Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing

Canon Law in valid HTML

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The most important thing to understand here is that none of you are going to understand this project, which itself is half-finished. None of you will understand why conversion of Canon Law to valid HTML is necessary even after I explain it.


The Code of Canon Law sits at an atrocious Web page on the Vatican’s equally atrocious Web site. The Vatican does Web sites the way it does punishment of sex-offending priests. The Vatican curiously fails to do Web sites as well as it does, say, money-laundering.

That Web site, first of all, is hosted in the United States (by Edgecast). Fundamentally, everything on Vatican.VA is simply an export from Microsoft Word – for Windows, obviously. In fact, the default character encoding is not Unicode but Windows (overriden on certain pages).

Exporting anything from Microsoft Word produces a file that cannot be converted into anything greater or lesser. Even placing a Word document into InDesign requires extensive postprocessing, starting with removing spurious wordspaces before paragraph breaks. Even a meticulously engineered Word document, with every single character rendered inside some sort of style, cannot be straightforwardly converted to a better document.

And here we process, in full cope and biretta, right over the first landmine. None of you will have any idea what a style is. Stylesheets have been used in word processing since the late 1980s – I should know, since I was typesetting entire reports, with multiple paper sizes and orientations, in WordPerfect 5.1 no later than 1988, all with the use of styles. “Style” does not mean “fashion.”

Like character encoding, stylesheets are something that cannot be explained to a Windows user, who is functionally retarded or developmentally disabled and cannot even tell you what a trackpad is. (Nor do they know that word, or understand it is one word, not two.)

The Windoid knows how to do three things: Play Solitaire or download porno (user bases overlap completely; here the map is the territory); top-post E‑mail; and enter nothing but the characters imprinted on their computer keyboards, and only in top-posted mail or in MS Word.

I can teach blind teenagers valid HTML and have done so (deprogramming them within minutes from incorrect development practices), but any discussion with a Windows user more complex than “Mild, isn’t it?” is as excruciating as talking to a slow child. One could at least buy that child an ice cream and be on one’s way.

The Code of Canon Law is deficient and cannot be reused

The Vatican’s failed Web pages, exported from Word for Windows, cannot be turned into anything else. Like, say, a printed book – absolutely required for any form of legislation, because mutable Web pages can and will be mutated.

Of course there are printed volumes of Canon Law. None of them is official, or indeed canonical. This outcome is presumptively intentional on the part of the constitutionally deceptive and underhanded College of Cardinals. Even if it weren’t, though, the Vatican would be unable to turn its deficient Web pages into a book.

You couldn’t, either.

So I tried to fix that.

Understanding valid HTML

A computer has no idea what a Web page “says.” It also has no idea how to present that page to you. To solve the problem, we use markup. We state explicitly in Web pages which text is, say, a paragraph or a heading. We also declare what isn’t even text in the first place, like images and embedded videos. Computers are then able to understand which parts of a page are, say, paragraphs, headings, images, and videos. Computers then understand the structure of a page.

But we need to determine how those page, and their structures, actually look. (Or, for blind users, sound – though this is rarely actually dealt with, let alone crafted.) To do that, we link stylesheets to our Web pages. Those stylesheets tell a computer to display paragraphs in a certain font and size, headings in a different pairing of same, and (for example) images with or without borders.

(There. You now know more than most working Web developers do.)

Structured markup plus a stylesheet is how the Web actually functions. I’m skipping a lot of details here, none of them relevant to this project.

But you – or a well-programmed computerized system – can take structured HTML and turn it into greater or lesser forms, like plain text (great for top-posted E‑mail!) or a fully typeset and readable chapter in a printed volume. Because the file itself contains semantic information about what each and every passage of text is (paragraph, heading, etc.), it becomes possible to add or remove complexity.

Now remember the bit about attaching a stylesheet. That’s actually optional. Now, if you the author do not specify things like font and size, a browser, or even a dumb implement like Word for Windows, will assume and impose its own styles. This outcome can deceive newcomers, and indeed it amounts to a kind of Heisenbergian uncertainty theorem of HTML: An unstyled document can have no typography associated with it, yet to read that document we always have to be looking at typography.

Irregardlessly, an unstyled HTML document with semantic markup can be turned into anything greater or lesser one might wish. And that’s what I’ve produced.

Notes on file conversion

The original files are an absolute nightmare. Of course I did not just copy and paste the browser-rendered text. (I suppose Windoids also know how to copy and paste. Perhaps even via keyboard.) I imported just the right amount of the original HTML, and proceeded to laboriously repair it. (The originals use tables for layout and occasionally include spurious characters like bold superscribed letters [very much not a footnote reference]. This thing uses BLOCKQUOTE for indention [not “indentation”].)

Remember, these are the people refusing to prosecute priests who rape boys or nuns. What we are dealing with here is the actual legislation they are not using in those cases. So yes, dumb and malevolent.

Now: Why half-finished?

I’ve been working on this thing off and on for months. Unless God’s grace intervenes (you never know), I have no reason to expect I’ll finish it.

Why? Because of the actively evil J.D. Flynn, an agent of diabolism. This noxious antagonist brags of the pivotal role he played in inducing the aptly named Cardinal Roche to in turn induce the sitting pope to throttle the Latin mass.

Believing, as I do, in the pope’s authority as the universal legislator of the Church, I take his special reservation of that dispensation to the Apostolic See as an important piece of clarity about the implementation of Traditionis custodes, and am grateful that bishops can better implement the law with clarity about what prerogatives are theirs, and which belong to the Dicastery for Divine Worship.

I am flummoxed, I must admit, or humbled, to see that an analysis I wrote sits on a direct trajectory that led to a change in the universal law of the Church. That doesn’t happen every day.

And there might well be traditionalist Catholics who are wishing I’d kept my trap shut. Oh well. I’m not their advocate. But I care a lot about good governance, and I call it like I see it.

(“I am going to call you an evil servant of diabolism in writing,” I told him. “Please comment.” He didn’t.)

On a previous and unrelated question, only one canon lawyer bothered even to answer my E‑mail.

The Catholic church is the most corrupt institution on God’s green earth. Good thing we have Him; he’ll fix it.

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Posted: 2023.10.27 ¶ Updated: 2023.10.30

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