ROME, SEPT. 20, 2005 (ZENIT.org).- A Polish priest, Father Dariusz Gronowski, has written a doctoral thesis on communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, showing the influence that mass media has had on the Church.
Father Gronowski is a professor at the School of Institutional Social Communication in the University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
In this interview with ZENIT he delves into the faith of McLuhan (1911-1980), an aspect that is frequently overlooked about the Edmonton, Alberta, native who first coined the expression “global village.”
The priest’s dissertation has been published under the title: “L’impatto dei Media sulla Chiesa secondo Marshall McLuhan” (The Impact of Media on the Church according to Marshall McLuhan).
Q: McLuhan is known for his affirmation “the medium is the message,” but not for his faith, which is quite profound …
Father Gronowski: In fact — and this is unfortunately the lot of many great personages — they are seen in a very schematic way, focused from the viewpoint of a few topics but not as they really are.
His faith, which was a meditated faith, the faith of a convert, was the driving force of his existence; it modeled and inspired his thought and existence.
McLuhan, though in many questions took extremely original positions and generally against the current, in matters of faith he was surprisingly orthodox, becoming a very good example of moral conduct.
Q: What impact does mass media have on the Church, according to McLuhan?
Father Gronowski: From ancient times the Church has been in contact with the means of communication, or more correctly stated, all of the technology that has to do with communication in a symbiotic relation.
Ever since the Gospel was entrusted to the alphabet and the book — for McLuhan, the alphabet and the book are also means of communication — an interdependent relationship has been created with the means of communication.
Every change in the system of communication has an impact on the Church, the same as it has an impact on culture. We must remember that McLuhan sees the means of communication as the principal factor of social change. In this regard, the saddest change undoubtedly took place in the last century.
The rapid development of the electronic media movements has transformed the Church on all levels: It has not only changed the way in which the Pope lives but also the way in which a child perceives the Church.
McLuhan does not speak of a direct impact. He explains that mass media changes the conditions in which everything else occurs and it modifies the way in which our senses and mind work.
The impact of mass media on the Church is above all in having provoked a change in the “backdrop” in which the Church lives. Since everything acquires its meaning according to the backdrop in which the Church lives, we have a different Church in spite of the fact that at a first glance everything appears to have remained intact on the inside.
Q: The encounter between the media and the Church is difficult. From your viewpoint, what is the principal reason for this?
Father Gronowski: The Church sees the means of communication as if they were “instruments” and not as “agents.” For this reason, the discussion over the media in the Church is centered on two aspects: the way in which they can be used for our goals, for evangelization; and on an ethical level, that is to say, the way in which the world of mass media should act.
Nevertheless, a real effort to understand the means of communication as such is missing, an understanding of the way in which we depend on their existence and the way the function.
McLuhan would say that we are too concentrated on the content of the mass media and not on the media itself.
Q: Have media made the Church more vulnerable?
Father Gronowski: Not exactly. The electronic means of communication have only revealed the already existing vulnerability and the weaknesses of the Church. The impact of the media has made everyone see that the 19th-century organization of the Church is antiquated, that behind the beautiful rituals and sophisticated forms, frequently there was a lack of a lively and experiential faith.
As I have explained, it is not a question of a direct impact of the mass media on the Church, as one could think at first sight; rather, it is a transformation of the role of the Church in culture.
McLuhan considers that for centuries the Church was based upon the foundations of the Greco-Roman culture, taking it for granted. With the arrival of electronic mass media, it tore down that cultural base and the Church has been left without a foundation for one part of its structure.
Any building without a foundation will fall to ruins. That is why the structures of the Church are in crisis, beginning with the parishes. But the Church is above all a supernatural reality which goes beyond the structures.
Q: What are you doing to convince your superiors about the need to understand the world of mass media?
Father Gronowski: Many people have to face this problem. It is convenient for us to remember the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, for whom the studies of communication — at that time it was oratory and public speaking — had as much importance as the studies of doctrine.
Above all, we need to be patient. The Holy See only began to take McLuhan’s studies seriously with the encyclical of John Paul II “Redemptoris Missio,” No. 37, that is, 10 years after McLuhan’s death in 1980. We need to be patient.