Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Lex Wouterloot 1 jan 1992


John Patrick Foley, Pastoral Instruction 'Aetatis Novae' on Social Communications, Vatican City 1992

There can be no doubt that the Roman Catholic Church is going through a crisis. The energy Pope John Paul II displayed in visiting the most remote archdioceses contrasts sharply with the Church of Rome's sluggishness in making use of the media revolution.

For good reason, the recent pastoral brief about 'means of social communication' opens with the statement that today, people everywhere feel the strong influence of the media on religious and moral attitudes, political and social systems and education. But one certainly need not be a catholic to add that it is not the catholic media which are producing this effect.

The Catholic Church displays a peculiar conservatism with regard to the media. While the Laudate Jesu has been heard for years on the frequencies of Vatican City Radio, a Roman Catholic tv satellite has not yet appeared in the firmament. The Catholic Church's apparent inability to make use of the new media is reminiscent of the Church's long period of impotence following the invention of printing, from which it recovered only through its own

The religions now advancing are Islam and evangelical Christianity. Neither shy away from modern media technology in pursuing and spreading their faith.
JP II's international travels are a late recognition of the religious significance of the transportation revolution caused by the invention of the jet airplane, but compared to the size of the annual airlift to Mecca, these Catholic logistics make a meagre impression. So too does the Catholic presence in the media when contrasted with the ecstatic praises to Jesus that boom through the evangelical electronic churches.

The Catholic Church has every reason to follow the development of the media with concern. On the occasion of the 20th birthday of the Communio et Progressio pastoral instruction, and more than a quarter century after the Vatican II's Inter Mirifica decree on the media, the Papal Council on Social Communication, led by Archbishop John P. Foley, has turned its attention to the problem.

The most noticeable thing about Aetatis Novae is the vagueness with which both the newest electronic media and the most traditional Catholic forms are discussed. Only a passing reference is made, in the form of a brief summary, to the church's perception of the form taken by this swift technological development: ''satellites, cable television, fibre optics, video cassettes, compact discs, computer-generated imagery and other computer and digital
techniques, and much more.'' Only very rarely are the common names of the equipment and techniques, which are the subject of the discussion, used at all.
One gets the impression that the writers are better acquainted with theological jargon than media use. No less astonishing in this pastoral missive is that even less attention is paid to the Mass, which might be called the medial basis of the Roman Catholic Church. This Catholic rite is introduced as a 'traditional means' in a series of other religious practices which are testimony of life, catechism, personal contact, piety, the liturgy and other such celebrations.

It is obvious in Aetatis Novae that the members of the Papal Council on Social Communication are not aware of the pastoral problems evoked by the mass experience of Virtual Reality in confrontation with the conventional celebration of Holy Communion under vaulted stone ceilings.
The contents of this pastoral instruction illustrate once again that the Catholic Church's media theology is non-contemporary. Indeed, 25 years have passed since the second Vatican Council. This causes the instruction to make a somewhat unreal impression. The media are called grosso modo a medium for the transfer of information, which takes place in a vague realm known as 'leisure time'. This limited interpretation of the media amounts to a negation of the pastoral effects of the media revolution on labour, war, recreation and management, to cite some more obvious examples.

Upon reading this pastoral brief, one might almost forget that the modern media appear to our senses as a proliferation of electronic images. In Aetatis Novae, 'radio/television' is still discussed as though in Rome they still don't know what to make of the social reality of video as a mass medium. One almost gets the impression that after centuries of visual contra-reformation, a sort of mental iconoclasm has formed in the Vatican. Because this text is in full opposition to the medial realm of images as the realm where religion can be experienced. In opposition to the audio-visual media, it opts for the formation of a somewhat disjointed social community of speaking faithful.

The Christian religion is presented as the religion that reveals itself in language par excellence. The Catholic church approaches the multi-sensory media with a linguistic theology. Here, in the word become flesh, God's self-communication is definitive. In Jesus words and deeds, the Word is liberating, the salvation of all of humanity. This loving revelation of God, combined with the religious response of humanity, forms a profound dialogue. Concern about the negative effect of the media takes the form of fear of the repression of language as a medium. Thus, in fact, silence can be imposed on persons and groups to whom the media does not pay attention; even the voice of the gospel can be weakened, but not completely silenced. In opposition to the media's power, the church proposes the community of faithful as a discussion group which offers the opportunity for discussion of films and radio broadcasts.''

While the claim is made that the use of the media is essential in preaching the gospel and in catechism today and that it is necessary to integrate the message itself into this 'new culture which is formed by modern communication media, the chosen medium of Christianity is another one. The media are consistently called means of social communication in the certainty that the modern media are neither social nor do they facilitate communication among people. This use of sociological terminology expresses resistance to developments in which human interaction is replaced by the use of media and social bonds make way for attachment to fictional figures.
But the question would seem to be whether the Roman Catholic church's medial asceticism will appeal to the masses yearning for faith in a world order which is based not lastly on modern electronic media.

translation JIM BOEKBINDER