(Unless otherwise noted, all citations from the English text of Inter Mirifica, available here; as such, citations are not footnoted except to indicate the exact section. Where a quote is not cited, it may be safely assumed that it continues from the same source as the previous citation).
Inter Mirifica (Latin incipit: “Among the wonders”) opens with the recognition that the advent of social communications technologies “can, of their very nature, reach and influence, not only individuals, but the very masses and the whole of human society” (§ 1) and that, “if properly utilized,” they “can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to man’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God” (§ 2). On the other, “men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss,” hence the Church’s resolve “to treat of the principal questions linked with the media of social communication.”
There is, then, a duality in the Church’s approach to social media. Its Aristotelian side recognizes that the media in principle accords neatly with the fact that “man is a political animal” and that his good is therefore naturally bound up with the good of others; insofar as information assists man in ordering himself to the good of others, then, mass media has the potential to assist him in basic human flourishing. On the other hand, the document evinces a Platonic wariness of mass media (the modern form of “the arts”), mindful always of the reality that a sufficiently cunning mind can make anything, even rank evil, seem superficially attractive and appealing, and that modern technology can be at least as much a detriment to the Church’s mission as it is a boon.
Already we see a subtle rebuke of Enlightenment-era epistemological maximalism, according to which every man everywhere has the free and unfettered right to any and all information of his own choosing, the better to shape himself according to the arbitrary dictates of his utterly sovereign, self-creating will. On the contrary, the Church acknowledges that “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” indeed, and that the pursuit of knowledge is not a first principle but must be properly ordered and subordinated to the common good. Even most Enlightenment enthusiasts would acknowledge this, their insane contrary principles notwithstanding, with their readiness to insist on restricting access to things as dangerous as nuclear weapons schematics or as comparatively benign as “homophobia.”
What are some of these guiding principles? Let’s take a look.
First, it is “an inherent right of the Church to have at its disposal and to employ any of these media insofar as they are necessary or useful for the instruction of Christians and all its efforts for the welfare of souls” (§ 3). Societies that fail to recognize the right of the Church to preach and teach using whatever means are fitting fail grievously in their duties. Insert another dig at “hate speech laws” here.
Moreover, it is “the duty of Pastors to instruct and guide the faithful so that they, with the help of these same media, may further the salvation and perfection of themselves and of the entire human family.” Now, in Catholic theology, duties are morally prior to rights; duties are prescribed by moral law and in turn give rise to rights as a claim to just treatment according to those duties. If pastors have the duty to teach X, then it follows that they have the right to be heard and obeyed regarding X. Thus, the limits of the free exercise of religious speech via social media are to be delineated by the clergy, the legitimate hierarchy of the Church, not by the laity.
Additionally, “[f]or the proper use of these media it is most necessary that all who employ them be acquainted with the norms of morality and conscientiously put them into practice in this area. … For its influence can be so great that men, especially if they are unprepared, can scarcely become aware of it, govern its impact, or, if necessary, reject it” (§ 4). It is necessary for those who employ social media to be mindful of the risk of scandalizing or misleading the ignorant, simple, or weak-willed, and that such a mindfulness must naturally take into account the realities of life in a particular age and place, which presumably includes the temptations characteristic to a particular group of people. A good example: in an age where belief in the reality of sin, judgment, and the possibility of eternal damnation is weak and growing weaker, it is perhaps imprudent for churchmen to publicly speculate on the emptiness of Hell. On the other hand, such speculations might be useful if we lived in a society where, say, masses of people despaired of their salvation and so traveled the countryside flogging their backs bloody in reparation, spreading the plague in the process.
From there, Inter Mirifica goes on to examine what, exactly, is the “proper moral outlook” (§ 5) demanded of all participants in the use of social media. We’ll take a look at that in the next post.