November 11, 2005

Free Software's surprising sympathy with Catholic doctrine

Author: Marco Fioretti

"The technological configuration underlying the Internet has a considerable bearing on its ethical aspects. Use of the new information technology and the Internet needs to be informed and guided by a resolute commitment to the practice of solidarity in the service of the common good. The Internet requires international cooperation in setting standards and establishing mechanisms to promote and protect [that common good]. Individuals, groups, and nations must have access to these new technologies. Cyberspace ought to be a resource of comprehensive information and services available without charge to all, and in a wide range of languages. The winner in this process will be humanity as a whole and not just a wealthy elite that controls science, technology, and the planet's resources. Determined action in the private and public sectors is needed to close and eventually eliminate the digital divide."

The above statements sound as if they could have been written by Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). In fact, they come from the Vatican Report "Ethics in Internet" (EiI). The FSF position on the same issues is that society "needs information that is truly available to its citizens -- for example, programs that people can read, fix, adapt, and improve, not just operate."

Affinities between Catholic doctrine and Free Software

Technically (and ethically) speaking, Free Software, regardless of its price, can be freely modified and shared, and is free from per-seat costs, royalties, patents, and similar restrictions. The same definition can be applied to file formats and communication protocols. The term Free (with uppercase F) here indicates software and standards available under these conditions. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has published several documents that clearly match this approach to information technology. Here are some examples.

For the purposes of this article, we can regard software programs as a category of machinery. The 1967 Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the development of peoples "Populorum Progressio" said, "Unless the existing machinery is modified, the disparity between rich and poor nations will increase rather than diminish."

Then in 1971, the Pastoral Instruction "Communio et Progressio" (CeP) on the means of social communication stated:

With the right to be informed goes the duty to seek information. Information does not simply occur; it has to be sought. On the other hand, in order to get it, the man who wants information must have access to the varied means of social communication.

Consequently, the Catholic Church should not use proprietary file formats and computer protocols, since they can become a way to prevent access to information, restrict it or lock end users to any specific (maybe too expensive) software program.

This is very similar to Stallman's request to put an end to proprietary email attachments.

This right to information is inseparable from freedom of communication.

When it comes to computer-based communication, this can be only guaranteed with Free formats and protocols. It also implies that computer users should be free to choose which programs to use for such communication. The same wish was expressed by Stallman.

This freedom of communication also implies that individuals and groups must be free to seek out and spread information. It also means that they should have free access to the media....
An example of the cultural potential of the media can be found in their service to the traditional folk arts of countries where stories, plays, song and dance still express an ancient national inheritance. Because of their modern techniques, the media can make these achievements known more widely. They can record them so that they can be seen and heard again and again and make them accessible even in districts where the old traditions have vanished. In this way, the media help to impress on a nation a proper sense of its cultural identity and by expressing this, delight and enrich other cultures and countries as well.

Many developing countries are already successfully using free software and formats to preserve their cultural heritage since free software can be adapted quickly, at the smallest possible cost, to any language or dialect. Catholic missionaries worldwide should be informed that such tools exist.

Ten years after CeP, Pope John Paul II wrote in the Encyclical "Laborem exercens" that through work, man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes "more a human being." As long as he

intends his work also to increase the common good developed together with his compatriots, thus realizing that in this way work serves to add to the heritage of the whole human family, of all the people living in the world....
In Christian tradition, the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone....
The Church has always proclaimed that "when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself."

The GNU Manifesto of the Free Software movement only talks about programming and programmers, but there we can find a vision of work (programming in this case) as a way to become a better person and help others: "The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the sharing of programs.... GNU serves as an example to inspire and a banner to rally others to join us in sharing. This can give us a feeling of harmony which is impossible if we use software that is not free. For about half the programmers I talk to, this is an important happiness that money cannot replace."

In 2002, besides the above quoted EiI, the Vatican published "The Church and Internet," which reminds us that "Church leaders are obliged to use the full potential of the computer age to serve the human and transcendent vocation of every person" because the Internet "offers people direct and immediate access to important religious and spiritual resources." The same document points out that, as early as 1992, the Pastoral Instruction Aetatis Novae had called two-way communication and public opinion "one of the ways of realizing in a concrete manner the Church's character as communio." The Catholic Church is expected (EiI) "to have a visible, active presence on the Internet and be a partner in the public dialogue about its development" and "be of help by indicating ethical and moral criteria which are relevant to the process."

What about the file formats? The format used to store Church files is even more important than the programs used to access them. Official Church records should last and remain available for millennia. Nothing less durable than parchment, or less freely readable, should be used for these purposes, especially if its availability depends on the survival on any single private company.

Technology recommendations for the Church

The Catholic Church has acknowledged that the Internet is an opportunity too important for all humanity to be missed. However, to the best of my knowledge, the Church has not yet realized (at least officially) that Her concerns and recommendations on social communications should be reflected in the software, file formats, and computer protocols She uses.

The Free Software movement, albeit unintentionally, has already created software "machinery" that fully conforms to all the guidelines cited above. The Catholic Church's vision on means of social communication can be fully realized with free protocols and file formats such as OpenDocument. By itself, choosing the right technology will never be enough to achieve common good, but it is a necessary step in the right direction.

After I started writing this article I discovered two Christian pastors who have, each independently, come to similar conclusions. The first one is Rev. Parris of the
Matheteuo Christian Fellowship, a Baptist Church,
who has also published several manuals to help churches (and other non-profit institutions) to switch to Free Software. His "Penguin Driven Church Office" is almost exclusively a technical report, but also notes that "Richard Stallman ... may be an atheist, but his view of software has close theological parallels to Christian theology. Proprietary software limits my ability to help my neighbor, one of the cornerstone of the Christian faith."

I also came across a Catholic priest in Italy, Don Paolo La Terra, who is the director of the Diocesan Office of Ragusa (Sicily) for Catholic Education, Culture, School and University, besides teaching in several institutions. In his home page, Don Paolo declares he is convinced that "both the formulation and the philosophy of Open Source are very evangelic" and dedicates to his the readers "a verse which, I think, really is a theological foundation of Free Software: 'Simply I learned about her, and ungrudgingly do I share -- her riches I do not hide away' (The Book of
Wisdom 7,13)".

The whole Catholic Church should steer in this direction. Remember the request contained in EiI: "Determined action in the private and public sectors is needed to close and eventually eliminate the digital divide." To this aim, the Church should officially adopt only free (in the sense explained above) file formats and computer protocols, both internally and for any communication with third parties. Practically speaking, this means, at least:

  • Adopting the Free international standard OpenDocument for office documents in all Catholic institutions worldwide.
  • Avoiding proprietary file formats and protocols on Catholic Web sites and in official Church documents, and not accepting them in any official communication.
  • Making sure that all Catholic Web sites are certified as viewable with any browser.
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