What the Holy See can learn from McLuhan.
It is a signal occasion when a Pope sends a circular letter to all the world’s bishops. Usually such letters are classified as encyclicals (the Greek cognate of the Latinate “circular,”) and they are expressions of the magisterium, or definitive teaching authority of the Catholic Church.
Last week Pope Benedict XVI sent a most unusual letter to the world’s bishops amounting to an act of contrition and a confession of fallibility. A thousand years after the first Gang nach Canossa, another German leader is barefoot in the snow, but this time it is the Pope.
Benedict seeks to clarify the reasons why he had remitted the excommunications of four bishops who had been ordained without Vatican approval by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had dissented from the modern liturgy and other reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The letter notes that before his election to the papacy, Benedict had been closely involved with efforts to reconcile various sub-sets of Lefebvrists with the Universal Church, some of which efforts were successful. “I myself saw, in the years after 1988, how the return of communities which had been separated from Rome changed their interior attitudes; I saw how returning to the bigger and broader Church enabled them to move beyond one-sided positions and broke down rigidity so that positive energies could emerge for the whole.”
He also expresses regret and embarrassment over the circumstance that he had offered his gesture of attempted reconciliation to the Lefebvrist bishops and their followers without having known that one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier and plainly an anti-Semite.
The letter is startlingly personal, un-magisterial, un-bureaucratic. Unlike the Wizard of Oz, Benedict himself has rent the temple veil and invites us to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. The Pope lays bare his personal hurt feelings. “At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them — in this case the Pope — he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.”
This letter deserves reading in its entirety. Meanwhile this article will focus not so much on the controversies of the Lefebvrists and Williamson but on the issues of communication, organization, and management in the papal office. Of the many remarkable statements in the Pope’s letter, certainly not least are those acknowledging a shortfall of competence in communications and information-gathering:
I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the [Williamson] problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.
The Pope also wrote:
Another mistake, which I deeply regret, is the fact that the extent and limits of the provision of 21 January 2009 [the lifting of the excommunications] were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication.
Note the use of the “I” and the “we.” Like John Paul II, Benedict discards the “royal we” so often used by Popes in times past. He uses “I” to refer to himself as one man but resurrects the “we” to signify the entire Vatican bureaucracy — including Benedict.
The letter was simultaneously an expression of humility and of authority, containing as it did an extraordinary public dressing-down of the Apostolic Palace’s porporati by the Man in White. Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo, the Pope is telling the Roman bureaucracy: we have met the enemy and he is us.
Admitting there is a problem is just the first baby step toward a remedy. Now what is to be done?
The Pope, the bishops and Catholics everywhere would serve the Church well by brushing up on the work of the Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) a devout and orthodox Catholic who was insightful and even prophetic in his writings about the new electronic communications media.
McLuhan converted from “a loose form of Protestantism” to Catholicism in 1937 as a 26-year-old working on his doctoral degree in English from Cambridge. He cited the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and G.K. Chesterton as key influences in his conversion. McLuhan loved the Tridentine Latin Mass but accepted the vernacular Novus Ordo when it was introduced in the 1960s. During the 1960s McLuhan by virtue of his visionary pronouncements about the revolution in new media became for a short while a pop celebrity, but he was a much deeper intellect and a much more conservative personality than that status would imply. He was devoted to the Catholic magisterium, including the encyclical Humane Vitae condemning contraception. All of McLuhan’s studies of modern media were grounded in his efforts to update and apply the Aristotelian-Thomistic principle of “formal cause.” Technologies and media as “extensions of man” also become environments whose effects are powerful in shaping our perceptions and behavior in large part because the environments themselves are almost imperceptible. McLuhan was a punster and was fond of quoting James Joyce: “As for the viability of vicinals, when invisible they are invincible.”