Editor’s note: Today, I’m very happy to continue our series of blog posts being shared by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops for the Year of Faith. We thank the USCCB for making this post available for our readers. LMH
The Council at 50: Vatican II on Communications: Speaking to the World
Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.
A first decision the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council faced was whether to restrict themselves to internal church matters, such as liturgy, or to expand their mission to include what matters to the entire world. They chose the latter and opted to include within the Council’s scope the immense topic of social communications. The Fathers sought, they said, to speak on public communications in order to promote “not only the eternal welfare of Christians, but also the progress of all mankind.”
Inter Mirifica, the decree on social communications, takes its name from the first words of the document’s Latin (and official) version, which mean “among the wonderful.” It acknowledges the media’s awesome power for good or ill and heralds its potential for everything from uplifting people’s spirits through the arts to keeping them informed via news media to providing tools for religious education.
Given the explosion of media since the document was published in 1963, the message, though brief, was prescient. It spoke of “the press, movies, radio, television and the like” with “the like” having come to include the internet, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and whatever other media lie on the horizon or beyond.
Inter Mirifica spoke of a sense of morality to guide media use. It said people have “a right” to information and said the news communicated “should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity” and that how news is communicated “should be proper and decent.” The Council explained that “both in the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual.” It called on public authorities to guarantee freedom of information, describing it as “a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a matter of freedom of the press.” The words hold meaning now as the news business grapples with everything from wiretapping to leaks to manipulation of images.
Inter Mirifica also highlighted the role of other communications arts such as film and drama to help people understand evil in order to “reveal and glorify the grand dimensions of truth and goodness.” It called for “moral restraint” in such presentations “lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls.” It offers guidance to producers as they decide how much violence they need to illustrate conflict or how much sexual intimacy to reveal to emphasize relationships.
The Fathers called on church authorities to develop quality media within its own walls. It spoke of the news media, saying, “a good press should be fostered,” involving both church officials and laity. It urged the church to prepare “literary, film, radio, television and other critics” to “put moral issues in their proper light.”
Inter Mirifica called for two specific actions at the Vatican to enhance mass communications. The first was to establish the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Vatican office that subsequently developed key Pastoral instructions, Communio et Progressio (Unity and Advancement),1971, that emphasizes relationships with public media, and Aetatis Novae (At the Dawn of a New Era), 1992, that looks at the inherent challenges presented by modern developments in media. Inter Mirifica also called for an annual World Communications Day, reminding churches to celebrate their media locally. The Vatican has since used this occasion to address such contemporary topics as ethics in advertising, pornography and the digital age.
Inter Mirifica posed a challenge that still faces the church when it recognized the difficulty and costs of providing quality media, but said this work is imperative, a matter of the soul of humanity.
“It is quite unbecoming for the Church’s children idly to permit the message of salvation to be thwarted or impeded by the technical delays or expenses, however vast, which are encountered by the very nature of the media,” the Council Fathers said. The challenge still stands before us.
Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City chairs the Communications Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.