Roman Catholic Church seeks to own ‘catholic’
Yesterday, His Grace was rather amused by this story. Today, he is rather irritated by it.
It is one thing to be geographically territorial about domain names: by all means, let HM Government own ‘.co.uk’, France own ‘.fr’, Zimbabwe own ‘.zw’, and the Vatican City State own ‘.va’. But by granting contested theological and philosophical terms to one single authority ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is inadvertently arbitrating between competing interpretations and conflicting histories in order to determine an official global orthodoxy.
Vatican City has spent $740,000 in applications for control of the top-level extension ‘.catholic’ (and the equivalent in the Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese alphabets) and will thereby be able to decide who is permitted to use the term. Msgr. Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said that controlling the top-level domain ‘will be a way to authenticate the Catholic presence online’. He confirmed that the Vatican plans only to allow ‘institutions and communities that have canonical recognition’ to use the extension, ‘so people online – Catholics and non-Catholics – will know a site is authentically Catholic’.
But what of those who contest that the Roman Catholic Church is itself authentically catholic?
Significantly, we read that the Vatican does not plan to allow individual bloggers or 'private Catholics' to use ‘.catholic’. Msgr. Tighe explains that ‘use of the domain would be limited to those with a formal canonical recognition: dioceses, parishes and other territorial church jurisdictions; religious orders and other canonically recognized communities; and Catholic institutions such as universities, schools and hospitals’.
So, His Grace will not be permitted use of ‘anglo.catholic’, and (barring some ecumenical miracle) the Church of England will perpetually be denied use of ‘reformed.catholic’ (which heretical oxymoron is likely to be withheld forever).
What would Shi’a Muslims feel if the Sunnis were to apply for and be granted global control of ‘.Islam’, thereby determining forever the orthodox composition of the Ummah? What would Roman Catholics feel if the Orthodox were granted ‘.Church’? Significantly, Msgr. Tighe said that such concerns had been expressed to ICANN, and the corporation has been warned of possible conflicts, ‘particularly involving religious groups that do not have any clear or strong central leadership’. In consideration of their own application, he said: “We decided we were best suited to apply for ‘.catholic’.
So, that’s alright then.
As at 13th June, there has been one request for ‘.christmas’ (doubtless commercial), but no requests for ‘.christian’. Two applicants have asked for ‘.church’, but no one has asked for ‘.orthodox’, ‘.lutheran’ or ‘.anglican’.
And, frankly, His Grace isn’t surprised at $185,000 per application with an ongoing £25,000 per annum. ICANN is still open to applications, so if His Grace manages to raise £115,000 over the next few weeks, he’ll contest the Vatican’s application.
The thing is – let’s be honest – that ‘.catholic’ would be owned exclusively by the Latin Rite Church of the Western Empire. Its own claims to universality are not shared by the Reformation churches or those of the Orthodox East: we are no longer in an age of cultural and religious unity or linguistic and liturgical uniformity under the authority of the Pope in Rome. The application to own ‘.catholic’ simply because ‘we decided we were best suited’ is the claim of medieval Christendom. It is the Roman Catholic Church which calls itself Catholic, and has done so since the Emperor Constantine pushed through the requisite religio-political formulae to establish politician-bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, whose task it was to quell the rise of the Arian Christians and, indeed, to obliterate them. Since most of the history books of the time were written by (Roman) Catholic clergy, and most of the libraries were owned and run by monks, it is unsurprising that 'Catholic' became synonymous with 'catholic', and Western canon law became systematised and widely inculcated by missionaries of the Nicene vision.
Six years ago, Pope Benedict XVI aroused the ire of ‘the whole Islamic world’ when he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who observed that Mohammed ‘spread by the sword the faith he preached’. Merely for choosing to repeat this undeniable fact of history, the Pope was deemed to be a ‘bigot’. But the Latin Church is no less guilty of spreading its creed through alliances with powerful military patrons in the West. It, too, has been intolerant and certainly persecuted the Arians and other heretics in a manner no less bloody than that meted out by Mohammed. It was the Archbishop of Canterbury who (politely) reminded Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to the UK that ‘Christians have very diverse views about the nature of the vocation that belongs to the See of Rome’.
And Dr Williams spoke of ‘the Church catholic — East and West, global north and global south’. Martin Luther left a legacy – some call it a wound – which fundamentally challenges still the claim of the Latin Rite Church to be the sole authoritative expression of catholic unity. Protestantism confronted the ‘Magisterium’ and established a decentralised Christianity: catholicity is no longer owned exclusively by the one who calls himself the ‘Successor of Saint Peter in the See of Rome’.
Insofar as the Holy Roman Empire of medieval Western Catholicism is past, and the only resonance of the vision of the Emperor Charlemagne subsists in Europe’s latest falling empire, should not the centralising impulse of the See of Rome be challenged once again, and the symbolic bestowal of ‘.catholic’ be subject to a little more scrutiny than “We decided we were best suited to apply for (it)”?