Archdiocese of Glasgow, Scotland

Adult Education 13th November 2012

November 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Adult Education

Notes from the presentation on Inter Mirifica, given by Fr Peter Scally SJ.  You are encouraged to comment and discuss this content below (particularly the questions raised at the end of this article).

Inter Mirifica:  Vatican II, the Church and the Media

The thing about the church and the media, as distinct from some of the other focuses of this series, is that “the media” as such is a relatively new thing.    The Church has been around for centuries, the hierarchy and laypeople have been around for centuries, other religions have been around for centuries, the scriptures have been around for centuries, but – although admittedly, printing has been around for a few hundred years – the idea of “the media” as in “mass media” is a relatively recent one.   So, if we’re looking at the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, and what the Church had had to say about the media in the past, there isn’t a right lot.

But there are two twentieth-century papal encyclicals that are perhaps worth mentioning.

The first is  Vigilanti cura (1936)  Pius XI on the motion picture.

Even the title of the encyclical gives you a pretty good idea of its tenor.

“It is a certainty which can readily be verified that the more marvellous the progress of the motion picture art and industry, the more pernicious and deadly has it shown itself to morality and to religion and even to the very decencies of human society”.

It praised in particular the setting up in the USA of a group called the “Legion of Decency”, a Catholic campaign group which identified and opposed objectionable content in films.

“Everyone knows what damage is done to the soul by bad motion pictures. They are occasions of sin; they seduce young people along the ways of evil by glorifying the passions; they show life under a false light; they cloud ideals; they destroy pure love, respect for marriage, affection for the family….”

“On the other hand, good motion pictures are capable of exercising a profoundly moral influence upon those who see them…. to arouse noble ideals of life,…  to impart a better knowledge of the history and the beauties of the Fatherland and of other countries, to present truth and virtue under attractive forms,….to contribute positively to the genesis of a just social order in the world.”

“Since then the cinema is in reality a sort of object lesson which, for good or for evil, teaches the majority of men more effectively than abstract reasoning, it must be elevated to conformity with the aims of a Christian conscience and saved from depraving and demoralizing effects.”


The second encyclical is Miranda prorsus (1957)   Pius XII  on motion pictures, radio and television.

“From the time when these arts first came into use, the Church welcomed them, not only with great joy, but also with a motherly care and watchfulness, having in mind to protect Her children from every danger, as they set out on this new path of progress.”

“Just as very great advantages can arise from the wonderful advances which have been made in our day, in technical knowledge concerning Motion Pictures, Radio and Television, so too can very great dangers.  For these new possessions and new instruments which are within almost everyone’s grasp, introduce a most powerful influence into men’s minds, both because they can flood them with light, raise them to nobility, adorn them with beauty, and because they can disfigure them by dimming their lustre, dishonour them by a process of corruption, and make them subject to uncontrolled passions…..”

Pius XII begins to introduce the notion that the Church should be using these media to spread the good news.

“Much more easily than by printed books, these technical arts can assuredly provide opportunities for men to meet and unite in common effort; and, since this purpose is essentially connected with the advancement of the civilization of all peoples, the Catholic Church – which, by the charge committed to it, embraces the whole human race – desires to turn it to the extension and furthering of benefits worthy of the name.”

“Indeed, this should be the first aim of the arts of the Motion Pictures, Radio and Television: to serve truth and virtue.”

He also begins to talk about the importance of training and education

“In order, then, that, in such conditions, shows of this kind may be able to pursue their proper object, it is essential that the minds and inclinations of the spectators be rightly trained and educated, so that they may not only understand the form proper to each of the arts, but also be guided, especially in this matter, by a right conscience.”

It was only six years after this that we first heard of Inter mirifica – not an Italian football team, but the Second Vatican Council’s decree on “social communications”

The President of the Secretariat that produced it was Archbishop Martin O’Connor, the Rector of the North American College and President of the Pontifical Commission on Films, Radio and Television.   He died in 1986, and it is perhaps telling that I couldn’t find a picture of him anywhere.

Inter mirifica was issued in 1963 – so it was one of the earliest decrees, only the second document to be issued by the Council, straight after the one on the liturgy.

Because of this, it doesn’t reflect much of the thinking that was at the heart of the Second Vatican Council, because the debates that brought out that thinking had not yet happened.

Some of its main themes are ones we have heard before:

1. Power of the media for good and for bad (already seen in VC and MP)

“The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss. Indeed, the Church experiences maternal grief at the harm all too often done to society by their evil use.”

“newsmen, writers, actors, designers, producers, displayers, distributors, operators and sellers, as well as critics and all others who play any part in the production and transmission of mass presentations….  are in a position to lead the human race to good or to evil by informing or arousing mankind.”

2.  Importance of educating people in discerning consumption of the media  (already seen in Miranda prorsus)

“To provide for the needs just set forth, priests, religious and laymen who are equipped with the proper skills for adapting these media to the objectives of the apostolate should be appointed promptly.”

“Importantly, laymen ought to be afforded technical, doctrinal and moral training. For this purpose, the number of school faculties and institutes should be increased, where newsmen, writers for screen, radio and television and all other interested parties can obtain a sound training that is imbued with the Christian spirit, especially with respect to the social teaching of the Church.”

It calls for suitable programs of instruction  “in Catholic schools at every level, seminaries and lay apostolate groups.”

3.  Duty to use these media to spread the good news (in stronger terms than before)

“The Catholic Church, since it was founded by Christ our Lord to bear salvation to all men and thus is obliged to preach the Gospel, considers it one of its duties to announce the Good News of salvation also with the help of the media of social communication”

“All the children of the Church should join, without delay and with the greatest effort in a common work to make effective use of the media of social communication in various apostolic endeavours, as circumstances and conditions demand.”

“Pastors should hasten, therefore, to fulfill their duty in this respect, one which is intimately linked with their ordinary preaching responsibility.”

4.  Role of laypeople in this sphere   (cf.  Apostolicam actuositatem)

“The laity, too, who have something to do with the use of these media, should endeavor to bear witness to Christ, first of all by carrying out their individual duties or office expertly and with an apostolic spirit, and, further, by being of direct help in the pastoral activity of the Church-to the best of their ability-through their technical, economic, cultural and artistic talents.”

And elsewhere:

“In addition, the laity especially must strive to instill a human and Christian spirit into these media.”

(this theme was comparatively new, but weak, and only a passing reference added in when there were complaints that the mission of laypeople was under-emphasised)

5.  A lot of calls for things to be set up:

Calls for establishment of a Catholic press, Catholic stations (radio/TV?)

National offices everywhere for press, film, television and radio.

One day a year in every diocese of the world dedicated to instructing the faithful in their responsibilities and raising funds.

Tone:  command (as if the bishops could make things happen by decree), admonishment, urging in a five-page (3,200 word) document.

“must” – 10

“ought” – 11

“should” – 34

Commentators see IM as a “pre-conciliar” document, and not a very good one.

But the good news is that what the Second Vatican Council had to say about communication and what we might today call “information technology” was not restricted to this one document.

Gaudium et Spes (1965) pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.

Some of its themes:

1. Technology and transformation:

“technology is now transforming the face of the earth” (5)

“We can speak of a new age of human history” (54).

If that was true in 1965, it is even more clearly true now.  The world now has been even more dramatically changed since then and the pace of change seems to be quickening.

Let’s have a look at some recent figures:


BARB stats (for UK)

1956  UK  15.6 million homes  5.7 million had TV    (37%)

1962  as the Council was sitting,  UK   16.6 million homes  12.8 million had TV  (77%)

2012:   UK  27.1 million homes    26.2 million have TV  (97%)  25.7 million

Mobile phones

UK (2011)    91% of adults personally own or use a mobile phone.

(world population 7 billion)

worldwide mobile subscriptions at the start of 2012:  6.2 billion

NB. Of course, some people have more than one device – personal, work, phone, tablet, laptop, dongle etc.   So there are more than 0.8 billion people with no mobile phone.


Personal computers

UK 2011  77% of households had a personal computer

Internet users/population

Dec 2011

UK  84%   (76% of adults have access to broadband)

Perhaps one story says more than all those statistics: [the Muslim chaplain to Cambridge University has stated that marriages he conducted had included one between two computer literati which took the form of a solemn exchange of emails.]   Now, I’m no Canon Lawyer, but I don’t think, in our own tradition, that would satisfy the requirements of canonical form.

But a note of caution: mind the gap – the digital divide

Let’s look at those figures again and compare with the rest of the world:

TV  percent of households with TV

UK 97%

USA  97%  (actually fallen slightly recently)


More difficult to get up-to-date statistics for other countries.

China (2002) claims 89%

India (2002 figure) 32%

Some African countries under 10% of  households


Mobile phones

(world population 7 billion)

worldwide mobile subscriptions at the start of 2012:  6.2 billion

NB. Of course, some people have more than one device – personal, work, phone, tablet, laptop, dongle etc.   So there are more than 0.8 billion people with no mobile phone.


That’s why you could actually get a figure that was higher than the population.   In fact, in Europe it is.  Mobile phone penetration – measured as number of subscriptions compared to the population – in Europe is now 126%.

In the USA it is 104%.  In India  76%. In China 75%   In Africa, it is 55%.

If you count instead the number of subscribers (i.e. people with one or more mobile phones) in the world, that is estimated at 4.2 billion.

That’s 60% of the world’s population with a mobile phone and 2 billion (40%) without, and a similar picture with personal computer ownership and internet users.


Personal computers

UK 2011  77% of households had a personal computer

southeast Asia:   approx 70%

India (2009)  26%

rest of Asia (incl. China) – estimated under 20%

Africa –even lower.


Internet users/population

Dec 2011

UK  84%   (76% of adults have access to broadband)

USA  78%

Europe  61%

Asia 26%

Africa 14%

Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM in 2002, “the fact remains that more than half of the world’s population have yet to make a phone call.”


Now that was in 2002, and since then there has been a huge growth in the mobile phone market in very populous places like India and China.  So it’s probably no longer true that half the world’s population have yet to make a phone call, but it could be something like a third of the world’s population that has yet to make a phone call.

But as long as we’re aware of that, I think it’s all right to pay some attention to our part of the world and to ask what effect all this advance in technology having on our society, on our understanding of ourselves, on our attitudes to other people, to faith and life?


Well, one effect, as far as the Church is concerned, is that we no longer have a monopoly of the sensual and the aesthetic

Centuries ago, ordinary people would walk into a big church or a cathedral and be looking at the most fantastic architecture they had ever seen, they would, in all probability, see the most wonderful sculpture and the most beautiful artwork they had ever seen, they would hear the most beautiful music they had ever heard, and even smell the fragrant smell of incense at the same time.

This wasn’t true of every parish church, I suppose, probably just the bigger and better ones, but it was the Church, none the less, that offered this sensual feast that ordinary people couldn’t get anywhere else.

And now, thanks mainly to technological advances of one kind or another, people can get all those things elsewhere.

Is the Church to carry on as it was?  To change?  To compete?  To make a point of not competing?

Another effect, that was actually noted in Gaudium et Spes is this:

“the sense of power which modern technical progress generates in people” (20)

One of the dangers of constant technological advances is that we start to believe we human beings can do anything, that we can control everything, that we are effectively omnipotent, and that we have no need for God.

There is a saying, which I have been unable to trace, that goes something like:

‘People who go around in sailing boats have much less difficulty believing in God than people who go around in motor boats.’

And I think there’s something to that.

Another effect that Gaudium et Spes spotted was:

“the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one.” (5).

I have my own little theory about the effect which the internet specifically may have in the long term on our concept of reality.  And it’s a positive effect.

One of the problems faith faces in the modern world is of people being “blind to the invisible” as Cardinal Daneels once put it.  Blind to the invisible.

People are only prepared to accept as real things in front of their noses with physical substance, things they can see and touch and smell and kick, because it is only things with physical substance that really impinge on our lives in any way that we notice.  I’m not an expert on the writing of Bernard Lonergan, but he talks about the attitude of “naïve realism” – and I think if it’s not exactly the same point, there is at least some similarity.

But the thing about the internet is that web sites has no physical substance.  Computers do, and servers do, and phone lines do, but web sites themselves have no physical substance at all – they are just the ordering of collections of electrical charges. And these days, web sites impinge on our lives a great deal.   You might have found out about this talk here tonight through the website, or by email.  People book train journeys and flights and holidays on the internet.  Some people buy and sell their homes on web sites, they find jobs on web sites, they date and even get married through web sites.

So, for many people, these things which have no concrete physical substance are playing an important part in our lives, and I wonder if, in the long term, that will begin to change our view of what is real, what we are prepared to count as real, and, at my most optimistic, I wonder if it will make us more open to the reality of things we cannot see, less blind to the invisible.

I don’t know.  And I don’t have any evidence to support that claim.  Not yet, anyway.

But even if I’m right, there is another, less positive side to the coin of virtual reality, identified by Hubert Dreyfus among others – the phenomenon of disembodiment.

Your presence on the Net – on interactive web sites, in chat rooms, through email, is not a bodily presence, not even a voiced presence like on the telephone.  Of course, there have always been letters, but letters have never replaced face-to-face communication between people to the same extent that the various uses of the internet are now doing.

Dreyfus notes with concern:

“According to the most extreme Net enthusiasts, the long-range promise of the Net is that each of us will soon be able to transcend the limits imposed on us by our body.”

Hubert Dreyfus, On the Internet (London: Routledge, 2001) p4

And Gaudium et Spes is specifically relevant again here, because it tells us:

“human beings may not despise their bodily life, … rather they are obliged to regard their bodies as good and honourable since God has created them and will raise them up on the last day.” (14)

Dreyfus concurs:    “if our body goes, so does relevance, skill, reality and meaning.  If that is the trade-off, the prospect of living our lives in and through the Web may not be so attractive after all.” (p7)

This separation from our bodily selves, and from our identity, in the case of many who assume new personas when posting messages and taking part in chat rooms over the Net, causes Cardinal Paul Poupard (President of the Pontifical Council for Culture) to ask:

“Who do people think they are?”

Cardinal Paul Poupard (Pres., Pont. Council for Culture), From Fear to the Beauty of Mystery in Breen, Conway and McMillan, ‘Technology and Transcendence’ (Dublin: Columba, 2003)

2.  The Pros and Cons of technological advance

Technology can enable the exploitation of people to be more systematic, ruthless, “efficient” and carried out on a wider scale.

Perhaps the most glaringly obvious example of this is pornography on the internet and on television.

Perhaps this danger is the reason why Gaudium et Spes struck a note of caution with these phrases:

“while we extend our power in every direction, we do not always succeed in subjecting it to our own welfare” (4)

“new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance” (4)

“new inducements to sin” (25)

“the modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak… before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery”(9)

And when you hear those phrases, a few images might come to your mind of things the Fathers of Vatican II could hardly have predicted:

The image of the ten-year old boy spending all his time in his room playing video games instead of going out and playing with other kids.  And the best that you can hope for is that there’s a two-player game that one of his schoolfriends can come round and compete with him on.

The image of the couch potato sitting in every night watching hours of cable TV, never going out, never getting exercise, never going to clubs or concerts or matches, because they can see it all on telly, never meeting other people and interacting with them.

The image of the fat, pasty-faced geek who spends all day in front of the computer, and has all manner of virtual interactions online, but shies away from all contact with real people, and suffers as a consequence from very limited life experience, underdeveloped social skills and poor personal hygiene.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, again, asks the fundamental question:

“What is the internet actually doing to human relationships?….”

Of course, it’s not just the internet.

One of the things people worry about, and some people look forward to, is the continuing advance of digital, multi-channel television.

Some people, including me, who were fairly at home with the three main channels, and managed to adapt to a fourth and a fifth without too much difficulty, feel a bit daunted by the huge and increasing number of digital channels now available on satellite and cable.  We are told that the future of television is this digital, multi-channel free-for-all, and that the future will bring VoD, video on demand, where instead of looking to see what’s on, you decide what you want to watch and when, you choose from a vast selection of nearly all the films and television programmes that have ever been made, and say ‘I want to watch that, now’.

This, we are told, is the way it is going and there is nothing we can do about it.

And I don’t like that.  And when I hear about it I think of the old days at school and when I worked in a office, where you’d come in in the morning and talk about what was on telly last night. Because there were only a few channels, you’d mostly been watching the same things, so you could discuss the highlights and laugh again at the jokes and there would be something of a shared experience about it.  So even, in fact, if you had been watching on your own at home, you were still taking part in a shared communal experience, and with programmes like Fawlty Towers and Minder it was pretty much a national shared experience.

And it’s not just old fuddy-duddies like me who don’t want to lose that power of TV to be part of a shared experience.

And even such big time media professionals as the former Director General of the BBC have expressed concern about the way this might go:  Mark Thompson, said at an address to the Churches’ Media Council some years ago that he could imagine in the future a ‘dystopia’ marked by ‘a growing restlessness and dissatisfaction which leaves some members of the audience never settling down to fully absorb anything – channel-hopping and browsing for ever.

And it occurred to me to wonder whether most people who have multi-channel spend most of their time watching the five main channels, whether perhaps there was a widespread desire to be watching what other people are watching.

So I did a bit of research: it’s all on the net, actually, at the BARB web site.

First of all, ownership: well, the number of households with TV is pretty steady because nearly everyone’s got a telly already.

Now, as of this year, of course, the analogue television signal has been switched off so everyone has to have digital telly, which means multichannel telly.  But the number of homes with multi-channel was steadily growing from 42% in 2001, to 65% in 2005,  and 93% in 2011.

And as more people were getting multi-channel television, clearly there were more people getting to watch those extra channels, and the audience share of the five main channels was bound to drop a bit, but their audience share hasn’t dropped all that much.

The last Ofcom report, for 2011:   People with multi-channel telly, (93% of homes) still spend 54% of their viewing time watching the five main Public Service Broadcast channels, and only 46% on the hundreds of others.

Could this be an indication that not only I, but people generally like to be watching what other people are watching, and that what they really want from their telly is not video-on-demand, not to be able to watch whatever they want whenever they want, but to be part of a communal, perhaps national, shared viewing experience that they can talk about the next day at school or at work or in the pub?

Could it be that the model of a few main channels that most of us watch will survive in the wild jungle of the digital free market because it is what most consumers want?     I’d like to think so.

And you know that song, “Video killed the radio star” ?  it’s not true.

Radio is thriving.    The latest OFCOM report again (2011) tells us:

The number of weekly radio listeners in the UK reached a new high of 91.6% of the adult population in Q1 2011, up by one percentage point since Q1 2010. This represents the highest weekly reach figure since RAJAR’s present research methodology was introduced in 1999.

Listener hours rose to 1.04 billion per week in 2010, up by 2.1% year on year. All categories of radio service experienced rising listener hours during the year: BBC and commercial radio, national and local. National commercial stations saw the largest annual increase, up by 7% year on year.

All this brings us on to a third theme in Gaudium et Spes:

3.  Communication: shallow or deep?  Progress: superficial or genuine?

“ ‘socialization’ brings further ties, without however always promoting appropriate personal development and truly personal relationships.” (6)

“brotherly and sisterly dialogue does not reach its perfection on the level of technical progress, but on the deeper level of interpersonal relationships.” (23)

“technical advances…. can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about” (35).

That was in 1965, and it certainly very debatable, and very much debated, whether the developments in communications that have taken place in the last fifty years since then have been predominantly of a deep or of a superficial kind.

There is certainly much more communication going on if you measure it by volume – more television watched, more phone calls made, God knows how many billions of hits on the trillion web pages in the world, an estimated 16 billion text messages and 300 billion emails being sent every day (and those are last year’s figures!), but how superficial is much of this communication, and is any of it a substitute for real person-to-person contact?

Take chat rooms, for instance, and discussion forums.  Everyone talks about these: “make new friends, find people with similar interests to yours, exchange your views, this is really going to open up communication across the world.”  Have you ever been in a chat room or read the stuff on a discussion forum (especially religious ones)?   Of course there may be good ones that I don’t know about, but there’s certainly a lot of absolute rubbish.  You can very easily get the impression that there’s nobody out there but angry nutters and perverts.

And take an email, for instance. Even if it is a real message from a real person, and not an advert for cheap Viagra, there’s still often something a bit less than human about them, isn’t there?  Something, I think, about it just being too easy to send an email.  Too little effort required.

“Generations of confident videophones, conferencing tools and technologies for tele-presence are still far from capturing the essence of a firm handshake or a straight look in the eye.”

J. Seely-Brown &  P. Duguid, The social life of information (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000) p4

And what about text messages?   Often people send a text message these days when, in the past, they might have spoken to you.

The comedian Peter Kay has a very funny routine about how people used to phone in sick to work, but now they just send a text.

For many of us, texting has changed the way we communicate.

On a more serious level, you’ve only to look at the papers to see the dangers that go along with the huge growth in internet use we have seen.

We saw yesterday, under the scrutiny of a Westminster parliamentary committee, how Google avoids paying tax by basing itself in Ireland, and declaring its profits, not where it makes them, but wherever the tax rate is the lowest.

But there are more sinister things than that about companies like Google.   Some months ago the Sunday Times had an article, “How Google turned evil” which was quite disturbing reading, going through the ways that Google (and Apple and Facebook too, who used to put themselves forward as virtuous companies, not like nasty Microsoft) – ruthlessly exploit their market share, and gather all manner of data about all of us – in order to maximise their huge profits.

Even worse, in the same edition of the Sunday Times there was a really shocking piece about the way that the easy availability of pornography on the internet is warping young people’s sexual development and their idea of what is normal.  Eleanor Mills wrote:  “Through most of human history, we have discovered sex and our own sexuality through our own experiences.  Many of today’s teenagers, however, have had their heads stuffed with extreme, aggressive porn fantasy before they ever get near a real human being.”

There is also some evidence that instead of facilitating genuine communication between people, the internet can bring about isolation and depression in regular users.

A study some years ago at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA, led by this guy, Dr Robert Kraut, found that spending time on the Internet was associated with:

– subsequent declines in talking among family members;

– reductions in the number of friends and acquaintances they kept up with;

– increases in depression and loneliness.

The report observed:

“The technology that has allowed people to keep in touch with distant family members and friends, to find information quickly and to develop friendships with people around the world apparently is also replacing vital, everyday human communication.”

However this was early on, in 1998, and Dr Kraut has said more recently that:

“These declines are especially strong during the first years online, but may drop or even reverse with time or as the services available on the Internet improve.”

And on this point, I have to offer you some examples of feedback from users of the Sacred Space prayer web site to show you the other side of that coin:

I suffer from depression. When I come to your web site, it all goes away. In fact I feel quite strongly uplifted… I find I can talk to God directly and feel comfortable doing it.
Toronto, Canada

What joy! My recently acquired computer was purchased not only for study research, but to put me in contact again with the outside world after being confined by arthritis …. The social contact I miss most is with the worship community. Thank you for supplying a way of joining others in worship…

Adelaide, South Australia

I chose those from thousands of messages because of the specific points that this use of the web actually helped to lift depression and to reduce feelings of isolation by connecting people in prayer with others all around the world.  And those points are echoed again and again in the feedback messages the site receives every day.

4. Pre-evangelisation;    “accommodated” preaching;    new terms in which to proclaim the gospel.

“….she [the Church] is convinced that she can be abundantly and variously helped by the world in the matter of preparing the ground for the Gospel.” (40)

“study…fidelity towards truth…working together…international solidarity…. awareness of responsibility….  all of these provide some preparation for the acceptance of the message of the Gospel” (57)

“Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all…. this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelisation.” (44)

“theologians….are invited to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the people of their times; for the deposit of Faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another.” (62)

“Let them [the faithful] blend new sciences and theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and the teaching of Christian doctrine, so that their religious culture and morality may keep pace with scientific knowledge and with the constantly progressing technology.” (62)

Of course, that sounds all very well, but that seems to presume an essential compatibility between the values of the Gospel and the values of the prevailing culture, of current thought and scientific investigation.  And, it seems to me, that isn’t necessarily going to be the case everywhere and at all times.

To be fair to the Fathers of Vatican II, the Constitution does acknowledge this:

“it is sometimes difficult to harmonize culture with Christian teaching.” (62)

And certainly the question of whether much in our present culture in Britain is compatible with the Gospel or contradictory to it, is one that is much argued-over.

The Guardian columnist and BBC presenter Mark Lawson, who is, or at least has been, a Catholic, wrote a piece a few years ago in Priests and People, in which he discussed the outpourings of religious feeling that were observed after events like the death of Princess Diana, “9/11”, and the Soham murders.  It was often said at the time, rather blithely, that the Church could “tap into” these surges in religious feeling.  But Lawson argues that it’s not as easy as that.  On the reaction to Diana’s death, he says:

“…the focus of the faith was a woman of great wealth and hedonism who was killed during a period in which she was expressing her sexual freedom after a divorce. Quite how Anglicanism – and even Catholicism – hoped (in that popular phrase of the time) to ‘tap into’ a spiritual outpouring which reflected the reverse of almost all their key beliefs was never made clear.”

He points to the tendency in our society, in politics and in the media:

“…to shape the institution to suit the narrowest requirements of the widest number of people, to avoid statements or demands which might seem hard or challenging, to favour inclusivity over the application of qualifications or rules, to promote rapid gratification over the eventual revelation.”

and his conclusion is that:

“Religions, though, often need to say hard and unpopular things…… In both politics and art, the governing belief of the culture is that anything unpopular or difficult is wrong.  The current climate of thought might be summarised as the Easy Culture and religion, theology and faith aren’t easy.”

One of the specific aspects of what Mark Lawson calls the Easy Culture is, I think, a consumerist approach to the world and a commoditisation of everything.

I think Classic FM does this to music.  Everything has to be reduced to easily-digestible, bite-sized chunks, so they’ll play a single movement of a symphony or a concerto on its own and then move on to something else.  And they’re constantly telling you to relax.

And there always trying to get you to buy their latest CDs – they actually have a phone line (or of course, you can do it on their web site) where you can find out what it is that was just playing and order the CD on the spot.  The drive is towards my possessing this bit of music or that CD collection to have at my disposal permanently.

The whole approach to music is of you the consumer finding the bit of music to meet your immediate consumer need, which is usually relaxation, or it might be cheering me up after a hard day or “helping me to focus” as I am revising for my exams.

And the idea is almost completely disregarded that it might have something to teach me, that I might be opening myself to an experience I wasn’t expecting, or that I might be profoundly changed by that experience.

If Classic FM can do it to music, then there is obviously the danger of the media in general, if they deal with religion at all, doing the same thing to religion.

For example, there was a program a few years ago called “Spirituality Shopper” on Channel 4.  I didn’t see it – perhaps some of you did – but the blurb about it read: “Michaela Newton-Wright has a rewarding job in advertising and lots of friends – but something is missing in her life. Although she is not religious, Christian athlete Jonathan Edwards offers her the chance to sample four practices from different religions. What will she learn from her spiritual shopping trip?”

Giles Fraser, writing about it in the Guardian, commented that this kind of “spirituality” is “religion that has been mugged by capitalism.”

But then, on the other hand, series we saw here in Britain like **The Monastery, and The Big Silence were excellent, and not only avoided those dangers of being simplistic and consumerist, but actually showed how the serious following of real human and spiritual issues in ways that broke the usual rules of TV entertainment, like having people sitting saying nothing for quite an extended period of time, could actually be quite compelling television.

Jim Corkery, an Irish Jesuit writing in a recent collection of essays on Technology and Transcendence, asks,

Does technology simply corral human activities and values into the straitjackets of ‘use’ and ‘enjoyment’?  Or is it possible that there can be something more in the picture?

‘Does Technology Squeeze Out Transcendence – Or What?’  in Breen, Conway and McMillan, on Technology and Transcendence (Dublin: Columba, 2003) p11

I think The Monastery and the Big Silence are good examples of how religion can avoid being straitjacketed by the media, and possibly Sacred Space shows how it can use technology without being strait-jacketed, too.  Examples like this are very important because they shows us that it is possible!

But I think perhaps the most important sentence in Gaudium et Spes as far as media and technology is concerned is also more generally one of its most important and powerful statements:

“We can justly consider that the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.” (31)

Questions for reflection

Catholics often bemoan our lack of presence or lack of visibility in the media

But, if we had our shot, what would we do with it?

“My door is not exactly being beaten down every day by Christians with good ideas for programmes.”  (Mark Thompson, former DG of the BBC)

If the Director General of the BBC gave the Catholic Church an hour of prime time telly every week to do what we liked with (bearing in mind that viewers have the remote control in their hands and could turn over to something else if they were not sufficiently gripped by it) – what would we do?

2.  Should we be aiming at our own Catholic ‘slot’, radio station, digital TV channel, or at trying to influence the mainstream media? (or both?)

3.  What unused potential can we identify within the Catholic community?

4.  What other opportunities can we see that we have not yet made the most of?


Comments are closed.