Inter Mirifica: Summary and Conclusions

In terms of its moral prescriptions on the use of media, Inter Mirifica‘s orthodoxy and prudence both are unimpeachable. It cautions Catholics to be mindful of media’s potential to contribute to the common good and the good of the Church as well as to be a near occasion of sin. It exhorts them to patronize morally sound exercises of the arts while avoiding that which would scandalize them, it obliges the state to judiciously exercise censorship in maintenance of the moral consensus, and it lays the burden of the proper use of media primarily on producers, who are especially enjoined not to produce, subsidize, encourage, or otherwise be complicit in the publication of filth or lies, especially those that harm the Church.

But what Inter Mirifica recommended were things the Church was largely already doing. Take, for instance, the National Legion of Decency, which was about as spontaneous and organic and wholesome an initiative as anything produced since — a conspiracy (in the literal sense) of Catholics to organize and publicly refuse to patronize media that promote wickedness. It was even ecumenical, featuring not a few conservative-minded Protestants and Jews. It didn’t need Inter Mirifica to tell it to do what it was already doing. What it needed was a strong, healthy,  distinctly Catholic culture to support and sustain it. That culture, that Catholic consensus, was precisely what the Council aimed to destroy, and did, in fact, destroy. Regrettably, one year after the Council’s conclusion, the Legion was absorbed into the administrative machinery of the American bishops’ conference, and mostly forgotten about, both to the detriment of the Church and the arts generally. And all this was due in no small part to the bishops’ resolve not to contradict the world or its values too forcefully, but instead to marshal the media in support of the political and cultural establishment’s pet causes — immigration reform, relief to Third World countries, disarmament, whatever — and, especially, to their own role in promoting them. Hence the Catholic media has withered alongside the Church.

So the state of media has deteriorated significantly since Inter Mirifica: the secular realm grows increasingly hostile, the Catholic realm increasingly schizophrenic, with a large part growing more secular and another large part degenerating into the sordid slavery of party-line flattery, while a tiny remnant of the faithful cling bitterly to their Scriptures and devotions in the teeth of resistance by the episcopate and their well-heeled laic toadies.

Ironically, the duty of media-users as outlined in Inter Mirifica has devolved largely upon those who are on the Church’s peripheries — of bloggers, like yours truly, who, while doctrinally orthodox, are repulsed to the point of nausea by modern ecclesial currents and fashions, including the baubles of liturgical innovators, the overweening “pastoral theology” that has filled the pews with a generation of recalcitrant and self-entitled Philistines, and the demented mania for evangelism that has compromised actual, practical fidelity to the Church’s teachings and traditions. Where do we go from here? Forward. Hold the line. What else is there to do?

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Inter Mirifica § 13-22: Pastoral recommendations

The second chapter of Inter Mirifica is devoted to pastoral recommendations and guidelines for the implementation of its teachings regarding the use of social media. As these are not doctrinal in character, I won’t dwell on them too long. They are summarized below:

  • “Pastors should hasten, therefore, to fulfill their duty in this respect, one which is intimately linked with their ordinary preaching responsibility” (§ 13). So pastors are, at a minimum, obliged to teach the faithful from the pulpit about the proper use of social media, both as consumers and producers thereof. Mark this down as a big fat failure. § 18 urges that a day be set aside in dioceses throughout the world where such training and education is explicitly offered. In light of this, the Vatican appointed January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales (patron saint of journalists), as “World Social Communications Day” and has been at least minimally faithful in following through. As far as bishops and pastors are concerned, on the other hand — nada.
  • “First, a good press should be fostered. … [A] truly Catholic press should be set up and encouraged” which “should be edited with the clear purpose of forming, supporting and advancing public opinion in accord with natural law and Catholic teaching and precepts” as well as “disseminate and properly explain news concerning the life of the Church” (§ 14). This extends to include supporting explicitly Catholic or Catholic-friendly arts (such as the production of movies). The document goes on to urge that “care must be taken that [Catholic television and radio stations’] programs are outstanding for their standards of excellence and achievement.” This one’s a mixed bag. Some Catholic media is at least generally good — EWTN does good work, my occasional criticisms notwithstanding. Much of it is so-so: Catholic Answers does some good work in their apologetics which is more than swamped by the wickedness they promote and officially tolerate on their forums (often against Inter Mirifica‘s own recommendations). And, of course, some of it is irredeemably bad: think the National Catholic Reporter, a squalid hellhole of dissent and degeneracy. Bishops and pastors seem largely indifferent toward the first and second and timid about the third, which, unlike the orthodox-but-equally-combatative Michael Voris’ ChurchMilitant.tv, was never asked to remove “Catholic” from its title. As far as the arts are concerned, the institutional Church (in America, at least) has been worse than useless.
  • § 15 calls for training in the use of media, and central coordination in promoting the use of media, to be instituted immediately. Nothing done on this front, sadly, perhaps due to the general technological incompetence of bishops, who are older than average; the result is that what Catholic media exists today has largely sprung up without their encouragement and often acts against their recommendations. § 17 calls for the laity and others to earnestly support Catholic media to the extent possible.
  • § 16 similarly calls for steps to be taken to educate the young with respect  to the proper use of social media, specifically identifying “catechetical manuals” of the sort that basically no longer exist and were explicitly rejected in the postconciliar age as a means of promoting such awareness. Another F.
  • § 20 makes clear that the responsibility for overseeing and implementing these guidelines falls primarily on the bishops.

Inter Mirifica § 12: Did the Council endorse censorship?

Yes, it did.

Catholics of a libertarian bent will surely find section 12 of Inter Mirifica alarming:

The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

Special care should be taken to safeguard young people from printed matter and performances which may be harmful at their age.

The first paragraph here follows a conciliar pattern described earlier of declaring a “right” and then qualifying it with exceptions that (from a leftist perspective, at least) swallow the rule. The state, we are told, is obliged to protect the (limited) right to information and free exchange thereof; it is also obligated to actively support (as opposed to passively protect) media and fine arts venues that promote morally sound values. But to the extent that social media damages the moral hygiene of society and conduces to social disorder, the state is obliged to intervene.

This isn’t just a permission slip for censorship; it’s a positive precept to censor. States that, for instance, are able to but deliberately do not restrict the production and sale of pornography fail grievously in their duty to promote the common good. I imagine that, given the gravity of the matter and especially given the last paragraph above, the means afforded to the state to work toward this end are broad, indeed.

Americans with an extraordinary fondness for the First Amendment (or the Constitution generally) are going to need to get over it: the commonly-understood usage of “freedom of speech” is an Enlightenment accretion that is fundamentally at odds with traditional Catholic understandings. For a Catholic defense of censorship, see this excellent essay.

But how would you feel if liberals restricted your freedom of speech?!” cries an Enlightenment enthusiast with a basement full of gold bullion. You mean like they do, all the time? Obviously, I object to that arrangement. But I object to it not because of the means but because the end in the service of which those means are marshaled: the promotion and celebration of perversion and evil.

Inter Mirifica § 5-11: The Proper Moral Outlook

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 arts

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.”

Inter Mirifica § 1-4: Basic Principles

(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.

Introduction to Inter Mirifica

Inter Mirifica (Latin original, English translation), the Council’s decree on the media of social communications promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 4 December 1963, is largely forgotten, due in part to its overshadowing by the much more momentous Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was promulgated on the same day, as well as the slightness of its subject matter, the unobjectionable character of its contents, and its negligible lasting impact.

By “social communications,” Inter Mirifica means, essentially, what we would call “mass media”: then newspapers, radios, television, and the film and music industries; today, that could presumably be expanded to include video games and the various forms of Internet-based communications, including blogs, Facebook, YouTube videos, etc. The headline version of Inter Mirifica is as follows: social communications are essentially good but their use should be subordinated to some basic guiding principles, both moral and prudential. It outlines those principles in some depth and offers a few guidelines on how the Church might usefully exploit media of social communications, which includes training both clergy and laity in their use. This, so far as I know, has not really been systematically implemented; in fact, it seems the most successful Catholic media apostolates sprang up organically with little to no formation on the Church’s part, they are as likely as not to be treated by the Church with suspicion and contempt (e.g., Michael Voris’ ChurchMilitant.tv), or to be actively harmful to her interests (and I’m not just talking about National Catholic Reporter).

Inter Mirifica might usefully be classified as “mostly harmless” in that, with a few questionable word choices aside, its content seems theologically and even prudentially inoffensive. My analysis of it, then, will be fairly brief. I’ll look at its recommendations, assess the extent of their successful implementation, and analyze the situation on the ground today. I’ll also spare a brief discussion about the “right to information” which it announces belongs to all “men” “in society,” and in which some traditionalists see (wrongly, I will argue) an endorsement of unfettered Enlightenment freedom-of-press. It’s in that section, in particular, that we begin to see the Council’s… unusual… way of speaking about certain issues emerge, a dialectic we might usefully call “liberalese.”