Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Thou Shalt Not Lift"

The story floated around some months ago, and now it's back again: the Polish church is attempting to crack down on clerics who illegally use web texts as their own preaching....
The book, "To Plagiarize or Not to Plagiarize?" is an attempt to set boundaries in the wake of pulpit plagiarism claims that have hit not just Catholic clerics in Poland but ministers from other Christian denominations in the United States.

Temptation is just the click of a mouse away as more and more churches post their sermons online, not to mention the availability of books and church-sponsored magazines that provide inspiration for sermons.

There is a thin line between drawing inspiration and lifting the text outright, said the Rev. Wieslaw Przyczyna, one of the book's editors....

Paul Hasser of the Center for the Liturgy of St. Louis University in Missouri said he remembered seeing priests reading their Sunday sermons directly from a book when he was a boy.

"That bothered no one then," said Hasser, who runs the Center's sermon Web site.

But with the quick dissemination of sermons on the Internet, and the involvement of copyright law, times have changed.

Now, in Poland, a priest caught using a plagiarized sermon can face stiff fines or even as long as three years in prison, though no one has actually been charged or sentenced.

The concern about ensuring that priests follow a righteous path is what led to the publication of the church's book last month, said Przyczyna, who helped edit the 150-page text that is available to Poland's 28,000 priests for about $13.

Przyczyna, a sermon expert at Krakow's Pontifical Academy of Theology, told The Associated Press that existing sermons can be used — "but according to rules" that forbid a word-for-word citation without properly acknowledging their source.

"You need to give a clear signal: The text is not mine," he said. "If priests lack this kind of sensitivity, they should at least be afraid of the law."

In Poland, he said more and more clergy and churchgoers have reported a "spreading problem" of the lifting of sermons, but no precise research has been done and exact figures are just guesses.

It is an issue that is particularly sensitive in this country of 38 million people, where more than 90 percent of the population is Catholic and many attend Sunday Mass. Priests enjoy great moral authority, especially in rural areas.

Przyczyna said that offending priests "were not aware" that "they were acting immorally and ignoring the copyright law" but "believed they were using the Church's public domain."

"Saying a sermon means bearing witness to one's own faith, and how can you do that using someone else's text?" he said. "It is falsehood creeping into the preaching of truth that God is."

Przyczyna recounted a recent encounter with a nun in Krakow who said she had stopped attending Masses by her favorite priest after he delivered — word-for-word — a sermon she'd seen on the Internet written by someone else.

Parishioners at another church — suspecting their priest of plagiarizing — attended Mass with their own copies of a sermon posted online for that specific Sunday.

When the priest delivered it verbatim, they met with him afterward and privately rebuked him for the plagiarism.

The concern is not just local. The Biblioteka Kaznodziejska, a bimonthly magazine that publishes sermons, was checking whether a Polish text offered for the February edition was actually a translation from the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, an aide to Pope Benedict XVI.

It's chief editor, the Rev. Maciej Kubiak, said that the people lifting sermons mostly have been young priests in cities who are Web-savvy but lack experience in speaking publicly.

"You see it in their approach to the Internet: You can draw freely from whatever is there," Kubiak said. "Preparing a sermon means an effort but you must be honest in it."
For what it's worth, experience shows that, when translated and posted promptly, the Pope's weekly Angelus/Regina Caeli meditations have been of widespread use to preachers in a bind. And, really, given the quality, that's not the worst thing in the world... so long as it's applied to the needs of the flock.