Vatican II’s Decree on the Mass Media, 60 Years Later

COMMENTARY: ‘Inter Mirifica’ remains a vital reference point for reflecting on the role of social communications in the Catholic Church’s mission.

Pope Paul VI speaks during the Second Vatican Council as seen from this television screen. While moved by missionary zeal, the Council fathers also recognized the complexity of modern communications.
Pope Paul VI speaks during the Second Vatican Council as seen from this television screen. While moved by missionary zeal, the Council fathers also recognized the complexity of modern communications. (photo: Jack de Nijs for Anefo / Public Domain)

On Dec. 4, 1963, the Second Vatican Council solemnly approved its first two documents: the constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the decree Inter Mirifica, regarding the mass media. The latter document is much less known than the former one.

Nonetheless, Inter Mirifica offers some crucial principles to guide us in a world where we find ourselves ever more immersed in mass communication: the press, film, television, along with the newer forms of media.

During the preparation for Vatican II, the Church keenly realized the importance of this topic, and Pope John XXIII established a special body to work on a text that might articulate the Church’s teaching on the mass media and promote her action in this area. The result of this work was an extensive document, entitled “On the instruments of social communication,” which was presented to the Council on Nov. 23, 1962.

The French bishop who introduced the document, Archbishop René-Louis-Marie Stourm of Sens, recognized that the mass media is an essential aspect of modern culture, and one which the Catholic Church could not afford to ignore. Whether such media was used simply for diversion, or for the communication of ideas and culture, it could never be morally indifferent. Mass media, he noted, could bring either “great good” or “great evil,” in particular for young people.

Here, the Council anticipated a dilemma that we continue to face today: How can the Church rightly recognize the great possibilities of the modern means of communication, while also remaining vigilant against the serious dangers posed by these same means?

The Council deeply desired to focus on the positive. The draft of the decree, intended for discussion during Vatican II, referred to the mass media as among the “wonderful technological discoveries” that human ingenuity has brought about from created things, with the help of God.

With this affirmation, for the first time in an ecumenical council, the Church would situate the means of mass communication within God’s plan for creation. Such media, as the decree Inter Mirifica affirms, are meant to serve the good of mankind and can be important means for the Church’s saving mission.

Such optimism, however, did mean that the Council was unaware of the dangers presented by mass media. The initial draft warned of the danger of the mass media and its capacity to lead man astray through its “fascinating power.” Still, various Council fathers felt that the Church needed to be more forceful.

Bishop Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, called on the Church to be more frank in condemning evil, while also exhorting the faithful to penance and pious works, to avoid the dangers connected with the mass media. Such exhortations would affect the final text of Inter Mirifica, which put a stronger emphasis on the “serious duty” of parents to be vigilant against “shows, publications and other things of this sort” that might be morally harmful.

The Council also desired to make a stronger appeal to public authorities, reminding them of their obligation to be vigilant about public morals for the good of society. Such affirmations did not sit well with everyone, and as a result, the decree received more negative votes than any other Council document. Still, the overwhelming majority of the assembly backed the final text before its final promulgation by Pope Paul VI (1,960 Fathers in favor, 164 against).

The decree’s clear moral guidelines remain as timely as ever. At the same time, going beyond a simply negative or defensive approach, the Council fathers recognized that these new means of communication presented a new opportunity for evangelization.

Archbishop Stourm had invited the Council fathers to consider the immense number of persons reached by the press, cinema, radio and television, and asserted that there could be no found no means more efficacious for spreading doctrine and ideas. How, he asked aloud, could the Church, called to reveal the message of salvation, neglect such important areas?

While moved by this missionary zeal, the Council fathers also recognized the complexity of modern communications. They were well aware of a truth that has become all the more evident in our own age of social media: that the mass means of communication not only convey information, but also shape our way of thinking and seeing the world.

The images from cinema and television, Polish Bishop Herbert Bednorz had noted — echoing the Canadian sociologist Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger — lead man to a new mentality, in which concrete images take priority over abstract ideas. In this regard, the reflection of the Council was very much in keeping with the forefront of contemporary reflection.

A year after the promulgation of Inter Mirifica, the Canadian Catholic philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the famed expression, “The medium is the message."

In their efforts to better understand and use such powerful means of transmitting ideas, the Council fathers recognized the pivotal importance of the laity. Their role would receive greater attention in the final version of the decree.

While Inter Mirifica recognizes the essential role to be played by the Church’s pastors to instruct and guide the faithful with regard to social communications, the Council affirmed that it was the special duty of the laity to “strive to instill a human and Christian spirit into these media” (3).

The urgency of this task was made all the more evident by representatives of those areas where the Church lacked the freedom to make use of the mass media. One poignant example was Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, now Blessed, who had spent three years in prison under a communist government. He noted that for many people, broadcast transmissions might be the only way by which many people might hear the Gospel. He called on Vatican Radio and other Catholic stations to proclaim the Gospel, especially in those countries where religious liberty was lacking.

The final text of the decree focused on general principles, rather than such specific initiatives. The Council fathers had been nearly unanimous in wanting a shorter text, and as a result, Inter Mirifica has just two chapters. The first one outlines the teaching of the Church regarding the proper use of the means of social communication.

Here, the Council sought to articulate those moral principles which should guide this important area of modern life. The Council fathers wanted to put the faithful on guard against the fallacy of thinking that modern media could ignore moral considerations.

In the area of aesthetics, for example, the Church desired to proclaim explicitly “that all must hold to the absolute primacy of the objective moral order.” The decree outlines the specific moral responsibilities of all — those who work in media, those who make use of these media, as well as those in public authority — so that social communications might serve the true good and happiness of mankind.

The second chapter of Inter Mirifica deals more specifically with the pastoral activity of the Church in the field of mass media. Here, the Council exhorts “all the children of the Church” to work together, “without delay and with the greatest effort …” to make “effective use” of the means of social communication in the Church’s evangelizing mission. Such a task would involve both the appropriate apostolic initiatives, but also a concern to anticipate “harmful developments” in this area.

After speaking of the responsibilities of pastors and laity, the decree proceeds to articulate various dimensions of the Church’s activity with regard to the mass media — such as the fostering of “a truly Catholic press” so as “to instill a fully Christian spirit into readers,” the promotion of quality films as well as TV and radio programs, and a call for the establishment of national offices for communications media.

In these and other ways the decree Inter Mirifica, while not being the most crucial or well-known document of Vatican II, nonetheless expresses an essential aspect of the teaching of Vatican II. The Council Fathers overwhelmingly recognized that if the Church wanted to proclaim the Gospel to the modern world, she would need to make better use of the powerful and varied means of mass communication. Such means continue to develop by the day, and yet the principles of Inter Mirifica remain valid.

Sixty years later, the decree reminds us of the great power of the means of social communication, but also of their continual need to be purified and elevated by the Gospel of Christ.