitting its use. This of course would not mean that everyone has free rein to use the name Catholic in any association because some bishops or bishops conferences may have imprudently granted it at some point.
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council promulgated one of its lesser-known decrees, Inter mirifica, on the media of social communications. In that document, the council encouraged the formation of a Catholic press and Catholic media apostolates more broadly—from newspapers to periodicals to films, radio and TV programs. The council fathers were clear that the Church had a strong interest in directing those projects: “It will be the task of the Bishops, however, to watch over such works and undertakings in their own dioceses, to promote them and, as far as the public apostolate is concerned, to guide them, not excluding those that are under the direction of exempt religious.”
Without natural and prudent systems of governance, conflicts like the one surrounding the Amazon Synod and Querida Amazonia will continue to escalate. We believe that a yellow check system, built on Bishop Barron’s suggestion, provides a sound beginning for the discussion of how bishops might help the faithful navigate the online landscape. Even though many criticisms of the yellow check system are emblematic of larger ecclesiological conflicts, we believe these criticisms can be addressed and that such a system can help to allay those conflicts.