In addition to the deaths of John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis, another 50th anniversary is now upon us – that of the Decree on the Media of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica), which was passed in the council assembly on November 25 (with a bit of voting drama!) and promulgated by Paul VI on December 4, 1963.
Looking back on the text from the vantage point of 2013, it’s clearly not in sync with the current state of affairs in digital media. The same could be said of the decree’s companion documents: Communio et Progressio (1971) and Aetatis Novae (1992). It also applies to John Paul II’s apostolic letter “The Rapid Development” (2005). Indeed, the development in media communications has been far more rapid than anyone could have imagined; in just two decades Internet usage, social networking, and mobile connectivity have combined to transform the universe of communications into an entirely new social operating system.
Nevertheless, Inter Mirifica remains a 50 year-old sign that the Church was reading and willing to enter into this new realm. The decree itself marks the first time an ecumenical council dealt specifically with media. It’s also the only document of Vatican II that led to an annual celebration – World Communications Day, which takes place on the Sunday before Pentecost and is accompanied by a papal message on some contemporary concern in the field. And its legacy continues through the prolific work of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Inter Mirifica proclaims the “inherent right of the Church … to employ any of these media” in mission of proclaiming the faith. The decree rightly emphasizes the moral responsibility of all those engaged with the media, including producers and consumers, governments, and even the Church itself. And it strongly encourages the establishment of Catholic press and media offices or organizations, and calls for the proper training of all those involved in communicating via new media inventions.
Owing to its historical provenance, Inter Mirifica is limited in its perspective. In addition to its heavy emphasis on “rights,” the decree envisions communications as a unidirectional enterprise (i.e., producers proclaim, consumers receive), in contrast with what is now peer-to-peer and networked communications. The decree also reckons with media only as a means or mechanism, an instrumentalist approach that has now been surpassed by the view that digital media is the environment in which we live.
Still, Inter Mirifica marks a significant turning point in the Church’s engagement with the modern world. Its insights have borne fruit in the continuity of papal teaching about the importance and influence of social communications in the life of the Church. John Paul II recognized the cultural implications of the media as “first areopagus of the modern age.” Benedict XVI insisted on the need for theological reflection on the media’s methods and impact. And now Pope Francis’ use of Vatican media has made him the most influential “voice” in the Twittersphere and as the most prominent name on the Internet!
It all began 50 years ago with Vatican II’s prescient recognition of the “wonderful technological discoveries” in social communications.
Featured image from somos.vincencianos.org