On the Media: More Reflections on ‘Inter mirifica’

I”m running one day behind, and so will post an Oblate conference tomorrow…

Writing in the New York Times in 1994, long-time movie critic Janet Maslin praised the aesthetics of a pioneering filmmaker whom the Economist would later refer to as “the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.”  This prodigy was the multitalented Leni Riefenstahl, better known to most historians today as the acquaintance of Adolph Hitler and his greatest propagandist.  The powerfully stirring films that came from the Third Reich surely were very much in the background of discussions at the first sessions of the Second Vatican Council, when the bishops decided that their second document would be a reflection and directive regarding the proper use of the media.  When, in the decree Inter mirifica, the bishops write of the “absolute primacy of the objective moral order [par. 6],” they surely have in mind the false notion that somehow the aesthetics of the work of someone such as Riefenstahl can be discussed apart from the use of her films.

The more I have read and reflected on Inter mirifica [IM], the more, I confess, it has disturbed me.  Not because the bishops are wrong in any way; they are most certainly correct and demonstrate great prescience in the document.  Rather, my discomfort arises from the almost-complete neglect of their teaching in the intervening fifty years.  Having a limited goal in these reflections, I can only urge again that as many of you as possible read it carefully and take it to heart (as one concerned commenter clearly did, perhaps in response to my last post).  I will also offer the following unsystematic observations.

The ‘media’, as the terms suggests, are ‘means’.  This is to say that they are tools.  Radio, film (=‘moving pictures’), television and the internet are all ways of enhancing communication of some sort.  This communication may present itself as purely ‘aesthetic’ (there is no such thing, I contend, but the fiction is a powerful one).  Communication may instead be pragmatic and utilitarian, such as news and analysis.  The technological media allow the person(s) communicating to reach more persons and to make the message more persuasive by giving it a jeweled setting, so to speak.  Few news programs consist solely of someone reciting ‘objective facts’.  Rather, the purported facts are delivered by attractive, well-dressed anchors, seated in a highly stylized studio, accompanied by serious sounding music.

My point is that media technology is a tool, an ‘instrument’, in the words of IM.

J.R.R. Tolkien is among the most reflective and eloquent thinkers regarding the consequences of modern technology, of ‘superpowered’ tools.  Such tools may appear morally neutral, and perhaps to a large extent they are.  But tools are used by human beings, who are still prone to vice and evil.  Tools extend the reach of the human will, and whatever action is willed, be it a good one or one infected by evil, will be magnified through the use of technological tools.  The repugnant message of Hitler was amplified by the use of film and radio.

None of us are beyond this reality.  This is why IM stresses, repeatedly, the moral issue with regard to the media.  Those who send out communication and those who receive are equally bound to make use of these tools, only after they “take care to guide and instruct their consciences with suitable aids [9].”  Among the virtues that should be cultivated are honesty (including the full presentation of the truth), love, moderation and self-control.  Does the oft-quoted average television consumption of four hours a day fall within ‘moderation’ and ‘self-control’?

If you noticed some ambiguity above, where I wrote that the media are perhaps ‘morally neutral’, this is because, in my experience, some are more so than others.  Or perhaps I should say that some media require more circumspection than others.  For example, given the close connection of male sexuality and the sense of sight, media that deal in images should come under greater moral restriction or at least supervision than those that deal in text.  Photography, film and their offshoots such as the television and cinema, have about them something inherently voyeuristic.  We see persons who cannot see us, and as such the images conveyed are fully manipulable in the imagination.  There are no immediate, substantial constraints.  Let me offer a contrast to illustrate this.  When we watch a play, the reality of the person on stage acts as a check to regulate the sense of sight according to modesty and social constraints.  When we view a painting or sculpture, even a realistic one, the stylization is more apparent then in a photo.  This usually creates a distance between the embodiment of spectator and the embodiment of the object in view, contributing to a greater likelihood of chaste engagement.

This is not to say that the more problematic media cannot be used.  But I wonder how much reflection we put into our use of visual media.  Do we take particular steps to form conscience and prepare ourselves morally for their use?  The question answers itself by its very absurdity.

We have national conference dealing with bioethics.  Is there anything like an analogous, sustained moral engagement with the problem of social media?

There are two other urgent problems with the reception of the bishops’ analysis.  First of all, their repeated calls to form conscience in adherence to an objective moral order enter into Western cultures where the moral conversation is presently gravely disordered.  Even conscientious Catholics have a hard time understanding why we asked to behave in certain ways by the Magisterium.  How exactly are we supposed to form our consciences so as to encourage the good use of media and shun the bad?  This sounds like the subject of a short book.  Does this mean, for example, not watching political debates that fall woefully short of the goal of presenting “true and complete [information], within the bounds of justice and charity”? [IM 5]

A subtler challenge attends the idea that the “effective use of the media of social communication” by pastors “is intimately linked with their ordinary preaching responsibility [IM 13].”

If it is true that the media are tools that make the act of communication more powerful, we are presented with something of a paradox as preachers.  Is an increase of power something desirable?  St. Paul writes that the effectiveness of his own preaching depended on the power of the Spirit, not on the power of the medium of expression, which in his situation he called “lofty words or wisdom [1 Cor 2: 1].”  Rather, Paul preached and modeled the weak Christ, Christ crucified.  His opponents liked to ridicule the fact that he was physically unimpressive [2 Cor 10: 10].”

Jesus himself chose as His apostles men who were sure to appear weak to those who heard them preach.  This allowed the Holy Spirit to speak through them.  If you will permit me a somewhat gauche reference, it is, tellingly, Judas in the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” who complains that Israel in the time of Jesus “had no mass communication.”  His implication is that God’s timing for the Incarnation was off by about two millennia.  The technology at Jesus’ disposal was made up of hilltops and boats that allowed Him to address more than a handful of people at a time, but His most intimate and important moments of communication were frequently witnessed only by the Twelve (the Last Supper) or even Peter, James and John (the Transfiguration).

Once again, this does not mean that we should avoid engagement with the media.  If anything much more engagement and reflection is called for.  On the other hand, if priests and bishops especially present themselves as loci of power, by the clever use of powerful media and the authority that we enjoy, we surely risk turning ourselves into the message.  Preaching to an assembly that will speak to you after Mass, whom you’ve known for a long time, a priest is likely to get engaged feedback.  This allows for a truly personal exchange, acts of trust that make more plausible the ultimate act of trust that is faith.  Writing a blog post might be a way of avoiding personal interaction.  Or, we might make a video that moves people deeply, the way movies often do.  We watch such films and think (in moments of unreflective weakness), “I must change my life!”  And then the feelings leave and take with them the conviction that everything is changed.  As such mass media can make us cynics.

I could go on about these ambiguities, but I will leave further reflection as an exercise for the readers to do at home.

Next week, we must dive into the document many consider to be the most important one of Vatican II: Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church.


1 Comment

  • Bob says:

    Fr. Peter,

    I’ve been waiting for this one! Glad you’ve found the time to post.

    I agree that the bishops have largely neglected the teaching in this somewhat obscure decree. When I read Chapter 2 of the document it seems to me that the suggestion is that the church establish its own media channels that can be relied upon by the faithful to accurately and fairly speak on matters concerning the church. But you bring up an interesting question about whether or not this control (or power) is something that is desirable.

    In my parish, we have been receiving a series of bulletins from the bishops on how to approach the upcoming elections in a way that is consistent with the faith. Honestly, I have only skimmed these statements. Mostly because I understand the source, I understand the current situation, and I find the arguments predictable and, in some ways, over-simplified (boiling down the entire country into a small subset of “hot button” issues).

    Regardless of whether or not this is the correct approach for a parishioner, I appreciate my time with Inter Mirifica for bringing to my consciousness the ways I have taken the media for granted.

    I’m reading Lumen Gentium now and look forward to the next posts in the series.