50 YEARS ON
Of all the developments in our society in the past 50 years, none is probably more rapid and relevant than so-called “Information Technology” (IT). The development of the Personal Computer and the accessibility of its rapidly developing technology to just about every individual in the developed world has changed not merely how things are done, but mindsets too. In the ecclesiastical and canonical fields this is ever more apparent too, with its obvious effects not only on the application but also the promulgation of law.
Canon 8 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that the official vehicle for publication and promulgation of universal ecclesiastical laws is the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which Pope St Pius X instituted by his motu proprio Promulgandi (29th September, 1908). In practice, though the Acta appears eventually, it does so irregularly. The Holy See launched its website on the internet in December 1995, and in 2001 Pope John Paul II solemnly promulgated by the click of a mouse on his laptop computer the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Oceania to the bishops of Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, Pope John Paul’s very last Apostolic Letter was called The Rapid Development (24th January, 2005). Written to mark the 40th anniversary of the Decree from the Second Vatican Council Inter Mirifica (on the Media of Social Communications), he acknowledged the significance of rapid development of IT in the modern world:
Chanceries and tribunals welcomed developments in IT largely to facilitate more efficiently the typing and collation of documents, avoiding the dangers of enigmatic handwriting. The first so-called “Word Processors” became affordable and relatively straight-forward to use by the mid-1980’s. They were basically typewriters, but now one could afford to make mistakes, as “typos” could be easily remedied and corrected on small monotone monitors before being finally printed. However, the major benefit was that documents could now also be stored in a non-paper format. Magnetic tapes and diskettes could replace mountains of paper. The Holy See recognised the developments in space-saving technology but also the dangers of the electromagnetic medium, which could be erased faster than they could be programmed. Many who leapt to store vast quantities of data on the early modules of storage certainly now rue the day as data is damaged by incompatible with current technologies. In 1989 the Apostolic Signatura permitted diocesan Tribunals to archive the Acta of marriage cases on microfilm, rather than any electromagnetic medium, though the original paper copies of sentences and decrees still had to be retained (cf. Roman Replies 1990, 22).
The advent of the “Personal Computer” (PC), and in particular the IBM model number 5150 on the 12th August, 1981, will probably go down in history as one of the key events of human development! Computing was until then almost exclusively the realm of lofty university science blocks and high-level government and military establishments. Now the keyboard and screen in an ordinary person’s office would no longer be restricted to processing documents as in between endless typing one could play the “Patience” card game! But there would, of course, be a lot more one could do. The partnership in 1981 of the then relatively small Microsoft Technologies and the mighty IBM led to the creation of the MS-DOS computer language system that eventually developed into the “Windows” Operating System, which in turn would make the operation of a computer for many diverse purposes accessible to the general public. Graphically-based menus and methods of operation meant one did not have to learn the language of a computer to use one. And as the number of PCs mushroomed, so did the development of “software” – including even a commercially marketed program which effectively runs the whole marriage Tribunal process electronically, and which is run by more than a few American diocesan Tribunals.
Integral to all the developments in personal computing was also the concept of “networking” – connecting computers to one another so that information was shared and exchanged. This basic principle underlies the “internet”, which it is said to have had its origin in the connection of military radar systems around the USA in the late 1950’s. The biggest contribution to the internet’s development was the technology of “packet switching” (literally, sending data in small “packets” which could easily be jumbled up, but still re-assembled in the correct order at its destination). Once it didn’t particularly matter if data was disturbed when it was transmitted and received, the potential for the internet was in place. Data made accessible on key computers could now be accessed by any computer connected to the complex system of cables and connections that have evolved, via (normally) the telephone system.
How has the world of Canon Law embraced these incredibly rapid developments in IT? In terms of sharing information, virtually all recent ecclesiastical documents are easily available “on-line”. The official Vatican website has a comprehensive collection of documents in many languages going back to the papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903). One of the great advantages is that they are searchable for key words and terms, and no longer is it necessary to spend hours over printed volumes finding the crucial paragraph. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts is expanding its resource of documents in the English language on the Vatican website, though the majority of documents are still in Italian only, and date back only to 1994. Clearly this is an ongoing project, just starting off. The English translation of the Instruction Dignitas Connubii (25th January, 2005) took several months before it reached the website, though French and Spanish-language canonists were able to access their versions almost immediately. The Supreme Tribunal of the Roman Rota has published all the Holy Father’s annual addresses to it from 1979, and currently even publishes its Jurisprudence course examination results on its web pages. The Apostolic Signatura, however, publishes only its “profile” in Italian and the relevant articles from Pastor Bonus in Latin.
There are few other English-language canonical resources on the internet, however. A few independent websites offer canonical advice and publications, and there is even a site dedicated to the former judge of the Roman Rota Cormac Burke, with some of his sentences published in full. The Canon Law Societies of Britain & Ireland, America and Canada all maintain up-to-date information about their work. There is also an English language Canon Law “Discussion Group”, where over 1000 subscribers from 49 different countries can post canonical questions and watch the subsequent discussion. Documents can also be shared, including various diocesan policies and translations of laicisation decrees, etc. The discussion group arose from an incentive of some members of the Canon Law Society of America in the mid-1990’s, and membership is open only to those who are regarded as bona fide canonists. In September 2006 postings from a discussion on this group about parish mergers and suppressions were presented by civil attorneys to an American diocese as part of a group’s recourse against a decree by the diocesan Bishop, provoking somewhat of a crisis on the presumed confidentiality of the group.
This matter exposes the fact that with all the marvellous developments of IT, there also come serious compromises. Data can be (far too?) easily copied and accessed, and no network, particularly if it has a connection with the internet, can be 100% safe from so-called “hackers” who might want to steal information from any organisation whilst in the privacy of their own homes. This kind of threat is a world away from the situation 50 years ago, and probably underlies the reluctance of many ecclesiastical institutions fully to embrace the IT revolution. What future developments may benefit the canonical sphere are difficult to predict. Certainly the technology already exists whereby, for example, an auditor could digitally record an interview for a marriage case and then this file be uploaded onto a computer which transcribes the whole interview almost immediately. However, the “human touch” can never be fully substituted, and inevitably regional accents and expressions would require cross-checking from the auditor – rendering any benefit to the system almost negligible. However, the ability to exchange files almost immediately by e-mail to anyone anywhere in the world, certainly would help in the collection of evidence through rogatories. Any apprehension about security and the possible interception of email by hackers could easily be remedied by encoding software which is widely available, and would certainly be more safe than sending material by regular post (or “snail-mail” as IT fanatics like to call it!).
Where the developments in IT can certainly impact on ecclesiastical matters is in the sharing of information, whether it is in discussion fora or in the publication of legislative texts. One day even Canon 8 may be amended to incorporate the official vehicle of promulgation as www.vatican.va