For better or for worse, Orthodoxy in Dialogue has found itself on the front lines of the battle over what constitutes helpful and harmful use of social media among competing visions of Orthodox Christianity in the 21st century. Father Schmidt’s reflection from a Roman Catholic perspective offers food for thought for the Orthodox Church and other ecclesial communities in the internet era.
As both a PhD student at l’Institut Catholique de Paris and a sessional instructor primarily of online theology courses through St. Joseph’s College of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, I’m always somewhat saddened when especially my Catholic students, albeit through no fault of their own, almost invariably lack awareness of any position by their faith tradition on social communications and media. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has official written teaching on social communications: one of the first documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was its Decree on the Media of Social Communications, Inter Mirifica (“Among the Wonders”) of December 4, 1963. However, I appreciate that, for my students, for whom my courses are often their first exposure to the documents and teachings of Vatican II, Inter Mirifica and Vatican II’s other fifteen documents may seem dated.
By the time Inter Mirifica was promulgated, media—radio, television, film, and so forth—could be and were being used for the good of faith traditions and societies more broadly. Inter Mirifica acknowledged this generously in its opening two paragraphs:
Among the wonderful technological discoveries which people of talent, especially in the present era, have made with God’s help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which have a most direct relation to people’s minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views, and teachings of every sort. The most important of these inventions are those media which, such as the press, movies, radio, television and the like, can, of their very nature, reach and influence, not only individuals, but the very masses and the whole of human society, and thus can rightly be called the media of social communication.
The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to people, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God.
[Full text available in English on the Vatican website.]
Vatican II was also under no illusion that various media of social communication could also be used for evil. The timing of Vatican II, called in 1958 by Pope St. John XXIII, was such that World War II and its proximate and distant causes greatly influenced in particular the social doctrine of the Council, on topics from the nature and mission of the Church itself in the world, to religious freedom, to media of communication. Radio especially had been used to foment and justify the anti-Semitic barbarism not only at the core of extremist Fascist and Communist regimes, but also latent in stable democracies. In the United States, as far back as 1928, Fr. Charles E. Coughlin, who had left my religious congregation, the Basilians, over our acceptance of simple religious vows for the North American community (1922), and been incardinated into the Archdiocese of Detroit (1923), responded to Ku Klux Klan cross burnings on his parish’s property by founding a radio station to oppose the KKK. But by 1936, Fr. Coughlin found himself silenced by the Vatican (the mailing license for Coughlin’s newspaper, ironically called Social Justice, was revoked in 1942) over the airing of his own anti-Semitic views that faulted Jews for Communism and justified aspects of Nazi German and Italian Fascism as a remedy to Communism.
By the late 1950s and then the opening of Vatican II, radio, television, and film were helping to propagate the Civil Rights movement in the US. Politicians and other public leaders’ careers worldwide increasingly depended on media optics.
What, then, does all this have to do with the role of media, in both religious and secular spheres, in the present?
For one, Inter Mirifica could not have envisioned, in 1963, the advent of the internet in the 1990s, which has expanded into the widespread use and even dependence on web-based media, especially social networks, and the concurrent wane in influence of print and even radio and television over where people obtain information today. This dynamic has, I think self-evidently, affected most if not every significant domain of our lives, from development of friendships, dating, and marriage, to politics, to expressions of religious faith, to the rise of social movements.
As I write this, web-based media and social networks have largely fueled a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the high profile killings of African Americans by law enforcement personnel in the US. The same media have drawn increased attention to disproportionate violence against aboriginal people in encounters with police in Canada.
Meanwhile, as social and other online media have accelerated the discourse related to issues like racism in policing, they have impoverished the quality and charity of such discourse.
For instance, when Roman Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory, an African American, criticized US President Donald Trump and the leadership of the Knights of Columbus for inviting Trump to use the backdrop of the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington as a political prop for his executive order promoting international religious freedom, a day after Trump had denied the same First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of religious practice to protesters in Lafayette Square so he could pose for a photo with an unopened Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, online commentary was starkly divided for and against Gregory. Brian Burch, president of the political advocacy group CatholicVote.org, dismissed Archbishop Gregory’s concerns as “a very public partisan attack” on Trump. Former Papal Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, released an effusive letter to Trump on websites LifeSiteNews, a self-described Catholic site that has nevertheless been scathingly critical of bishops, and even Pope Francis, when they act in discordance with LifeSiteNews’ political and moral views, and The Remnant, which openly challenges the validity of post-Vatican II papacies. Viganò’s letter dualistically placed the ex-nuncio and Trump on the side of “the children of light,” fighting “the children of darkness,” including protesters in principle raising awareness of racist law enforcement practices and attitudes, the vast majority of them peacefully.
Even more vile was Church Militant, a site based in the Archdiocese of Detroit that proclaims boldly in its header, “Serving Catholics,” in a video by its founder Michael Voris, repeatedly slurring Archbishop Gregory with the racist and homophobic monikers, “African queen” and “accused homosexual.” (There have not been, to my knowledge, any public revelations of Archbishop Gregory’s sexual orientation, although that is beside the point of any fair critique of Gregory’s statement against Trump’s photo ops.)
I argue, finally, that both the accelerated and impoverished public discourse wrought by the rise of internet and social media and the concurrent fall of radio, print, and even television media as primary sources of information and social commentary raises the stakes and the responsibility of religious bodies like the Roman Catholic Church and its bishops and dioceses to take seriously the value and due regulation of media as a social justice issue. We are in a Fr. Charles Coughlin moment—in fact, I’ll argue we have continually been in one as long as media of social communications have existed, only now information is disseminated ever faster and absorbed ever-less critically by mass audiences—that makes discernment on the part of the Church of the capacity of media to promote both good and evil, and eradicating at least clear instances of its use for evil, all the more vital.
In my opinion, it is well and good, but not enough, for dioceses from which the worst miscreants spew their hatred to disassociate themselves from these outlets and even to name them outright, as the Archdiocese of Detroit recently did with Church Militant over its anti-Archbishop Gregory segment. It must be made publicly clear, backed by canonical penalties if necessary, that such media outlets oppose key Christian Social Teaching and even, more essentially, the unity of the Church and that of its bishops with the pope when they attack a sitting bishop like Wilton Gregory as they did, with racist and homophobic undertones. Oversight of media of social communication is all the more important when it concerns clergy and other prominent Church figures who use internet and social media regularly. Dioceses and religious orders should be urged to strengthen and update social and web media policies.
All this and more is essential if the media of social communication is to be the tool for justice, the good of all peoples, and “the spread and support of the Kingdom of God,” as Inter Mirifica envisioned a short but rapidly changing 57 years ago this December.
Father Warren Schmidt is a Roman Catholic priest of the Congregation of St. Basil and PhD student in sacramental theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris. His doctoral studies focus on the holding in tension of power and charism through the reform of the rites of ordination to the priesthood according to the Roman Pontifical after Vatican II. He holds an MDiv from St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, entered perpetual vows and was ordained a deacon in 2013, and was ordained a priest in 2014.