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Vatican II on Media and Social Communication

January 2, 2024


The term “social media” and the platforms it references are relatively new, so the Second Vatican Council obviously did not speak about them directly. Nevertheless, it did issue a Decree on the Media of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica.1 Many of the principles and issues discussed in that document remain pertinent today. Alas, Inter Mirifica remains one of the least read and discussed of the Vatican II documents. Therefore, I would like to offer a brief summary of it here to encourage further reading and engagement with this prescient text.

To start, it is helpful to remember that the Second Vatican Council was the first ecumenical council to take place during the age of mass media: radio, television, cinema, etc. Thus, it was quite fitting that the council should address this change in social communication. The document treats media in a balanced way, recognizing that media is a tool that can be used for good or for ill. We read:

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. Indeed, the Church experiences maternal grief at the harm all too often done to society by their evil use.2

This duality in the use of media certainly continues today.

One of Word on Fire’s Eight Core Principles is a special commitment to new media. We seek to embody the best of what media can accomplish when wielded for good in promotion of the kingdom of God. As Bishop Barron has himself remarked: “My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young Catholics specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means would be a desideratum.”3

It is imperative that we Catholics seriously examine our own use of media—including social media . . .

Yet we are aware of the many dangers and pitfalls associated with wicked uses so common in our age. Hence, it is imperative that we Catholics seriously examine our own use of media—including social media—to make sure that we are following sound principles in our own use. “For the proper use of these media,” teaches the council, “it is most necessary that all who employ them be acquainted with the norms of morality and conscientiously put them into practice in this area.”4 Such moral norms to be considered include the “nature of what is communicated,” “the entire situation or circumstances” (such as persons, place, and time), and “the precise manner in which a given medium achieves its effect.”5

The document then applies such considerations to the news media. It acknowledges a right to certain kinds of information, while insisting that “the proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete [i.e., not false or deceivingly partial], within the bounds of justice and charity,” noting that “not all knowledge is helpful.”6 Similarly, it exhorts the creators of art forms communicated in the media to use ethical guidelines when portraying moral evil and to show restraint lest they “arouse base desires.”7

Interestingly, it is not just content creators (to use an anachronistic term) that have moral obligations with respect to media. In challenging words, the document declares:

All who, of their own free choice, make use of these media of communications as readers, viewers, or listeners have special obligations. For a proper choice demands that they fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge, and their artistic or technical merit. They ought, however, to avoid those that may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil. To patronize such presentations, in most instances, would merely reward those who use these media only for profit.8

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That exhortation is probably more difficult to follow now than when first issued, given the preponderance of morally objectionable material and the paucity of well-produced entertainment free from gravely immoral elements.

Particularly prescient, given our contemporary addiction to screens, is Vatican II’s call for all—especially the young—to “take steps to accustom themselves to moderation and self-control”9 in the use of media. Relatedly, it reminds parents 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,”10 which is a danger more present than ever before.

In addition to content creators and consumers of media, the document speaks of the role of public authority in promoting the common good, including in the media. It affirms the freedom of the press but also implores public authority “to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media.”11

Members of the Church, too—clergy and laity alike—are tasked with making good use of media for the advancement of apostolic endeavors.12 “Therefore, this sacred Synod advises them of the obligation they have to maintain and assist Catholic newspapers, periodicals and film projects, radio and television programs and stations, whose principal objective is to spread and defend the truth and foster Christian influence in human society.”13 In other words, use media to promote the Gospel and support good media outlets, especially Catholic ones.

Pope Benedict XVI14 and Pope Francis15 have both reiterated this call for the Church to make effective use of media today. Word on Fire has certainly committed itself to answer that call. Joining with those voices, I offer this very brief synopsis of Inter Mirifica for two reasons: (1) to encourage you to read the document in full and (2) to recollect that our own relationship to media must constantly be examined to ensure that we are consuming, creating, and supporting media that advance rather than detract from the kingdom of God.

1 See Inter Mirifica in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, vol. 2, Declarations and Decrees, ed. Matthew Levering (Elk Grove Village, IL: Word on Fire Institute, 2023), 94–112.
2 Inter Mirifica 2.
3 Bishop Robert Barron, “Social Media and Evangelization” in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, vol. 2, 98. Here, Bishop Barron is commenting on Inter Mirifica 3.
4 Inter Mirifica 4.
5 Inter Mirifica 4.
6 Inter Mirifica 5.
7 Inter Mirifica 7.
8 Inter Mirifica 9.
9 Inter Mirifica 10.
10 Inter Mirifica 10.
11 Inter Mirifica 12.
12 See Inter Mirifica 13.
13 Inter Mirifica 17.
14 See Benedict XVI, “Message for the 44th World Communications Day” in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, vol. 2, 106–07.
15 See Francis, “Address to the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications” in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, vol 2., 107–08.