Fifty years pondering mass media


On this date (December 4th) in 1963, the bishops who had convened for the Second Vatican Council published the first two approved documents of the Council. The longer of the two dealt with the Sacred Liturgy (how the Church conducts its various forms of worship) and the shorter document dealt with the mass media – or as the Council called them “the means of social communication”.

The combination of topics is interesting. One would expect the bishops at the Council to have a lot to say about the Liturgy and that it would be a priority topic. But why were the mass media on the first list? Probably the reasonable answer is that the church leadership did not have a lot to say on the mass media at that point! The document they produced called “Inter Mirifica” is short in text and short on specifics. It acknowledges the advances in news media gathering and dissemination and authorizes church authorities to begin using the mass media as tools for spreading the Gospel. And that’s a key point: the churches and many organisations in society tend to see the mass media in a very narrow context. They see the media as tools or implements which people may choose to deploy to communicate a message. After all, that is the literal meaning of the term “media”. But mass media are much, much more than that. Our experience of mass media can shape our understanding of our culture and our world. It’s not just what is communicated that matters, it’s how it is communicated.

It wasn’t until 1971, in what was a called a “pastoral instruction” (Communio et Progressio) that the Church leadership began to engage more fully with the broader topic of the effects of mass media. Ironically, in 1963, at the time the original document was released, the University of Toronto created the Centre for Culture and Technology under the leadership of Marshall McLuhan – the man who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. And that’s the point.

It was almost impossible in 1963 to foresee developments such as desk-top computers, mobile phones, the internet and satellite communications – all of which are the backbone of mass media today. But on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Inter Mirifica I’m wondering whether the Church is still facing the challenge of understanding how the mass media work. There are some hopeful signs in the early months of the papacy of Pope Francis that he does seem to get it!

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