Saturday, February 06, 2010

Vatican II's Inter Mirifica and Social Media today

As I mentioned a few days ago, Pope Benedict's address for World Communication Day is a good occasion for us to revisit what I believe is perhaps the most overlooked document of Vatican II, the decree on social communications media, Inter Mirifica.  This document was released on the same day as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, on December 4, 1963.  While the Internet's origins reach back to the 1960's, it didn't "go public" until 1988; that same year, Pope John Paul II wrote Vicesimus Quintus Annus, an Apostolic Letter on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  (No such letter was written for poor Inter Mirifica.)  The word "blog" didn't show up for another decade or so.

So what can this nearly 40-year-old document tell us today in this digital world of blogs and Twitter?  More than you might think.  In this three-part series, I want to guide you through this document to show you its timeless and timely words of wisdom and instruction.  My goal is not only to understand what the Church has taught us through this document, but also how it applies to the modern digital medium of the Internet, and how we can put this teaching into practice in our blogging and tweeting.  (Please share this with priests you know who are blogging or tweeting, or who are considering doing so!)

In this first part, we will look at articles 1 and 2, the Introduction to the decree.
1. AMONG THE WONDERFUL [Inter mirifica] technological discoveries which men of talent, especially in the present era, have made with God's help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which have a most direct relation to men's minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort.
From the very beginning, this document emphasizes the cooperation between man and God:  man makes these technological discoveries with God's help.  This is an important theme which will resurface throughout the document:  because these discoveries are made with the assistance of God, they figure into His plan, and so He has a dominion over them.  This means it is not for man to decide, apart from God, what the proper or improper use of a technology is.
The most important of these inventions are those media which, such as the press, movies, radio, television and the like [e.g. the Internet], can, of their very nature, reach and influence, not only individuals, but the very masses and the whole of human society, and thus can rightly be called the media of social communication.
The media of social communication are the most important inventions because of their enormous potential for impact.  Consider the drastic increase of blogs and blogging platforms over the past five years; consider the Twitter explosion (which appears, finally, to be plateauing).  People can reach other people nearly anywhere else in the world instantly, and in a variety of ways.
2. 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.
There is a right and wrong way to use social communications media.  Their proper use leads to both temporal advancement of mankind (both secular and religious) and eternal beatitude.  The Church is (subtly) saying here that the proper use of these inventions has a spiritual end by God's design, not by accident or as a mere side effect, or as one possibility among many.  This is made clear by looking at the negative possibility:
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.
There we have it:  God has a plan for television, radio, the Internet, etc., and He has given us the gift of the Church, with her sacred Magisterium, to help us understand and employ these media properly.  If we use these inventions incorrectly, we can suffer temporally and eternally; the temporal effects, while lesser than the eternal ones, are the more easily perceived.  Think of the lasting effects of the Internet pornography industry.
Hence, this sacred Synod, attentive to the watchful concern manifested by the Supreme Pontiffs and Bishops in a matter of such great importance, judges it to be its duty to treat of the principal questions linked with the media of social communication. It trusts, moreover, that the teaching and regulations it thus sets forth will serve to promote, not only the eternal welfare of Christians, but also the progress of all mankind.
At the Second Vatican Council, the Church discerned that it was her duty to deal with these matters and to put forth authoritative and binding teachings and regulations on the proper use of these media for the edification of man and the Church.  Even though the Church did not invent these things, since they belong ultimately to God and are subject to His plan, He has bestowed the Church with this authority to teach and govern in these matters.

The Church is not afraid of all this new-fangled technology, but she knows she must be cautious.  It should come as no surprise, then, when the Church instructs us on how to use the Internet as a tool for evangelization; it should not shock you that priests are encouraged to blog or tweet about the faith.  The Internet is not from Satan, but Satan is trying his hardest to abuse it for our destruction, while the Church desires to use it for the greater glory of God.

Part two of this series will look at chapter one of the decree, "On the Teaching of the Church," which describes what the Church teaches about social communications media.  Part three looks at chapter two, "On the Pastoral Activity of the Church," which is about what the Church intends to accomplish with these media.

Post-script:  If you're looking for a brief list of documents from the Church on social communications media, I recommend the following:
  • Vigilanta Cura (On the motion picture), Pope Pius XI, 1936
  • Inter Mirifica (On social communications media), Vatican II, 1963
  • Communio et Progressio (On the means of social communication), Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 1971
  • Aetatis Novae (On social communications on the 20th anniversary of Communio et Progressio), Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 1992
  • The Church and Internet, Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 2002 (important quote: "Education and training regarding the Internet ought to be part of comprehensive programs of media education available to members of the Church.  As much as possible, pastoral planning for social communications should make provision for this training in the formation of seminarians, priests, religious, and lay pastoral personnel as well as teachers, parents, and students.")
  • The Rapid Development (Apostolic Letter to those responsible for communications), Pope John Paul II, 2005

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