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Commentary on Inter Mirifica

Daniel J. Castellano


Chapter I: On the Teaching of the Church
Chapter II: On the Pastoral Activity of the Church

Alongside the magnificent constitution on liturgical reform, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council promulgated on the same day (December 4, 1963) a much more modest document, Inter Mirifica, a decree on the media of social communications. In contrast with the expansive thought and debate that went into the constitution on sacred liturgy, Inter Mirifica offers little indication of substantive reform proposals or of having explored its subject in much depth. In fact, the content of this brief document can be summarized in a single platitudinous sentence: Media of social communication are good for society, but ought to be subject to norms of Christian morality. It is unfortunate that this topic received such scant attention by the Council, since the subsequent decades have proven the increased cultural importance of social media, especially film and television, and more recently, the Internet, in shaping public morality. If the Church wishes to shape the broader culture rather than find her own children swayed by forces hostile to Christian teaching, she must have a prominent voice through modern means of mass communication.

Given the slight content of Inter Mirifica, I will confine my commentary to its brief remarks on the relationship between freedom of communication and public morality, followed by my own suggestions about how the principles described might be applied to the unforeseen medium of the Internet. Given the domination of film and television by media conglomerates indifferent or hostile to Catholic norms, the Internet arguably offers the most fruitful medium for the dissemination of sound Catholic culture, since it enables two-way interaction in self-selecting communities defined by ideas rather than geography.

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Chapter I: On the Teaching of the Church

The original draft of Inter Mirifica was a lengthy constitution, yet most of the Council Fathers felt ill equipped to evaluate the various media in any detail, so most of this content was omitted, leaving only essential Church teaching on the morally legitimate use of such media (Chapter I), followed by some general pastoral prescriptions for the establishment of Catholic media (Chapter II). Victimized by the lack of practical media knowledge it was designed to address, the document was demoted to a “decree,” as it did not really define any new laws for the Church, but only proposed some determinate actions.

First, the decree affirms that men in society have a “right to information,” the first time the Council declares a substantive natural right of man. Yet this right is derived from the fact that the “prompt publication of affairs and events” enables everyone to “contribute more effectively to the common good and... advance the welfare of the entire civil society.” (IM, 5) Thus the “right to information” is not conceived in the Lockean sense of an individual entitlement, but as a social prerogative whose exercise is necessary to the advancement of the common good. Since the right of information is intrinsically subordinate to the common good, it follows that the content of what is communicated should be “true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity.” Further, the means of acquiring and reporting news should respect “the laws of morality” and “the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual.” Knowledge is not an end in itself, but is ordered to the good of society, so it is not licit to violate public morality or individual right for the supposedly unqualified good of disseminating information.

Regarding the question of artistic freedom, the Council affirms that aesthetics must always be subordinate to the objective moral order, which “by itself surpasses and fittingly coordinates all other spheres of human affairs...” (IM, 6) Since man is divinely endowed with reason and called to “a lofty destiny,” the moral order affects “his entire being.” The Council rejects the idea that art or any other human endeavor can be compartmentalized, set apart from, or made exempt from the demands of morality.

Although those who freely make use of media as viewers, readers or listeners have a responsibility to avoid presentations that are morally or spiritually harmful, the “principal moral responsibility for the proper use of the media... 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.” (IM, 11) The Council emphatically rejects the argument that viewers bear primary responsibility for the moral content of programs or films, thereby excusing producers and distributors from exhibiting moral restraint. Simple prudence is in accord with the Council’s position, since viewers frequently have no way of knowing in advance whether the content of a presentation will be morally sound. It is also naive to portray audiences as perfectly free agents, given what we know about the power of suggestion in mass communication. Repeated bombardment with images or sounds of immoral behaviors can only serve to desensitize or acclimate audiences to the moral acceptance of what was only recently considered abhorrent. The immoral media’s excuse that they are only “giving audiences what they want” is self-servingly innocent of mass psychology. In fact, they expend much wealth and effort to help shape the tastes of audiences, preferably toward something that can be cheaply and easily provided.

Notably, the Council includes even critics among those chiefly responsible for the moral content of artistic mass media. By giving approval to what is immoral, critics perpetrate the deceit that there is something artistically or intellectually sophisticated in immorality, or at least that moral considerations have no place in the evaluation of art. Such attempts to separate the ethical from the aesthetic, or even set them in opposition, effectively divide man against himself, as if he could behave basely without compromising his humanity. There is surely no more certain indictment of the failure of post-Enlightenment liberalism than the spectacle of supposed sophisticates being unable to transcend their most bestial impulses. Instead of acknowledging their weakness, they must comically pretend it is a strength. If only they understood that the lovers of virtue reject what is base not out of fear, but because it has no more appeal than any other childish thing.

The emphasis that responsibility for moral content lies primarily on the side of suppliers, not consumers, requires a certain degree of coordination on the part of the former, since they must act not solely out of individual professional interest, but for the common good. To this end, professional codes of moral practice, such as those adopted by the film and comics industries in the mid-twentieth century (largely due to Catholic influence), can help normalize good moral content and prevent individual producers from obtaining an unfair business advantage over those exercising responsible restraint. Ironically, the recent relaxation of such codes in the name of artistic freedom or sophistication has not resulted in better products. Quite the contrary, the earlier films and magazines that worked under the code had to come up with more creative and sophisticated narratives in order to engage audiences, since many cheap, obvious sensual thrills were not available for use. Art, the production of beauty, is more fruitful when it works under determinate cultural constraints, as opposed to when it is given an amorphous, uncultivated freedom.

The Council holds that public authority has “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.” (IM, 12) This allusion to “contemporary society” undoubtedly refers to the fact that in modern republics, with a politically active citizenry, it is necessary to ensure that all citizens are informed about current affairs, to the extent that all have the interest and ability to act in response to such affairs in accordance with the common good. Freedom of information, especially that of the press, is made necessary in order to act for social and political good. This communitarian notion of freedom makes it evident that the public authority is not opposing the right to information when it makes laws regulating the moral content and use of the media. (IM, 12) On the contrary, it is fulfilling the primary purpose of this right, which is to promote the common good. In this conceptualization, we avoid the socially destructive and libertine consequences of a Lockean notion of freedom as an individual entitlement to be unrestrained by society.

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Chapter II: On the Pastoral Activity of the Church

The Church, for her part, must make use of the media to advance morality and religion. A Catholic press should be fostered, “with the clear purpose of forming, supporting, and advancing public opinion in accord with natural laws and Catholic teaching.” (IM, 14) Recourse to the Catholic press is not merely optional: “the faithful ought to be advised of the necessity both to spread and read the Catholic press to formulate Christian judgment for themselves on all events.” (IM, 14) Support should also be given for Catholic radio and television programming.

To facilitate such development, the Council proposes that “laymen ought to be afforded technical, doctrinal and moral training,” provided by new “school faculties and institutes” where journalists and screenwriters can be trained in the Christian spirit, “especially with respect to the social teaching of the Church.” Even critics should be prepared to make artistic judgments in light of moral issues. (IM, 15)

The Council recognizes that modern mass media require vast expenses in time and money, yet nonetheless exhorts Catholics to maintain and assist Catholic media. It also “invites those organizations and individuals who possess financial and technical ability to support these media freely and generously with their resources and their skills...” (IM, 17)

Interestingly, the decree ordains that each year in every diocese there should be celebrated a day where the faithful are instructed in their responsibility to support Catholic media and are invited to pray and contribute funds for this cause. (IM, 18) This became the World Day of Social Communications or World Communications Day, which is generally celebrated in May, though the date varies. The Popes have consistently issued annual messages on this day, providing a fruitful literature of Church teaching on changing communications media. However, Inter Mirifica’s prescription of promoting awareness of this day and raising funds at the diocesan level has largely remained unrealized, like most of the decree’s proposals for pastoral action. If anything, Catholic mass media are generally in a worse state of affairs, both financially and in terms of cultural influence, than they were before the Council.

Still, the decree at least set the groundwork for possible future action by clarifying the lines of ecclesiastical responsibility for social communications. The Holy See’s “Secretariat for the Supervision of Publications and Entertainment” was given jurisdiction over all media of social communication, and lay experts could be named to it. (IM, 19) The bishops would have jurisdiction over all social communication media in their diocese, even those managed by religious orders. (IM, 20) This prevents groups of religious and priests from becoming an effective second magisterium, using mass media to reach the laity directly, and thereby have more teaching influence than the bishop. In a properly ordered local Church, all public teaching should be subject to the direction of the bishop. However, such a structure does not address the influence that even a bishop-approved broadcast might have on other dioceses.

The Council decreed that there should be established national offices for press, films, radio and television, and that these are to be entrusted to a special committee of bishops. (IM, 21) Further, these national offices should cooperate in international associations, as approved by the Holy See. (IM, 22) Such large-scale coordination recognizes the practical necessity of pooling resources to create programming with national or even international reach. Unfortunately, this aspect of Inter Mirifica’s proposals has yet to yield much fruit. The vast resources of the Church and her members have not been applied in a coordinated way that would allow Catholics to speak with a voice that rivals that of the major media networks. Considering the wealth and numbers of dedicated Catholics, this is a significant underachievement.

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Despite the Fathers’ intent to focus on pastoral aims, the weakest aspect of Inter Mirifica has remained its pastoral results. This failure is in large part due to clerical naivete and ignorance regarding the practical aspects of media, which prevented the articulation of a more definite course of action for implementing the decree. There is no shortage of competent lay Catholics who could organize and finance Catholic media, and Inter Mirifica wisely invokes lay participation at every level in its prescriptions. Still, without the participation of an organized and media-competent ecclesiastical authority, human and financial resources for Catholic media will remain dispersed among small-scale activities. As long as this situation persists, Catholics will find that the terms of religious and moral issues are defined primarily by the secular media conglomerates.

Other aspects of Vatican II may have hindered the implementation of Inter Mirifica. In later sessions, the Council developed a more coherent voice on ecclesiology, encouraging an opening to the world and collaboration with non-Catholics. This aim could seem to be at odds with the notion of sectarian media, which can encourage the cultural insularity or defensiveness that the Council sought to abandon. Still, as the erroneous interpretations of ecumenism were corrected in subsequent decades, whether by magisterial teaching or by the facts of experience, it became clear that there is still a need for a strong Catholic media in the postconciliar age. Indeed, the media of Western democracies has become so frequently hostile to Christianity, that the Catholic media may serve as a needed voice not only for Catholics, but for all Christians, to counterbalance relentlessly negative and false characterizations of the faith and its adherents.

Until the national bishops’ conferences commit more resources to the large-scale coordination of Catholic media, it remains for lay Catholics to improve the effectiveness of their own small-scale projects. With the rise of the Internet as a primary medium of disseminating and discussing news, as well as the arts and sciences, there is now vast potential for lay Catholics to take some initiative in the work of media coordination that until now has been insufficiently attended by the hierarchy. The Internet, after all, increasingly is oriented toward the formation of self-identifying communities, yet in a way that is open to a broader audience.

Currently, Catholic media presence is disjointed among a bewildering array of ecclesiastical and private websites, blogs, and occasional portals. More traditional and orthodox Catholics have a stronger voice on the Internet than they do elsewhere, perhaps because those who have a more sharply defined Catholic identity are more likely to commit effort to producing distinctively Catholic content. Whatever the reason for this prevalence, its effect is vitiated by the disconnectedness and lack of coordination among the private sites. (The same may be said of official church sites, but that is a matter for the hierarchy.) Some sites may link to each other’s “blogrolls,” or even use the more archaic “web rings,” but these have limited effectiveness insofar as they are structureless, unorganized lists. They may improve traffic, but do not reflect a genuine coordination of effort. A Catholic web portal that was well maintained, comprehensive, and intuitively organized would be a good start. Yet portals and other methods of aggregation should not be indiscriminate, but select based on quality of content. Only in this way can the aggregated sites serve as a coherent cultural voice.

Aggregation or interconnection is but a minimal condition for coordinating Catholic media into a significant cultural force. Producers of content must interact with each other and collaborate, even to the extent of distributing each other’s content. This will enable Catholic articles and columns to figure more prominently in news aggregators. There must be real collaboration between Catholic newspapers and bloggers, so that the Catholic voice contributes not just commentary, but also original information.

Any moderately successful venture will incur considerable cost, so at some point Catholics must be willing to make significant financial contributions to online media, or their voice will remain split across millions of small sites, none of which has significant cultural cachet to counterbalance the conglomerates. There need not be a Catholic mega-site, but there could be an identifiably named network of sites, in analogy with some of the top news aggregators. New software tools for social interaction may facilitate the creation of communities of content producers, so that they effectively act as a cohesive whole. Only when such combined efforts reach a critical mass can Catholics have a voice that is powerful enough to rival some of the major online media. At the very least, it would be desirable for Catholics to have the ability to define themselves and their positions, rather than to have these constantly conveyed through the distorted lens of a generally hostile secular media.

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© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org