Vatican II, 40 Years Later: Inter Mirifica

Colin Donovan on the Decree on the Means of Social Communication

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ROME, MAY 15, 2003 ( For its series on the documents of Second Vatican Council, ZENIT turned to EWTN’s Colin Donovan about «Inter Mirifica,» the decree on the means of social communications.

Donovan is vice president for theology at EWTN and has a licentiate in sacred theology, with a specialization in moral theology, from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum, in Rome.

Q: What were the most important points of «Inter Mirifica»?

Donovan: «Inter Mirifica» was a prophetic document. Issued second by the council fathers, in December 1963, after the landmark constitution on the sacred liturgy, it appealed to both the Church and the world.

First, it reminded the children of the Church, indeed all men and women, that the social means of communications are not exempt from the moral law. Both the production and use of these means — publishing, radio, television and, in our day, the Internet — must be guided by what is morally good for individuals and society at large — the common good. Otherwise, such means become the instruments of propagating evil, manipulating public opinion and other unworthy purposes.

Second, the council fathers called the Church to a more effective use of these means in carrying out her mission of evangelization and service to mankind.

There were at that time, and even much earlier, individuals who were engaged in doing just that: St. Maximilian Kolbe and Father James Alberione in publishing; Fathers Rumble and McCarty in radio; Archbishop Fulton Sheen on television; as well as grass-roots apostolates such as the Catholic Truth Society in England.

But as a whole it cannot be said that the local and universal Church effectively used social communication; rather, that this was generally the province of individuals with foresight and zeal. The council fathers clearly and forcefully called the Church to utilize all the available means of communication to carry out her divine mission.

Q: Has the Church used the media the way it should?

Donovan: In many respects, yes. Many dioceses, bishops’ conferences and some religious communities have departments devoted to social communications. These may be on a simple scale, as a voice for the bishop or superior to communicate, or on a grander scale, with a newspaper or magazine or even a TV or radio station.

Certainly, the Holy See has embraced the print and electronic technology in her own unique mission. So the desire to implement «Inter Mirifica» is certainly there. It is certainly far from universally and effectively implemented, however.

Q: Why did the media — movies, television and music — become so bad after Vatican II? Was there something the Church could have done better?

Donovan: To a large extent there were cultural trends outside the influence of the Church that acted like a steamroller running down hill — the pill, the sexual revolution, a general crisis of respect for authority among the young — often owing to authority’s moral lapses. However, neither was there a great deal of resistance to this tide by many in the Church.

Internally, of course, there was the crisis of dissent surrounding «Humanae Vitae» which had a decisive influence on the willingness of Catholics to defend Catholic moral teaching to each other and the world.

One can only speculate on the role that fidelity to Church teaching by Catholics, and God’s grace, could have played in changing the direction of the entertainment industry 30, 20 or 10 years ago. I do not think that this opportunity, however, has entirely passed. All members of the Church, hierarchy and laity alike, just need to resolve to do it.

Q: What are the bright spots in the Church’s use of the media?

Donovan: I would have to say that today, as before the Council, God continues to inspire individual Catholics, lay, religious and clerical, to make use of the means of social communications to reach the world.

These efforts include everything from Mother Angelica’s founding of EWTN, which has grown in just 22 years to include all the means of social communications, to the many radio stations, TV and print ventures and Web apostolates around the world.

These are generally lay run and faithful to Church teaching. Since the council also taught that the primary role of the laity is secular, not ecclesiastical, this seems to me to be entirely providential, as well as a fulfillment of the council’s vision.

There are also efforts, such as the international organization SIGNIS –sponsored by the Holy See — and NEA — New Evangelization of America — which give hope of more effective networking among Catholic media apostolates, both official and lay-run.

As dioceses and bishops’ conferences, as well as the laity, get more deeply into media apostolates, it will be increasing important to learn from each others’ mistakes and successes.

Q: Where are the biggest weaknesses in the Church s use of the media?

Donovan: Unfortunately, some Church-run media seem as open to dissenting views as they are to Catholic teaching. This seems to me to be a lapse into the prevailing secular model that all opinions are equal. To that extent there is an identity crisis in Catholic media, somewhat similar to the identity crisis in Catholic higher education.

It will be the task of the years ahead for the Church to attain to a clear Catholic media identity that is both authentic and appealing. Both are necessary for a Catholic media apostolate to be successful.

Q: What advice would you give to a family trying to raise children in a media culture?

Donovan: As both the Church and sociologists have warned, due to the impersonal nature of all electronic means and their overuse in contemporary society, parents have to ensure that their children develop the interpersonal skills that come from human interaction with other children, siblings and the parents.

There is nothing sadder than a child with his Walkman locked into his own little world, oblivious to everyone and everything around him.

The family rosary, the family dinner without TV, game night, sports and other wholesome activities will help provide a balance. So, on the one hand they must be careful about what TV, Web sites, books and games their children use, and on the other, they must not let them have even a steady diet of even safe media, as even the means themselves contain some inherent dangers.

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