Much has changed in the world of social communications since the promulgation 50 years ago of Inter Mirifica (The Means of Social Communication), the Second Vatican Council’s decree that addressed the concerns and problems associated with the media.
But the document has been effective, and the topics it discusses have been further developed in other Vatican writings over the last five decades, as media has rapidly advanced.
"Communications has been always, and always will be, central to the life of the Church, but sometimes it’s so central and part of what we do that we take it for granted," said Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
"What Inter Mirifica did was start an effort to give more explicit attention to the importance of communication and invite people not to just communicate spontaneously, but to reflect on what they were doing."
Promulgated on Dec. 4, 1963, the decree urges the Church "without delay and with the greatest effort" to make effective use of the media in various apostolic endeavors. It argues that it is within the Church’s birthright to use the means of social communication in the pursuit of preaching the Gospel and salvation.
It stresses the need for morality in media, that social communication be correct, honest and accurate. And it underlines the responsibility of the individual to be watchful of his own well-being, ensuring the media are not causing one "spiritual harm."
Pope Paul VI’s decree, which advises youth to receive the media’s content "in moderation" and under the supervision of teachers, parents and guardians, also mandates a strong sense of responsibility among those in Church authority and that they ensure the positive, as well as that which might harm the Church, be communicated.
Inter Mirifica further encourages the creation of a "truly Catholic press," with the clear purpose of "forming, supporting and advancing public opinion" in accordance with the natural law and Catholic teaching. It also devotes considerable space to underlining the need for the Church to assist Catholic media in terms of financial, technical and episcopal support.
"The decree expresses the Church’s solicitude for communication in all its forms, which are important tools in the work of evangelization," Pope Francis explained in an address to participants of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications’ plenary meeting in September.
"There is a difference between these forms, that are functional means of communication, and communication itself, which is something else entirely," he said, adding that in the last few decades "the various means of communication have evolved significantly, but the Church’s concern remains the same, though it assumes new ways of expression."
Referring to the most significant change, the Holy Father noted that the media are now all-encompassing and a major part of everyday life in a way that wasn’t the case 50 years ago.
"The world of communications, more and more, has become an ‘environment’ for many, one in which people communicate with one another, expanding their possibilities for knowledge and relationship," he said. "I wish to underline these positive aspects, notwithstanding the limits and the harmful factors that also exist and which we are all aware of."
Msgr. Tighe further elaborated on this shift, explaining how emphasis has moved from a few media producers to millions of people today who are now both users and producers. "It’s very clear that a lot of the attention in the document was on reminding people who were, let’s say, producers of media to be conscious of their responsibilities in terms of producing content," he said. "That was edifying and positive in terms of its impact on human society and individuals."
But nowadays, he added, "the line between user and producer is less black and white, and a lot of attention has recently been on reminding people who are using social media to also take responsibility, to think through the consequences of what they’re doing before they share content, before they produce content or bring it to the attention of others."
Benedict XVI articulated this point in his 2009 World Communications Day Message. "Those who are active in the production and dissemination of new-media content [should] strive to respect the dignity and worth of the human person," he said. "If the new technologies are to serve the good of individuals and of society, all users will avoid the sharing of words and images that are degrading of human beings, that promote hatred and intolerance, that debase the goodness and intimacy of human sexuality or that exploit the weak and vulnerable."
"That’s a responsibility for all of us, whereas in the past, it would have been more on them, the producers," Msgr. Tighe said. Referring to the growth of "user-generated content," he added: "The questions we must ask are: What is my tone, attitude, approach? Am I really looking to debate and understand the other or am I simply engaging in condemnation and criticism?"
Media’s Significant Role
Many observers argue that Inter Mirifica was already somewhat dated when it appeared in 1963, as the Church was already seriously engaged in social communication. The Second Vatican Council itself was a major media event in which communications played a deeply significant, if possibly negative, role (so important in fact that some maintain it was hijacked by media outlets intent on interpreting the Council according to their own anti-Catholic biases — a development, they argue, from which the Church has never fully recovered).
But not all of the Council Fathers were so interested in social communication, nor did they fully understand it. This led to Inter Mirifica being one of the most difficult conciliar documents to be approved: 164 voted against it, the largest number of non placet (against) votes of the entire Council.
And yet the decree’s fruits have turned out to be many. It has also led to other key Vatican documents on the media, namely the pastoral instructions Communio et Progressio (The Unity and Advancement) in 1971, Aetatis Novae (Of a New Era) in 1992 and Il Rapido Sviluppo (The Rapid Development) in 2005.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Vatican Television (CTV) this fall, Pope Francis said Inter Mirifica had produced a number of "marvelous gifts" to the Church, one of which was CTV. The director of Vatican Television, Msgr. Dario Vigano, said in July that Inter Mirifica drew attention to the need to "look urgently and intelligently to deeply understand what is happening in scenarios unfolding day after day."
Other fruits have been the World Day of Communications message. Msgr. Tighe described the annual papal text as "very important" in highlighting the "centrality and importance of communications" in the life of the Church.
The decree also helped create the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, a Vatican office that continues to take much of its inspiration from the intuitions of this half-century-old conciliar document.