Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Filling Our Father’s House among other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Japan.
I was asked a week ago a question to the tune of, "How do you think we can help our children and the next generation to understand the dignity of the human person, to reverse the trends of popular culture?"
I think it begins with the media because there is not a bigger influence in the modern day than the media.
Few Catholics might be aware that the Church wrote on the use of modern media all the way back to 1936, when Pope Pius XI wrote Vigilanti Cura, on the use and production of motion pictures. I enjoy the timing of our popes. They seem to have ears and eyes well-attuned to modern issues but they also often perceive the current matters so well that they're able to see prophetically into the future. Arms races, birth control, and social reconstruction have been among the highlights of the past 100 years of pontiffs, but they've also continued a tradition of participation and pastoring on the proper use of media. The Council Fathers of Vatican II agreed with this, and released Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Use of Social Communications on December 4, 1963.
Vigilanti Cura was the first modern encyclical directed to the media and—with no exceptions—it was timely. It was published in the same era as the releases of Gone with the Wind, King Kong, Dracula, The Wizard of Oz, and Frankenstein. Gable, Wayne, and Chaplin were the headliners, and the people flocked to the big screen and from these herds came the herding, the influence of the media.
Back to the question I was asked—it was a fantastic question, and given the context of this Catholic radio conversation discussing the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I think they figured I was going to say something philosophical or something about the human person, but in the seconds I had to respond to the answer, the only seriously useful thing I could come up with was "media censorship."
Humanae Vitae, of course, doesn't touch on the proper use of media but discusses parental responsibility, dignity, and conjugal love. But, there is a part of Humanae Vitae that references its contents and meaning to Inter Mirifica:
Everything therefore in the modern means of social communication which arouses men's baser passions and encourages low moral standards, as well as every obscenity in the written word and every form of indecency on the stage and screen, should be condemned publicly and unanimously by all those who have at heart the advance of civilization and the safeguarding of the outstanding values of the human spirit. It is quite absurd to defend this kind of depravity in the name of art or culture or by pleading the liberty which may be allowed in this field by the public authorities.
That last sentence, describing the depravity in art and culture, refers to Inter Mirifica paragraphs 6-7.
[T]he 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. . . . Finally, the narration, description or portrayal of moral evil, even through the media of social communication, 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. Nevertheless, such presentations ought always to be subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls, particularly when there is question of treating matters which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them.
"Subject to moral restraint." Here's where censorship becomes the answer to today's problems and the connection shouldn't come as a surprise: both documents bear the name of Pope Paul VI. Children today are subject to extreme perversions and little moral restraint. Super Bowl LII (52) in 2018 was viewed by an estimated 104 million people. It was 111 million in 2017. How many of those were children? Maybe a fourth. That's 25 million children that watched the sleazy GoDaddy commercials, others with women kissing, near-nudity in Carls Jr. commercials, the innuendo of adultery in Mr. Clean commercials, and others promoting disagreeable social norms. Even Netflix, now, has plenty of nudity and sexuality—likely to follow the profitable path of HBO. It makes me sick to think of, but it's our modern reality. So, what are we to do? Again, I say censorship.
I think the best way we can promote the dignity of the human person in light of Humanae Vitae is to adopt, also, the teachings of the Church on media, especially Inter Mirifica. This responsibility for censorship can no longer be an expectation of the networks or programming executives, but must fall on the parents. They have always had this proper and full responsibility, but today parents need to be especially involved. Their involvement in the monitoring of programs is critical to their children's moral and spiritual development. Inter Mirifica makes it clear that the media is "made with God's help" and "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." But this only if the media is "properly used" (1-2).
Parents can exercise proper use of the media by doing diligent research on content and messages. They can watch the show for the first time, in some cases, with their children, but they need to detect themes and messages before they appear to be acceptable to children. Even as children get older, parents may make opportunities to let their children watch, even horror and intense drama, to teach their children of the realities of spiritual warfare and evil in the world.
This is only the start, though, Parents are not just censors, but are the keepers of quality media as well. Like food for the body, parents should be just as interested in keeping good content in front of their children as much as their concern for keeping out lousy content. Humanae Vitae confirms this:
We take this opportunity to address those who are engaged in education and all those whose right and duty it is to provide for the common good of human society. We would call their attention to the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded (22).
These are just a few practical ways that parents can help the children and the next generation to understand the dignity of the human person, and there's plenty more to consider and learn. From Vigilanti Cura to the most recent World Communications Day address, the Church gives us much modern and prophetic wisdom for the proper use of media. I discuss all of this and more in my new book Social Media Magisterium: A No-Nonsense Guide to the Proper Use of Media, available in paperback and Kindle.