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IV. DECREE ON COMMUNICATION MEDIA 

The second of the two schemata finally adopted and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, the closing day of the second session of the Council, was the Decree on the Media of Social Communication. This decree, approximately one-fourth the length of the first one, resulted in much criticism both within and outside of the Roman Catholic Church. The expressed hope of many is that future sessions of the Vatican Council will somewhat mitigate the action taken in this official decision. It has been said that even as the first adopted schema on liturgy was a step forward in the “renewal” of the Roman Catholic Church, so the second adopted schema on the communication media is a step backward. 

THE CONSTITUTION ADOPTED 

The following is a brief summary of the decree:

Originating as a 40-page document in the first session, this text was reduced to nine pages for presentation to the second session. Chapter 1—”The Teaching of the Church”—was approved with 1,832 affirmative votes, 92 negative, and 243 approvals with reservations. A foreword notes’ the power of mass communications (television, radio, the press) media for good or evil. This chapter then points to the duty the Church feels to use such media to preach the Gospel, and her right to use them in Christian education and the salvation of souls. Those who utilize mass media are cautioned to recognize their power. 

The second chapter—”On the Pastoral Activity of the Church”—advises the faithful to work for effective use of modern communications, including anticipation of harmful developments. Pastors are told to join in this work. A truly Catholic press is called for. The decree specifically orders that national offices for affairs of the press, films, radio, and television be established.16

This decree apparently was forced through the Council with little or no discussion. Time magazine reported:

Last week the council railroaded through without discussion a schema on communications that tolerates state censorship of mass media, suggesting civil authorities prevent “harm to the morals and progress of society through the bad use of these instruments.”17

Very evidently there was much misgiving on the part of many of the “church fathers” concerning this schema. The vote for final adoption was 1,598 to 503. This is only 190 votes above the two-thirds majority required for final adoption. That represents very strong opposition, particularly when one compares this to the mere 19 votes cast against final adoption of the Constitution on the Liturgy. Even on December 4, 1963, when a final vote was taken to declare this a Conciliar decree to be officially promulgated, there remained 164 votes in opposition with 27 abstentions (only four voted against the official promulgation of the Constitution on the Liturgy). Very striking is such opposition when one considers the fact that usually at these Roman Catholic councils, when the adoption of a measure is certain, most of its opponents will also cast their votes in favor of it—to show a nominal unity in the church. It would be difficult, from my vantage-point, to explain such strong opposition; I suspect, however, that it was not merely the “railroading” which was resented, but also the fear that the implied censorship and control of the media of communication bye the Roman Catholic Church would frighten away the “separated brethren” whose favor was being sought with a view towards eventual reunion. 

Criticism of this decree in Roman Catholic periodicals in the United States is, understandably, rather muted. The decree is church law; it can be explained, defended, further defined, but not rescinded. Yet it is obvious that Roman Catholics in our land are not very happy with the decree. One finds no long articles by Roman Catholics on the advantages and benefits which will accrue to the church as a fruit of this decree—as were written concerning the Constitution on the Liturgy. 

But strong criticism has arisen among Protestants. One such Protestant, Robert McAfee Brown, writing in a Roman Catholic periodical, expresses many doubts:

As an exercise in exegesis, I have tried to read the schema (Social Communication) from the point of view of one who wonders what it might mean to the ordinary man, particularly if he is a non-Catholic. And I cannot avoid drawing the following implications from it: 

a) All people who use instruments of mass communications must meet the church’s standards as to what a “correct conscience” is (whether they are Catholics or not), or fear the consequences. 

b) News can be censored if it does not edify, and art can be suppressed if it does not teach. 

c) Novels or plays that do not at all times teach a particular and precise kind of moral rectitude are inadmissible. 

d) The opinion of competent authorities must be sought by those who read, watch, and hear the wrong things—a notion that implies the rights of censorship, boycott and reprisals. 

e) The task of the church is to protect and insulate youth from all possible contamination in the area of mass media,—rather than to help youth develop criteria for making their own discriminating judgments.

f) Reporting of the news about the church must not be critical. 

g) Civil authorities must legislate widely in the field of morals of mass communications.

h) Catholics should be encouraged to develop a cultural ghetto of Catholic press, Catholic radio, Catholic television, and so forth, rather than making it their primary task to raise the general level of all the mass communications media. 

i) All that Catholics do in the field of mass communications should be under the strict supervision of church authorities. . . . Nevertheless to their eternal credit, 503 of the fathers voted non placet.18

I present the above quotation, not because I can agree with all of the criticisms against the decree, but rather to show that the decree has caused very real doubts and fears in the minds of Protestants who have desired to seek closer union with the Romish Church.

AN EVALUATION OF THE CONSTITUTION 

Despite the criticism leveled against this decree, I find several points which I believe to be worthy off commendation: There is first of all the recognition of the media of communication (radio, T.V., newspapers, magazines, books) as instruments which can be used for good or for evil.

The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God. The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ, these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss. (pg. 3) 19

Secondly, there is recognition of the wonderful use to which these means of mass communication can be put by the church in the spread of the gospel. The trouble is that the Roman Catholic Church does not desire to spread the Gospel, but rather its own gospel through these instruments.

(The Church) considers it one of its duties to announce the Good News of salvation also with the help of the media of social communication . . . . (pg. 4)

Thirdly, there is a certain recognition of the spiritual dangers to the users (especially the young) of the media of communication. A warning is issued which we do well to consider for ourselves and our families.

Those who make use of the media of communications, especially the young, should take steps to accustom themselves to moderation and self-control in their regard. They should, moreover, endeavor to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear or read. They should discuss these matters with their teachers and experts, and learn to pass sound judgments on them. Parents should remember that they have a most serious duty to guard carefully lest shows, publications and other things of this sort, which may be morally harmful, enter their homes or affect their children under other circumstances. (p. 7)

But criticism and fears of this decree are largely justified. Briefly, the criticism centers about the threat of church control over and censorship of communications media as well as a certain thought-control over all men (not only Roman Catholics). Though couched in stately language, the decree reminds one of the beast of Revelation 13. Now, Roman Catholics in this country would doubtlessly reject such ideas, but the decree speaks for itself. Notice, first, the implied thought-control over all men.

It is most necessary that all who employ (these media) be acquainted with the norms of morality and conscientiously put them into practice in this area. (p. 4) 

The second question deals with the relationship between the rights . . . of art and the norms of morality. Since the mounting controversies in this area frequently take their rise from false teachings about ethics and esthetics, the Council proclaims that all must hold to the absolute primacy of the objective moral order . . . . (pg. 5) 

. . . All must strive, through these media as well, to form and spread sound public opinion. (pg. 6) 

In order that those who make use of these media may fulfill the moral code, they ought not to neglect to inform themselves in time about judgments passed by authorities competent in these matters. They ought also to follow such judgments according to the norms of an upright conscience. (pg. 6)

Questions must be asked. Who determines what are these “norms of morality,” “the objective moral order,” “sound public opinion,” and “an upright conscience?” The Romish Church certainly could, not maintain that these are universal principles to which all agree. Rather, the Romish Church for itself has determined the content of “morality,” “sound public opinion,” etc., in accordance with its own dogmas. All men, then, must conform to Roman Catholic standards of morality. And notice the emphasis upon that: “it ismost necessary,” “all must hold,” “all must strive.” There is a very strong imperative here. Surely, the Romish Church must use all of its powers to carry out what it considers absolutely necessary. What does this mean for individuals who live in predominantly Roman Catholic countries, which individuals have not the same standards of morality? 

There is also, very definitely, implied church censorship” It is true that the decree appears to concede that supervision over public media of communications is the duty of “public authority” which has “the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information” and “to encourage spiritual values. . . .” Yet it is evident that the Council has its own standards for regulating what may and may not be presented to the public. Again, it will use its power and influence to enforce these standards.

In society, men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. (pg. 5) 

They (newsmen, writers, actors, etc.) must adjust their economic, political or artistic and technical aspects so as never to oppose the common good. (pg. 7) 

They should see to it that communications or presentations concerning religious matters are entrusted to worthy and experienced hands and are carried out with fitting reverence. (pg. 7)

Just one question: what would happen to our own “Reformed Witness Hour” if this decree were fully carried out? Think you that it would conform to the Roman Catholic standard of the “common good? Also, what would be done when the Romish Church is condemned over the mass media, when, according to their standards, this would not treat “religious matters” with “fitting reverence?” 

I could point out how that this decree encourages the control over and ownership of means of mass communication by the Romish Church in order to form, support, and advance public opinion in accord with natural law and Catholic teaching and precepts.” National offices are ordered in the various areas of the land in order to carry out the decree most effectively. 

What do we read in Revelation 13:5? “And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; . . .” The decree surely is aimed in the direction of giving the beast that “mouth” in the use of the media of communication. 

—G.V.B.


16. Denver Catholic Register, Dec. 26, 1963, supplement, pg. 4 

17. Time, Dec. 6, 1963, pg. 52 

18. The Commonweal, December 27, 1963, pg. 396 

19. This and following quotations are from the Decree on the Media of Social Communication, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington 5, D.C.