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Cover story

Publishers afraid to risk infidelity to new catechism

Special Report Writer

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, proposed by Pope John Paul II as "a special gift" and "a sure norm for teaching the faith," may turn out to be one of the least quoted documents in the history of U.S. Catholic publishing.

Publishers are shying away from using substantial quotes from the book to avoid an official U.S. bishops' review process that has resulted in publication delays and has required some publishers to make significant additions to or deletions from their projects.

The result is that readers will be "looking less and less at the primary source [the catechism itself] and ending up with secondary sources or commentaries," said Redemptorist Fr. Robert Pagliari, editorial director of Ligouri Publications. "So the whole review thing seems to me to be self-defeating."

"We'll use the '499 rule' in all our books," said another publisher, who requested anonymity. "We will just make sure quotations from the catechism never amount to 500 or more words" -- at which point manuscripts must be submitted for review to the U.S. Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Under general provisions of copyright law, said the publishers, the owner of a copyright must be notified if a book uses a total of 500 or more words from another work. Applying conditions to the use of copyright material is generally left to the owner of the copyright. Very often permission is given with little bother.

The Vatican owns the copyright to the catechism and has insisted that books using more than 500 words from the catechism be submitted for permission to use the text. The committee established to oversee the copyright approval has determined that any works submitted must also undergo a detailed review process to determine if they "conform" to the catechism.

"There is a considerable amount of concern about the present review process," said John Thomas, president of the Catholic Book Publishers Association and marketing director for Paulist Press, "a feeling that publishers are being driven to unnecessary limits. And there is certainly a level of anxiety."

The 499 rule solves only one of the problems that have surfaced since the ad hoc committee for the catechism was created by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in August 1995. Those most intimately affected by the committee's supervision are publishers of catechetical materials, since their works are subjected to a particularly rigorous review.

"I think all the logistical issues spawned since the committee's creation may not have been appropriately anticipated or thought through," said Neil Parent, executive director of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership. "We may be confronting a significant quagmire in the publishing community." Nevertheless, he added, "we are extremely hopeful all these matters can be worked through."

Little known committee

The little known and less understood ad hoc committee has several major functions: "to supervise the use of the copyright for the catechism on behalf of the Holy See, ... to review catechetical materials voluntarily submitted as to their conformity with the catechism ... and to study the feasibility of a national catechetical series based on the catechism."

The six members of the committee include Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, the chairman; Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston; Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco; Archbishop Francis George of Portland, Ore.; Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh; and Bishop Alfred Hughes of Baton Rouge, La. Another 12 bishops were recently appointed to assist the committee in its work, but their names have not yet been announced.

An Office for the Catechism has been set up at the bishops' conference headquarters in Washington to handle communications between the committee and Catholic publishers. The staff consists of Fr. John Pollard, the director; Fr. Thomas De Vries, coordinator of assessment and research; and two administrative aides.

A catechetical work or series submitted for conformity review is sent by the office to one of the bishops, who is assisted by several catechetical and liturgical experts from a pool of 40 to 50 such persons appointed by the committee. Names of members of the pool and their status as clerical or lay have not been made public.

The principal review instrument is a 49-page "protocol" that lists some 400 statements taken from the "In Brief" summaries at the conclusion of each section of the catechism.

The bishop and his team determine whether the work is "in conformity" or "nonconformity" on each of the statements by checking the appropriate boxes in the protocol.

The entire process is confidential, so that publisher and author have neither contact nor dialogue with the review team.

The results are sent to the full six-member committee, which reviews the review. From there, it goes to the Office for the Catechism, which relays the findings to the publisher.

Since the beginning of formal operations last March, said Pollard, former head of the catechetical office in the Chicago archdiocese, 12 series or partial series have been submitted. Three have been found to be in conformity.

In some of these cases, substantive changes or additions were required. Other submissions are still under study. The names of approved (or rejected) series are not released by the committee. Pollard said the committee's mandate is to study publications exclusively for their doctrinal content. It is barred from taking into consideration such matters as pedagogic, cultural or age-appropriate aspects of the work.

Serious questions

From the beginning major publishers of catechetical series, including Silver Burdett Ginn, Brown-Roa and Sadlier, have had serious questions about the details of the procedure. Such is the nature of their apprehension that none of these major publishers was willing to speak to NCR on the record about their concerns or experiences with the committee.

However, from a variety of other publishers and catechetical experts (many of whom also exhibited great apprehension about being quoted), as well as off-the-record conversations, a picture of the troubling issues emerges.

The publishers' first concern is the secretive nature of the review, with no possibility of dialogue during the process. "It's frustrating to have absolutely no input in the review," said a publisher. "We don't even know who's looking at the material."

Pollard said the committee might reconsider this policy in the future, "but at this point it feels comfortable in allowing the review team to work independently."

A second concern is the potential conflict of authority between the committee and local bishops who are authorized to grant imprimaturs to catechetical works. What happens if the committee rejects a series and the bishop gives it an imprimatur -- or vice versa? Who has the final word?

"I question whether the committee has the right to do what they're doing," said Pagliari of Ligouri Publications. "The committee could be in trouble for usurping canonical authority it doesn't have."

According to Pollard, there should be no conflict, since the committee's concern is only "conformity" with the catechism, while an imprimatur relates to "freedom from doctrinal and moral error." Nevertheless, the two appear inextricably intertwined.

A third knotty issue involves the protocol, which is the basis for determining conformity. "We are hoping the committee will look at the protocol seriously," said Parent of the catechetical leadership conference. "It seems to have shortcomings. It doesn't seem to lend itself very well to wide application."

The protocol collapses the entire content of the catechism into hundreds of discrete little boxes against which the publication is judged.

Dominican Sr. Catherine Dooley, a professor specializing in catechetics and liturgy at Catholic University of America, noted that the prologue of the catechism describes the book as an "organic presentation" to be "viewed as a unified whole." The protocol, she said, "seems to destroy that organic unity by using isolated summaries that do not do justice to the book."

For example, in the section on scripture the catechism states, "In order to discover the sacred authors' intentions, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current."

The protocol presents only three short statements from the In Brief summary at the end of this entire section, none of which mention a need to consider culture, time or genre in interpreting scripture.

Equally problematic, said Dooley, is confusion about whether a catechetical document is to be measured against everything in the protocol or only against what is relevant to that particular work. In other words, must a second-grade book explain the Trinity in all its myriad aspects as laid out in the protocol, or may it concern itself only with what the publishers determine is comprehensible at that grade level?

That sort of question is "a concern," acknowledged Pollard, since the committee's mandate precludes it from considering the complexities of methodology and pedagogy. But he speculated that the bishops would be inclined to show sensitivity regarding age-specific texts.

More precise answers to such questions, said Pollard, could only be given by Archbishop Buechlein, chairman of the committee. However, Buechlein declined to speak with NCR, stating through an archdiocesan spokesman that Pollard's explanations would be sufficient and he would have "nothing more to add."

Carol Eipers, president of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, said publishers and catechists realize that the bishops have every right to direct catechetical education. "We want them, the chief catechists, to be involved at every level," she said. But she too feared the process in its present format views material in one narrow dimension.

"Doctrinal conformity is good," she said, "but there are other considerations necessary in any review -- like teaching methodology, developmental appropriateness and issues of inculturation."

In addition, Pope John Paul calls for the catechism to be integrated with the documentary tradition of the church, she noted, citing the various general and national catechetical directories that have guided publishers in the past. How the new process relates to these documents is far from clear.

Exclusive concentration on doctrinal conformity was especially troubling to Gabe Huck, director of Liturgy Training Publications. The protocol process, he said, "is acceptable to no one. The committee seems to be treating the catechetical establishment as a child or adolescent to be watched over. To think that the beauty and breadth of the faith can be somehow filtered through a protocol of little boxes is to go nowhere. This sort of thing can only strangle and confine the living faith."

Although submission of catechetical materials to the committee is described as voluntary, publishers are fully aware that their business will be in real jeopardy without committee approval.

Asked one publisher, "How likely do you think it would be that a bishop will accept a series in his diocese if the committee has rejected the series or if the publisher has declined to submit it?" Silver Burdett Ginn's revised series, This is Our Faith, which recently received conformity approval from the committee, already "has a leg up" on competing companies still anxiously waiting for word, publishers agreed.

Silver Burdett is making certain that customers are made aware of its favored status in advertising blurbs. Pollard said the committee's review can take up to six months. Delays can throw off printing schedules, even preventing a company from having its series advertised and available for purchase at the start of a given school year.

"Catechetical publishing is a multimillion-dollar industry, the competition is keen and timing is everything," said one publisher who requested anonymity despite the relatively innocuous nature of his comment. Another said, "What you have to realize is the interplay between publishers and bishops is very, very delicate, and we do not wish to jeopardize it in any way."

Copyright permission

The committee's mandate to supervise the copyright on the catechism has caused alarm in the broader Catholic publishing world, since compliance here is mandatory, not voluntary. All publications (other than strictly scholarly works) that quote 500 or more words from the catechism are to be submitted to the U.S. Catholic Conference Office for Publishing and Promotion to insure the excerpted works are used accurately. Then the publication goes to the ad hoc committee to establish whether or not the entire work -- including sections that do not quote or even refer to the catechism -- is consistent with the catechism.

Pollard said it is important to distinguish between "conformity with the catechism," which applies to catechetical materials only, and "consistency with the catechism," applying to any document quoting 500 words or more from the catechism.

Materials in this latter category do not have to pass the protocol test, Pollard said. They are scrutinized by the committee only to make sure that "nothing contradictory" to the catechism is in them. But publishers are concerned that the process of determining consistency is taking inordinate amounts of time, creating scheduling snafus similar to those reported by catechetical publishing houses.

Peter Dwyer, marketing manager at the Liturgical Press and immediate past president of the Catholic Book Publishers Association, said his company has not encountered problems yet, but he has heard comments that the evaluation process is long and cumbersome.

Even more aggravating, he said, are reports of cases in which publishers are forced to make changes or additions that do not appear to be within the scope of the work (see accompanying story).

Yet complaints are muted, said Dwyer, because "if you're publicly identified as a complainer you may be remembered in ways that are not helpful to your organization." The more common reaction from publishers of works dealing with the catechism is an invocation of the 499 rule.

Thomas of the Catholic Book Publishers Association said it would be "most unfortunate" if a trend is established to quote the catechism minimally or not at all. But publishers, he noted, are loath to submit to what they perceive to be a kind of "reverse censorship" that takes away the voice of the author and vitiates the purpose of the publication.

Bishop Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis., chair of the bishops' Committee on Education, said it "comes as a surprise" to him that documents quoting from the catechism are subjected to such scrupulous scrutiny.

"I'm far removed from that [the committee on the catechism]," he said.

"That's just the problem," commented a catechetical leader. "The great majority of the bishops don't have the slightest idea what's going on."

All the concerns have been made known to the committee during the past year, and Pollard said all questions are taken seriously.

Last May the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership submitted to the bishops' Office of Doctrine a list of 38 questions, many of which related to the secrecy of the review, the meaning of conformity, the time required for review, the credentials of the reviewing experts and the peculiarities of the protocol.

Last June the committee members met with a group of Catholic publishers. The dialogue was reported to be polite and extremely low-key.

Pollard said the publishers got full answers and did not appear to be uneasy or threatened.

But the concerns remained, and the Catholic Book Publishers Association at its meeting in California in February authorized the drafting of a letter urging the committee to clarify procedures and calling for alterations in the review process.

Also in February the catechetical conference arranged an ongoing "linkage" with the bishops' committee, whereby Pollard will sit on the conference representative council to keep the leaders informed and to solicit feedback. The ad hoc committee itself recently sent letters to the major catechetical publishers urging them to evaluate the process and to present their own recommendations.

"We're applauding that move," Thomas, of the publishers' association, said. "It's an indication of good will on both sides." The bishops' conference is scheduled to review the committee's activities and determine its future at its meeting next fall.

Regarding the proposed development of the U.S. bishops' own catechetical program, there has been no progress and no apparent enthusiasm on any side. "That's not going anywhere," Thomas said. "It would be completely insane."

"I would have a concern from an ethical standpoint if the bishops were to publish their own texts," Parent said. "It would put them in the position of having their own series while they're reviewing for conformity or nonconformity texts from publishers competing with them for business. It wouldn't work."

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997