Is libre software Catholic?

Bit of a niche topic here (and pretty trivial), but what would Catholic / Christian philosophy have to say about the free software movement and the thought behind it ? Certainly there are many people attached to this movement with less than pious backgrounds such as Richard Stallman, but could linux for example be considered a “more Catholic” operating system than windows ? Seems to me that the Unix philosophy is more virtuous than that of proprietary software. On the other hand, open source software seems to be filled to the brim with athiests and moral relativists.

Welcome to Catholic Answers Forums! It might be interesting to post the question also at Linux Questions.

I would put open software – or “free” software as in free speech, but not necessarily as in free beer – on about the same moral footing as other freedoms and free economic models, which is to say that it is not incompatible with Catholicism, but does not particularly promote it.

But I’m ready to brainstorm it. Does the development and use of free/open software tend to respect human dignity, encourage solidarity among persons, and/or promote the common good? I think it does.

I certainly think that some versions of Linux are a great example of community geared towards benefiting all members of community. I really love tinkering with Linux. Just remember, Linux tends to be free for a personal user, but it tends to be quite pricy once you want to scale with it.

Yes. I gave a presentation to this effect in college. Free and Open-Source Software is a very Catholic idea. Closed-source, proprietary software, by contrast, is unChristian. For 1800 years, the Church thrived and there was no such thing as Intellectual Property. Imagine the works of Michelangelo, Byrd, and Palestrina locked up so that nobody can use them unless they enter extortionate licensing agreements. (Well, that’s what we have today with OCP…)

I often say that the Holy See and dioceses worldwide should adopt Creative Commons licensing for their documents and publications. Right now, the Roman Missal and Papal encyclicals are copyrighted. That is an injustice to the faithful who should be able to freely share the patrimony of the Church. An appropriate Creative Commons license would protect the rights of the content creator as well as open up the content to be shared.

1 Like

The cost of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and the like are real factors in budgeting an IT department, but by far the largest costs are in the salaries of those who maintain the systems. A good sysadmin/DevOps engineer is worth his weight in gold. Likewise for a CISO and other cybersecurity professionals.

It is nice that Free and Open Source Software might be free of charge, but real enterprises consider the TCO (total cost of ownership) for these systems, and that cost can outstrip running Windows, for which admins are trained every day on desktop systems.

I mean personally I think the cost is fair to be sure. I really am a Linux fan. My favorite distro has been Gentoo hands down but I’m just weird that way lol. I’m just saying corporate Linux is a little different than personal distributions when considering it philosophically. Just adding depth for accuracy.

I am not sure I follow your reasoning. Corporate Linux is very close to desktop distributions, often using the same one, such as Ubuntu. The upstream bug fixes benefit everyone equally: that’s the egalitarian ethos of F/OSS.

I think it’s great that large corporations can all equally “buy in” to open source. They can submit pull requests and add features and fork software when necessary. Places like github are great ecosystems for incubating software, and it allows for public scrutiny (although it has been said that “lots of eyeballs” theory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.)

Even my trashy little $50 feature phone has tons of F/OSS software on it, and has all the licensing disclaimers to match. It runs KaiOS, formerly known as FirefoxOS. Of course, this is Linux under the hood, just like Android is! Fascinating stuff.

Does Creative Commons license preserve the text from unauthorized changes? If not, this may be the reason for the Church copyrighting its publications and documents.

It can, with the addition of the “ND” (No Derivatives) clause. This is the beauty of Creative Commons; but such a license is not considered “free”.

1 Like

I do not want to dispute your overall claim, but this factoid is incorrect. In the 6th century, St Columba got into a dispute that is counted as the first case of copyright law, the foundation of intellectual property rights. As a monk, Columba visited another monastic school and copied out a page of a psalm, or a page of St Matthew’s gospel. The abbott, perhaps a renowned saint himself, claimed the page belonged to him. The dispute raged through Ireland until a decision was reached, “to every cow her calf, to every book its copy.” Then the rage erupted into a deadly battle, if some sources are believed.

Distraught hat blood had been shed because of himself, St Columba left Ireland and founded a new monastery on Iona, off the western coast of Britain. From there he evangelized the pagan Picts, laying the foundation for Christianity in what would become Scotland. Iona, the tiny island near Oban, became a spiritual center because of its monastery, a tradition that lives on in a post-reformation community on the island.

I am sure we can find other moments when intellectual property rights have had dramatic impacts in the Church. Evangelization relies on spreading the word as broadly as possible, to as many as possible, so it is likely conflicts have arisen many times within the Church with people who wanted to keep some part of it for themselves.


The source and distribution of software is morally neutral. Aside from possibly an application of the principle of subsidiarity, I fail to see how this is an issue that touches on faith or morality.

I will just say that, while packaged corporate software (most of all Apple) basically installs and maintains itself, Linux is a royal pain in the gluteus maximus to try to do anything with, other than simple web surfing (which, admittedly, is pretty smooth in Linux). I installed Linux on one of my machines, and if I can ever find the version of Windows that came with that computer, it will go back on. My one last good nerve has been worked.


:joy::joy::joy: Linux definitely demands attention. I do love the freedom of it but when I need something to just work I find myself tweaking security settings in iOS and then forgetting about the operating system altogether.

I guess I’m Linux at heart Apple for a brain and Windows when I can stomach it to get the job done at the end of the day. :joy:

Interesting, because at the heart of your “corporate” Apple software is a core of FreeBSD and GNU tools that comprise MacOS X. The operating system’s great success owes much to Free and Open Source Software.

I am so fed up with Windows! There are 2 reasons I still use it: As far as I know, Linux doesn’t have installed (non-cloud-based) tax-return preparation software, and I still have to provide tech support for my wife’s use of Windows!

I happily do just about everything else in Linux.

I’m not technical enough for that to be an issue for me. I wasn’t aware of what you describe. I just know that, for instance, if I want to watch a video on YouTube on Linux, I can’t just watch it — I have to go out, see if there is some kind of “canonical” plug-in (or whatever you call it), but it doesn’t match up with my version of Ubuntu, so I go out and try to update my Ubuntu… oops, can’t do that because of reason XYZ… that’s when I said “that’s IT!”, and started trying to dig out my old Windows.

Everybody likes different things. All of this rigamarole was to try to make functional an old, bargain-basement, bare-bones Compaq machine that didn’t even come with an internal WiFi card! I have to use a wireless USB adapter with it.

I’m not technical enough for that to be an issue for me. I wasn’t aware of what you describe. I just know that, for instance, if I want to watch a video on YouTube on Linux, I can’t just watch it — I have to go out, see if there is some kind of “canonical” plug-in (or whatever you call it), but it doesn’t match up with my version of Ubuntu, so I go out and try to update my Ubuntu… oops, can’t do that because of reason XYZ… that’s when I said “that’s IT!”, and started trying to dig out my old Windows.

Ubuntu sucks, lol. Artix or manjaro with xfce is the patrician’s choice for a newbie distro. It’s got all the shiny buttons of Ubuntu but with a functional package manager and none of the shady business. Anyhow, you seem conflate your ignorance of how Linux works with how functional it actually is. I’m not trying to insult you, nobody is born knowing how any software works. Your lack of familiarity with Linux when compared to windows or os x doesn’t reflect on what Linux is though. I just think if you knew more about the philosophy behind how open source software is written and what it seeks to achieve, you would be less likely to consider it completely morally neutral, even though once again this is a pretty trivial matter.

Once upon a time, Eric S. Raymond wrote an essay called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” that was designed to praise not merely open-source software development, but public crowd-sourced development. It is interesting to Catholics that he used the Cathedral as the negative metaphor for monolithic software development.

What’s also interesting is that Raymond’s central thesis, “Linus’ Law” has been shown to be untrue. Fixing bugs still requires dedicated effort and auditing, you can’t just wait for the crowds to file bug reports because they read your source code.

OpenBSD created an interesting model of security audits for code. Their aggressive hardening made them a name in the infosec industry. Many people still run OpenBSD as a firewall or in some other security role in their organizations.

Again, I’m not technical enough to maneuver all of that. If I had the patience and the time, I’m sure I could educate myself enough in Linux, I’m just not willing to get into all of that. It’s a fairly low-priority item in my life, I was just trying to see “wonder if this computer would work better if I used Linux?”.

I do like open-source software, such as Open Office, simply because it’s free. I live very modestly as a retiree, and I have to watch what I spend money on. I’m still not clear on how cooperative development and distribution of software is “morally better” than corporate software. Is home-churned butter “morally better” than Land O’Lakes or Kerrygold?

Well, that’s a very consumeristic point of view. You like LibreOffice because it is free. You can’t tell the difference between home-churned butter or store-bought.

LibreOffice represents a monumental engineering task that has gone for 25 years or so, in an effort to gain feature parity and competition with Microsoft Office. And still the battle continues. You may not know that the .DOCX format files (and the other ones ending in X) follow the open XML format, which Microsoft adopted to supplant its really horrible proprietary format. Of course, LibreOffice proposes the .ODT and family, OpenDocument formats which double down on open standards.

You may have noticed that you are using a website on the Internet. The reason you can do this is because open standards won a few key, ancient battles. For a while it looked like Novell might have a lock on IPX/SPX, but they eventually embraced TCP/IP, as Microsoft jettisoned (sorta) NetBIOS for the same. There isn’t a layer of networking that doesn’t use open standards of some kind, so the next time you want to see the difference between open and proprietary standards, take away the Internet, replace it with something vendors were never able to build, and there you have it.

Here’s the proprietary version for you: Land O’Lakes owns all the cows and all the pastures. Land O’Lakes sells butter in Land O’Lakes stores only. The butter can only be stored in Land O’Lakes refrigerators, and will not melt unless it is in a Land O’Lakes skillet. Yum!

That’s the only point of view I have when considering software — is it cheap (or better yet, free) and does it work right? True, I was an office network administrator (Novell) back when the basic job requirement for that was (a) being able to turn a computer on and (b) having a pulse, but my IT skills, such as they ever were, have decayed since then. I am not the one to come to, for deeper understanding of what makes all this work, who did it, and what manner of development has the moral high ground.

I like your Land O’Lakes analogy. I have used an iPhone 6 (inherited from my son who has the best version, he finds it amusing that I use an antique like this) for several years now, and I bristle that I can’t download any files I wish, store my own non-Apple music library on it, and so on, but everything in life is a trade-off, including using Apple products. It’s all about functionality and getting the basic life accessories I need, at minimal cost with minimal nuisance.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit