Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is it OK to plagiarize a homily? Discuss.

Deacon Greg Kandra has an interesting post up at the Deacon's Bench. It seems that someone went to Mass last weekend and heard the Deacon's homily - only it wasn't the Deacon who was preaching. A pastor reportedly took Kandra's sermon, made one edit (Kandra's wife became the priest's mother) and delivered a terrific homily on World Marriage Sunday. It just wasn't his homily.

The deacon isn't particularly perturbed, "As far as I’m concerned, the Holy Spirit owns the copyright to my work, not me, and I’m glad others can make use of the material that I post." though he stops far short of endorsing the practice. Most of his commenters concur - it's not a big deal. Personally, I'm appalled. And where I teach, that sort of behavior could get you expelled.

Could I submit as my weekly column one of Karl Rahner SJ’s columns for Die Presse, and not attribute it to the late Fr. Rahner? It’s been a busy week here, I have a sick kid, lots of grading to do and a grant deadline. The message is the same, we both write with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (at least in my case, I hope and pray I do). What's the big deal, after all?

To quote one of the commenters on the Deacon's Bench: "A big cheer for your attitude. The Holy Spirit likewise holds my copyrights. If someone wants to use them and not attribute, that is fine with me. If some from a distant parish gets something out of it, even better." It's been a long time since Rahner's columns appeared, and they're in another language, and if my readers get something out of it, even better. AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam - to the greater glory of God) as the commenter closed. Another commenter intimates that we (I?) shouldn't be so fussy - Matthew and Luke plagiarized Mark after all.

Would you say something to the editor or to the bishop in charge of the archdiocesan paper? I imagine so, and you would be right to do so. To pass off Rahner's words as my own, no matter how good my intentions are, is plagiarism, pure and simple. (I think I still remember my moral theology!)

As Pope John Paul II put it the homily "commits the person who pronounces it to a dual responsibility: towards the Word and towards the assembly.” This behavior seems to me to be irresponsible to both the Word and the assembly. The responsible way for the pastor to begin is to say, “I found this wonderful homily by Deacon Kandra – and was so moved by his words and thought them so valuable for this community that I wish to read them for you today.” or “This week was unexpectedly full, and I did not have time to prepare a homily – and so I share Deacon Kandra’s words with you today.”

Homilies are not academic papers, and I don’t expect footnotes or MLA style references. I do expect that the person who has been ordained to preach in the person of Christ – He who is the Way, the Light and the Truth – be truthful. If it is not your homily and you preach it, say so.

On many Saturdays the most common search term that lands people at my blog is “homily” (Google doesn't understand that my columns aren't homilies). I'm all for being a resource, I find wonderful gems in the works of other (I just don't use them without acknowledging them!) and am happy to give back in any small way I can. What do you think I should do the day I hear my own words preached back at me without attribution?

The image is from Wikimedia commons and is used under a Creative Commons License.


  1. I hesitate to post so rapidly, but this also cuts quite close (that code of honor!).

    My response: If we think of plagarism as a theft of intellectual property (which I believe it is), then it is evidently wrong and we ought not to do it. How ought we to respond when our property is taken?

    Acknowledge the error on one's blog/website/space and turn the other cheek in forgiveness without taking further action? [An Extreme Franciscan: take the stuff!] Acknowledge the wrong, potentially repudiate the plagarizer and take the necessary measures to rectify the error? [A Hound of a Dominican: Veritas!] Ascend beatifically into heaven where there will be no copyrights nor giving/taking of copyrights?) [Carmelite Visionary, perhaps?].

    Others, please offer more options!

    Perhaps the right answer(s) may not be one of these, but may be just as variegated . . . and unified . . . as the orders.

    A little unsatisfying, no? Too bad the Christian life is a kaleidoscope!

  2. Yes, it's a huge deal and terribly wrong.

    And aside from the issues of legality and just plain courtesy involved in the use of another person's work without acknowledgment is the even bigger issue of authenticity. (I was going to say, "especially in a religious context" but rethought that; shouldn't we endeavor to be authentic in every circumstance?)

    If a person is delivering a homily or sermon, he or she is in effect stating to the congregation, "I have read this passage, I have prayed with it, I have studied it, I have reflected upon it, and the following is what has emerged as my offering to you, my way of saying 'Let's explore this together.'"

    Further, a preacher to a particular congregation should be aware of the people he or she serves, and their concerns, interests, joys -- their very lives -- should be an element of consideration in his or her preparation. (That's probably the greatest challenge in the supply preaching I am doing these days.) A sermon or homily is a conversation among God, the preacher, and the people -- not a performance delivered by a public speaker.

    So I completely disagree with the good deacon here. The involvement of the Holy Spirit does not constitute a license to steal or to fabricate. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  3. Anonymous8:03 AM

    Get over it! There are more important things going on right now than blogging about this! If this is your only problem, count your blessings!

  4. As I walk beside my husband who is on the path toward the Permanent Diaconate I can say without doubt that this happens all the time.

    In pulpits all over. Priests and Deacons.

    As with a few other issues that have brought me up short regarding the church, I go back to something simple my own pastor told me when I brought up my indignation and horror at a ridiculousness perpetrated by someone who should have known better.

    "The Catholic Church is full of people. That is our blessing and our undoing."

    When I expect an institution (secular or spiritual) to fully embody an ideal I am expecting to see God right here on earth - as if that institution or person could be that.

    Like you, Michelle, I think this is wrong. Period. Simple. Easy to fix. If you're a Deacon or a Priest don't plagiarize.

    That said, the acceptance of its presence is my job. And I have to remind myself that acceptance does not equal approval.

  5. @Anonymous: your dismissive and rude tone is what I loathe most about Catholic blogging. Especially when it's posted anonymously.

    Unchristian. Uncatholic. Unsportsmanlike. Unnecessary.

  6. @Anonymous - I do have bigger problems (see here and here), but I'm still not encouraged to get over this. We say to students that one reason we don't tolerate plagiarism is that dishonesty in such things tends to lead to dishonesty in larger things.

    Can you explain why it is acceptable to deceive a congregation using accepted Catholic principles of moral theology? I'm happy to engage on that level!

  7. Sorry, it's never okay to steal someone else's work. If you absolutely have no ideas of your own, and have to read someone else's story, at least have the decency to admit that up front. Perhaps merely starting with "I have thought long and hard about this topic, but So-and-so has said it so much better than I could. Here is what he has to say."

  8. Robin's comment above makes a point well taken. I like the way she speaks of the shared experience that the breaking open of the Word involves the Lord who first spoke, the people looking to be nourished by it and the preacher whose task is to serve it out of his/her own study and prayer, faith and experience, gifts and talents.

  9. Plagiarism, i.e. lying and stealing, is a sin and a betrayal of trust with both God and the congregation. No-brainer.

    It's unfortunate, in my opinion, that the deacon's desire to be humble and generous has led him to excuse such behavior and endorse, rather than challenge, the baffling support for it in so many of his readers. I appreciated your comments there and here on the topic.

  10. The pastor cut an ethical corner, and in doing so, a truly important part of the message was lost to his congregation -- the context.

    Faith is as diverse and unique as in how it is manifested in every person.

    So by attributing the proper source, readers and listeners can fully appreciate the individual's spiritual journey that led to those specific words, regardless of which faith you ascribe to.

    Why then should we attribute readings each week to their specific apostle if it were not for interpreting the words to their life? Certainly Matthew's time as a tax collector before following was much different than Peter's as a fisherman or John's fits of temper when wrestling with his faith?

    In that message is another excellent homily ;-)

  11. I'm in agreement with most here. It would have been fine had the priest attributed the homily to its actual author. Be honest--"I read this homily and it makes the point so well that I wanted to share this with you today."

    The Church will never be perfect--because it IS full of people, who will never be perfect. But we are to strive to do our best.

    Plagiarism, whether oral or written, is not our best. Period.

    When Father uses an anecdote or joke in his homily, we probably all assume that he found it somewhere or heart it somewhere, and no one thinks anything of it. But that would not be the case if it became clear that Father's entire homily was not original.

  12. Wow. Wrong, so very wrong. On so many levels. Trust me, I often sit in church and recognize when the priest has moved into something that is clearly from a homily service. Very different from taking someone else's actual homily without attribution.

    Stealing someone else's homily wholesale -- even if said homily was inspired by the Holy Spirit -- is just that: stealing.