Vatican II on the Media, Part One

The second document of the Council Fathers, Inter mirifica, issued on December 4, 1963, deals with the ‘media’.  The topic presents many difficulties of translation and interpretation.  Examining these difficulties is most enlightening.  The decree itself is rather brief, running to ten short pages in the Flannery edition.  The territory is rather new for official Church proclamations, and so the wording is cautious, calling for a more in-depth study to be undertaken with more concrete directives.  This study was duly carried out and the results published January 29, 1971.  Communio et Progressio is much longer than Inter mirifica and is important for anyone who works with the media (including the internet!).  Nevertheless, we will confine ourselves to commenting only on the actual documents of Vatican II.

First of all, let’s notice that this is a ‘decree’ instead of a ‘constitution’.  The latter term designates a document addressing doctrinal questions, and as such will always be of greater weight than a decree.  Decrees can have several different functions, but they tend to deal with matters of practical discipline touching on the common good.  In this case, the question is ‘how should Catholics make use of the modern means of communication?’

We should note that the papacy was not in a favorable position to offer guidance on these matters between 1939 and 1958, except for a few years after World War II and before Pope Pius XII’s health began to fail.  During that interim, he reversed the largely negative tone of Pius XI, who had, for example, more or less rejected the motion picture as a vehicle for evangelization.  Pius XII, by striking contrast, organized a series of gatherings for professionals in the movie industry.  At the conclusion of each, he gave an address encouraging them to apply the gospel principles to their craft, whether it be screenwriting, stage or sound design, acting, etc.  This is one notable example of the manner in which Pius XII anticipated the Council in his thinking, urging the laity to be a leaven of society, sanctifying their places of work and preaching the gospel in all walks of life.


By 1962, television had become a major instrument of change.  Indeed, the twentieth century witnessed an incredible explosion of mass media: radio, recording, daily newspapers, cheap paperback books, weekly magazines for mass consumption, moving pictures, the telephone, television, and finally the internet.  One challenge in offering guidance on these different media derives from the fact that each medium has its own parameters, its own effect.  Marshall McLuhan famously (and cryptically) taught that the ‘medium is the message’.  Television can convey information and a ‘message’ from one person to an audience, but it also, in subtle ways, conveys its own sensory effect.  People get ‘hooked’ on media because the use of them tends to encourage more use, even if it means watching late-night infomercials or surfing celebrity gossip sites.  I’m not certain that the Council Fathers fully reckoned with this; insightful observers like McLuhan and Thomas Merton were still a few years off from their seminal critiques.

Let’s explore this a bit more.  Not only do I write on this blog, but I keep a Facebook page and our monastic schola has a YouTube channel.  To what extent are we free to ‘get our message out’?  On Facebook, I post almost exclusively quotes from the Church Fathers and other important saints.  Sometimes 12 people like the quote of the day, sometimes 3.  Should I try to select popular quotes?  That is, should I tailor the message to maximize its compatibility with Facebook and its governing logic?  The format restricts the amount of text you can reasonably squeeze into the post; Facebook is not really designed for careful exposition of ideas.  So the ‘message’ is restricted and to a large extent shaped by the medium.


The manner in which media shape the message and alter the ways in which we see the world itself are matters of morality.  The Fathers explain this pithily in a statement sure to rankle most modern persons.

 “The second question bears on the relation between the rights of art—to use a current expression—and the moral law. The controversies to which this problem increasingly gives rise frequently trace their origin to an erroneous understanding either of ethics or of aesthetics. The Council proclaims that all must accept the absolute primacy of the objective moral order. It alone is superior to and is capable of harmonizing all forms of human activity, not excepting art, no matter how noble in themselves. Only the moral order touches man in the totality of his being as God’s rational creature, called to a supernatural destiny. If the moral order is fully and faithfully observed, it leads man to full perfection and happiness. [7—my emphasis].”

This statement occurs in the first of the document’s two chapters, dealing with the groundwork that will eventually suggest the responsible use of media.  Thus, in paragraph 5, the Fathers urge us to “form a correct conscience on the use of the media.”  First of all, this requires that the message itself be true and complete, serving the good of the audience (whose welfare, in an increasingly democratic world, depends on reasonably easy access to good information).

As we’ve already hinted, the media themselves can impinge on the senses to such an extent that the medium dominates the message.  This is where ‘aesthetics’ must be subordinated to ‘ethics’, the autonomy of art to the objectivity of the moral order.  This is a rather unforgiving way of putting things.  I believe that the document is correct, and this happens to be an area of particular interest for me.  Space prohibits my exploring this now, but suffice it to say that the separation of aesthetics from ethics is a relatively recent phenomenon.  It is also notable that this separation was something very deliberately sought out and accomplished by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Why?  I would offer this teaser of a response: the rise of the totalitarian impulse in the 17th century (particularly crafted under Louis XIV by Richelieu, perhaps unwittingly) necessitated a strict control on the subversive nature of art.  Art was eventually made to serve the problematic church/state conglomerate that resulted from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  Kant, writing in the late 18th century, reinstated a certain ‘autonomy’ for art.

I would further suggest that medieval art enjoyed more latitude for playful irreverence for a number of reasons (primarily two: 1) the lesser impact of the media and instruments available; and 2) the dynamic tension between a transcendent worldview and the virtue of personal humility, even in kings).  Modern governments (including for much of this period, the Church’s government) tend to absolutize themselves, and in states controlled by such governments, the ambiguities of art, which corrode the appearance of totality, must be carefully controlled if not eliminated.  So in this sense, Kant was surely right, at least in his cultural situation.  Even though Kant was not writing on behalf of Catholic theology, the desire to remove art from the coercive power of any earthly kingdom is largely compatible with a Catholic understanding of the role of art.

On the other hand, all communication, art included, is a moral act, since it deals with relationships between persons.  The Church is right to insist that communication be truthful and governed by love.  How can this be done?  The second chapter will offer some guidelines to that end.


1 Comment

  • Bob says:

    Fr. Peter,

    Thanks for this series. As a parent of two teenage girls who are “connected” both to friends and information through technology, I find these statements very important.

    Those who receive the means of social communication-readers, viewers, audiences-do so of their own free choice. Special obligations rest on them in consequence. (Article 9)

    Those who are at the receiving end of the media, and especially the young, should learn moderation and discipline in their use of them. They should aim to understand fully what they see, hear and read. They should discuss them with their teachers and with experts in such matters and should learn to reach correct judgments. (Article 10)

    We live in a world where news reporting has largely been replaced with opinion. With the ability for almost anyone to “self-publish”, McLuhan’s tenet of “the medium is the message” translates into “everyone’s opinion is of equal value and validity”. Since the medium (the internet, cable news channels, radio shows) is accessible to a broad segment of the population, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern and “understand fully what they see, hear, and read”. Each of us speak from a unique worldview and set of experiences. With instant communications possible–literally at the tips of our fingers–there is more gut reaction and less thought-out, accurate information (“full and truthful”).

    How can the church, teachers, experts, or parents navigate these waters in a way that submits to objective moral order?