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On USCCB Bible license fees, ‘the money is not the point’

The U.S. bishops’ conference told bishops last month that if parishes want to reprint Scripture in bulletins or worship aids, they need to pay USCCB licensing fees for the privilege. While a memo to bishops said that fees are meant to protect copyrights, a USCCB official told The Pillar that the licensing fees mostly aim to discourage parish production of liturgical worship aids. 

Bishops of the U.S. bishops’ conference meet in Nov. 2019. Credit: JD Flynn/Pillar Media.

“It appears that numerous parishes may be reproducing the daily and Sunday readings in their worship aids or bulletins without a license from the USCCB,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio wrote in a Dec. 4 memo sent to U.S. bishops.

The archbishop warned that unlicensed reproduction of scripture readings “risk undermining the ability of the Conference (on behalf of the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine) to enforce its rights against commercial endeavors that use these Scripture translations in for profit manners.”

“I ask that you please advise your parishes of the situation and encourage them to become licensees if they are not already. The current rate is from $200 per year for up to 250 copies per Sunday to $1,500 per year for 1,500 copies or more per week,” Broglio explained.

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The memo did not establish a new policy, according to Mary Sperry, associate director for copyright and permissions in the Biblical Apostolate Office of the USCCB.

Instead, it was meant to remind parishes of the conference’s long-standing licensing requirements for worship aids, especially after they were relaxed during the pandemic.

“When COVID hit and we had to cease public gatherings, I was spending about a third of my time on the phone with parishes who wanted to use livestreams, etc. And we almost immediately notified [bishops] that no permission was required as long as parishes followed liturgical law.” 

“And then when we were able to come back, people had to take the participation aides, missalettes and all that stuff out of the pews. We had parishes calling us then asking what to do. And so we waived all the licensing provisions, other than that you have to reproduce it accurately and acknowledge [the copyright],” she explained.

“And so really the memo in December was to say that we’re going back to our standard policy.”

That standard policy, Sperry explains, dates back to before the Second Vatican Council, when a group of bishops, under the aegis of the national Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine, had translated and published a new translation of Scripture. Their goal was to make the Bible more intelligible to readers than the long-used Douay-Rheims Bible translation, which dates back to the 16th century.

Sperry explained that when bishops published the “Confraternity Text” of the New Testament in the 1940, and Old Testament texts subsequently, they noticed a problem: Publishers were often “making little adjustments to the text … and as you might imagine, the Biblical scholars were concerned.”

Sperry said that as that issue arose, the Holy See’s delegate to the United States urged the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to copyright the text of its translation. 

“The best way to assure that the bishops controlled all of the rights to the text was to own the copyright, because that gives us legal backing in the United States to enforce it,” she said.

“And that really is the origin of why the text was copyrighted in the first place,” Sperry added.

As the bishops prepared after Vatican Council II to approve lectionaries with vernacular readings, they eventually adapted the Confraternity Bible project, and in 1970 published the New American Bible — which was at the time one of three viable options for Scripture used in liturgy — the NAB, the Revised Standard Version, and the Jerusalem Bible.

By 1980, Sperry said, most parishes were using the New American Bible — and when the Vatican instruction Liturgiam authenticam came into force in 2001, the New American Bible became the only Bible translation authorized for liturgical use in the United States. 

The copyright for that text remains owned by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc, an affiliate of the USCCB, whose membership is constituted by the administrative committee of the bishops’ conference. The conference manages the licensing for the NAB in the U.S., and is agent of the Mexican bishops’ conference, to manage licensing for the Spanish-language translation used in the U.S.

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When commercial publishers wish to use the New American Bible in missals, lectionaries, or other texts, they’re required to obtain a license from the USCCB.

Sperry said that requirement allows the bishops’ conference to ensure that commercial worship aids are comprehensive and high-quality, include all legitimate options in the readings, and include other things, like official guidelines for the reception of the Eucharist, and all four options for the Mass’ Eucharistic prayer. 

“There are guidelines established by the Committee for Divine Worship and reviewed periodically by that committee, that you have to fulfill if you’re putting out a worship aid like this,” Sperry explained.

The licensing agreement also allows the conference to assess worship aids before they are published, so that resources like “Magnificat,” “Word Among Us,” or the “Ignatius Pew Missal” are reviewed by the USCCB before they’re sold, she said.

“The bishops firmly believe that the People of God are entitled to receive the liturgy in its integrity. And when you see all the various [commercially produced] things that show up in pews or in people's mailboxes, those have all been reviewed. Every single one of those issues comes through my office in Divine Worship,” Sperry explained.

But she also acknowledged that parish-produced worship aids are not the same as commercially produced missals, and that the bishops could use licensing arrangements that assess a fee to commercial producers, but allow-non commercial use and reproduction by Catholic parishes, seminaries, cathedrals, and other institutions, even while protecting their copyright.  

And Sperry acknowledged that some pastors wonder whether the USCCB charges parishes to reproduce Scripture because it needs the revenue. While the money is accounted for among the conference’s other licensing revenue, Sperry told The Pillar that parish-specific license revenue isn’t tracked by her office.

Because the point of licensing fees, she said, is to deter parishes from producing their own worship aids.

“I honestly could not tell you how much money is involved in this because we don't even total it. It's not something that I track because the money is not the point. If it were the point, I would track it. I track everything that's important,” she said.

“The point is this is not an option that the conference wishes to encourage.”

“The point is to encourage the production and use of resources which present the liturgy accurately and in its integrity,” she added. Sperry said her office is concerned that when parishes produce worship aids, “they will not fulfill the things that the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship has said that a popular participation aid should include.”

“I’ll give you an example: A lot of parishes like to post their little preparation books for funerals or weddings. That’s very common … parishes want to create their own, and so they come to me, and frequently they’re using an older form of the rite. That happens more often than I care to admit.”

“Or with funerals, a lot of people type out [readings] from the  [1989] ‘Order of Christian Funerals,’ instead of the [2002] ‘Lectionary for Mass.’”

“Or sometimes parishes won’t include all of the options. Or they’ll include things that aren’t options. So it’s not about the money. The money is accounted for, obviously. A parish sends a check for their license, we account for it, because we take very good care of those sorts of things. But we don’t have a separate accounting to say that parish licenses brought in a certain number of dollars this year,” she added.

“If I spent a couple of hours, I could probably track that down. It's not important enough for us to do that because that's not the point,” Sperry said.

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Sperry acknowledged that the bishops’ conference does not have a mechanism for systematically policing or enforcing licensing policies — and that many parishes are probably creating their own “popular participation aids” without licensing from the conference.

She estimated that of the roughly 17,500 parishes in the United States, licensees are “not anywhere near” even 10% of them. 

“My guess is that there are more parishes in violation of the policy than we'd like there to be,” she explained. 

“This is probably a surprise to absolutely no one.”

Sperry told The Pillar that while the USCCB aims to use its policy to deter parishes from creating worship aids missing vital elements, the conference is not actually able to check over the worship aids of even those parishes which do pay a licensing fee — meaning that those parishes too might be creating aids in violation of conference guidelines. 

But even if the conference policy is having little deterrent effect, Sperry says she thinks the bishops should keep trying.

With commercial worship aids or missalettes, “we have a level of quality control, so that we can say the text here is presented in its integrity with accuracy. That’s why we want to discourage the creation of those individual things on a regular basis.”

“We recognize that if you’re having the parish picnic Mass, you have to have a worship aid, because you’re in the middle of a field, and you’re not going to take $10,000 worth of hymnals into a field. I totally get that. But we want to assure that integrity is there all the time.” 

She acknowledged that licensing fees might be a burden to some parishes. 

Still, “buying vestments is expensive too, but you don't show up in your street clothes to celebrate the liturgy,” she said.

“The ars celebrandi matters. Liturgy deserves our best always. That extends to worship aids.”


“It really comes down to the fact that the People of God deserve the liturgy in its integrity. That really is the bishops’ concern.”

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