Previously, we saw that Inter Mirifica‘s attitude toward social media (television, radio, film, etc.) was qualifiedly positive, and that the Church encourages its use subject to some basic considerations. These considerations include the right of the Church to use social media as a tool for evangelization and catechesis, the duty of those who use social media to avoid scandalizing the hapless, and the necessity for pastors (i.e., clergy) to define the borders of the appropriate use of social media. The remainder of the first chapter of Inter Mirifica moves on to these prudential or organizational concerns to expressly moral ones: how do Catholics appropriately and morally make use of social media? The answers, I suggest, aren’t that surprising.
The “right to information”
The way the Council describes this moral outlook, however, is a little unusual, and it bears noting: it announces that “in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community” (§ 5). It then proceeds to outline the limitations on this right.
Some read into this an appropriation of Enlightenment rights-thinking and thus an implicit endorsement of modern liberalism. I suggest, on the contrary, that it reflects a dialectic that will be revisited repeatedly throughout the course of the Council (especially in Dignitatis Humanae, where it caused no small amount of confusion): an appropriation of essentially liberal modes of speech to describe standard Catholic views. Call it “liberalese.” It’s in perfect keeping with the Council’s stated objective of making the Church’s teachings accessible to modern (i.e., liberal) man.
In fact, the Council’s method of announcing a right and then qualifying it at great length is emphatically not Enlightenment, and many Enlightenment enthusiasts would chafe at the restrictions which the Council acknowledges regarding the “right to information.”
Truth, charity, and propriety
The right to information is qualified by the demand that “the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity” and that “the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent.” So there are three qualifications that spring up immediately. The first is truth: the right to information does not entitle me to slander others; rather, only what is true can legitimately be the object of this right. It must also be complete, so that I may not deliberately omit some aspect of the truth in order to allow readers to draw false conclusions (i.e., no strict mental reservations in reporting the news). But truth is insufficient to justify the pursuit of information; it must also accord with the demands of charity. Hence, I am not entitled to snoop out or report on things that, while true, are of no concern to me or society at large. Presumably, this means Joe Journalist may not report on the mayor’s marital infidelity (especially if the mayor has repented!), though he may report on the mayor’s misappropriation of city funds to arrange his affairs. Third, the means of communicating information must themselves be appropriate, as care must be taken not to scandalize the public with violent, vulgar, or sexually explicit content.
What we have, then, is a “right to information” which is conditioned upon the promotion of the common good, and which does not permit us either to seek out or to disseminate information which can only induce ourselves or others to wickedness. Here, the document rightly cites St. Paul’s admonition that “knowledge puffeth up; but charity edifieth” (1 Cor. 8:1).
The Council goes on to apply this principle to the arts, noting firmly that “the mounting controversies in this area frequently take their rise from false teachings about ethics and aesthetics” (§ 6). Against those who would claim that “freedom of speech” entitles them to peddle pornography to children or to publicize artistic depictions of sacrilege, the Council “proclaims that all must hold to the absolute primacy of the objective moral order, that is, this order by itself surpasses and fittingly coordinates all other spheres of human affairs-the arts not excepted-even though they be endowed with notable dignity.” In other words, the qualifications on the “right to information” previously outlined apply to the arts in a special way, in that they altogether forbid artists from scandalizing others in the name of a narcissistic need for self-expression. So does “Piss Christ” pass Inter Mirifica‘s moral smell test? The answer is an emphatic and unambiguous no.
“Scandalizing others” does not necessarily include any old depiction of moral or natural evil, however, which the Council rightly reminds us “can indeed serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity and, with the aid of appropriately heightened dramatic effects, can reveal and glorify the grand dimensions of truth and goodness” (§ 8). Not every painting of a nude woman is pornographic, and not every depiction of violence glorifies it; Saw may be quantitatively as bloody as The Passion of the Christ, but the former revels in violence for its own sake while the latter depicts with honesty the astounding love of Christ and hence differ in their respective moral characters.
The duties of consumers
Inter Mirifica goes on to demand that consumers of media information “fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge and their artistic or technical merit” (§ 9); to avoid media “that may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil” in order not to “merely reward those who use these media only for profit”; to strive to “inform themselves in time about judgments passed by authorities competent in these matters,” presumably including the judgments of pastors and the state; to cultivate “moderation and self-control” (§ 10) in using social media (here’s looking at you, Facebook addicts!); and “to endeavor to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear or read” through these media. It also reminds parents of children of their “most serious duty to guard carefully lest shows, publications and other things of this sort, which may be morally harmful, enter their homes or affect their children under other circumstances.”
All of which are recommendations perfectly in accord with reason and traditionally Catholic understandings of morality: a place for everything and everything in its place, for right reasons, in the right measure.
The duties of producers
The “principle moral responsibility for the proper use of the media of social communication falls on 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” (§ 11) — on the producers of media, not consumers, who presumably incur the greater sin when they produce garbage that scandalizes others. Thus, the Council admonishes them to “adjust their economic, political or artistic and technical aspects so as never to oppose the common good” — no peddling cocaine to toddlers for an extra nickel. It explicitly commends the practice, far more common in preconciliar days, of joining “professional associations, which … oblige their members to show respect for morality in the duties and tasks of their craft.”