Special Report

The Medium Is the Magisterium

What the Holy See can learn from McLuhan.

By 3.18.09

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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."

Years before the pontificate of the world-traveling and ever-televised Pope John Paul II, McLuhan had stated that instant mass communications meant that the Pope could exercise his magisterial role anywhere, not just from the centralized bureaucracy of Rome. And while he regretted the demise of the Tridentine Mass, he observed that the advent of the microphone and electric sound systems, by changing the auditory environment of worship, had done more than the liturgical modernizers to doom the Old Rite.

The Holy See has had a hit-or-miss relationship with the work of McLuhan over the years. Pope Paul VI appointed McLuhan to a Vatican advisory council on social communications, but according to McLuhan's son Eric, this "meant little other than receiving in the mail from time to time a notice of a meeting (always to be held in Rome) or some such. My father tried several times to strike up a correspondence with someone, anyone, on the committee. He was anxious to be of some service and to help them with the study and understanding of media. His efforts attracted, unfortunately, no response, which was a source of great disappointment." Last year Eric McLuhan met Pope Benedict in audience when the younger McLuhan gave a thoughtful lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University on modern electronic communications' tendency to turn people into discarnate "information nomads." Still, the Vatican bureaucracy does not seem to be paying much attention.

If these efforts have not yet yielded much result, there is still the opportunity to read Marshall McLuhan's reflections on the Catholic faith and his advice to the Church. Eric McLuhan collected some of his father's most significant writings on religion into a volume called The Medium and the Light, published in 1999. Eric McLuhan wrote a superb introduction to the book, offering context that often can be missed when reading works in Marshall McLuhan's own aphoristic and sometimes eccentric style.

The book presents this in a 1977 interview with U.S. Catholic magazine: "You cannot have goals in an acoustic, non-visual world. You want a role: you don't want a goal. The Catholic Church has a role: salvation." And from the same interview: "The Pope is obsolete as a bureaucratic figure. But the Pope as a role-player is more important than ever. The Pope has authority. After all, if there were only three Catholics in the world, one of them would have to be Pope. Otherwise there would be no church. There has to be a teaching authority or else no church at all."

In an article in The Critic in 1973, also reproduced in the book, McLuhan said:

The conditions attending the exercises of the magisterium of the Church in the twentieth century are such as to present an analogue to the first decade of the Christian Church. There is, on the one hand, the immediacy of interrelationship among Christians and non-Christians alike in a world where information moves at the speed of light. The population of the world now co-exists in an extremely small space and in an instant of time. So far as the magisterium is concerned, it is as if the entire population of the world were present in a small room where perpetual dialogue was possible. So far as the traditions of the Church are concerned, the present situation puts all knowledge and authority on an oral and personal basis. The habit of written communiqués and doctoral promulgation, which is inevitable under slower conditions of inter-communication, becomes an embarrassing impediment. Again, whereas the Church has through the centuries striven for centralism and consensus at a distance from the faithful, the electrical situation ends all distance and, by the same token, ends the numerous bureaucratic means of centralism. The magisterium is now experienced simultaneously in the entire visible Church. A complete decentralism occurs which calls for new manifestations of teaching authority such as the Church has never before expressed or encountered.

McLuhan's meditations resonate with John Paul II's practice of extensive travel and use of television, and also with an intriguing doctrinal point in John Paul II's 1995 encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint. In this letter, John Paul II wrote that he was willing to "find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renounces what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation."

According to McLuhan and likeminded thinkers, the new situation is the radically decentralized social/political/ecclesiastical environment of instant global electronic communications. The Medium and the Light and more widely known McLuhan works such as Understanding Media are excellent guides to help the Pope and other Catholics to interpret rapidly changing "signs of the times."

(Mr. Duggan is lecturing in communications and politics at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City.)

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About the Author
Joseph P. Duggan served on a U.S. State Department diplomatic mission to Prague in 1988, presenting then-dissident Václav Havel his first briefing on U.S. and NATO defense postures and policies. This article is adapted from Duggan's new electronic book, The Zuckerberg Galaxy: A Primer for Navigating the Media Maelstrom.