In the first two sessions of the Second Vatican Council, only two documents received final approval. One – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – had an enormous effect on the life of the Church. The other – the Decree on Social Communications (Inter Mirifica) – has been virtually ignored.
When Inter Mirifica is mentioned, it is almost always with a tinge of embarrassment. Here, it is assumed, is a document on an important topic – the mass media – that reflected pre-conciliar ways of thinking rather than the real spirit of Vatican II.
There is something to be said for that harsh judgment. There is a certain “mother hen” tone to Inter Mirifica with its repeated emphasis on the moral law and warnings about publicizing “matters which easily arouse people’s base desires, wounded as they are by original sin” (IM 7).
The document was written before the council fathers found their voice, their unique way of speaking to the questions set before them.
Richard John Neuhaus, whose little essay on Inter Mirifica is the most positive assessment of the document that I have found, nevertheless says it “sometimes has the feel of an extended memorandum produced by a curial committee.”
Despite that, Inter Mirifica says things that needed to be said and heard – perhaps even more today than when it was approved 50 years ago.
For one thing, the decree states clearly that there is a right to information (IM 5, 12). That right is qualified, of course. The content of the information dispersed must be “true and – within the limits set by justice and charity – complete, and . . . be presented decently and appropriately” (IM 5).
Church historian John O’Malley relates how, at the same time the council fathers were discussing this right to information, the Vatican Press Office was being criticized by both bishops and reporters for its sanitized, one-sided daily news bulletins about Vatican II.
When the body chairing the council decided to allow two employees of the Press Office to attend council sessions and write the bulletins after actually seeing and hearing what was taking place, the bulletins became more informative . . . and less favourable to the traditionalist Curia minority.
Within days, the Holy Office threatened to shut down the Press Office for violating the secrecy of the council, even though it had no jurisdiction over the office.
The incident points out that while consumers of news may take the right to information for granted, those who are the focus of news reports often are not so keen on transparency. Moreover, holding information under lock and key that is important to the public is a human tendency that even a conciliar document will not easily reverse.
Inter Mirifica also spoke of “the absolute primacy of the objective moral order” in relation to freedom of expression. In the free-wheeling 1960s, that might have sounded overly conservative. Today, in light of the unconditional value that some segments of society give to freedom of expression, it sounds prophetic.
Indeed, that assertion of the primacy of the moral order underlies a good part of Inter Mirifica. It wants “a wholesome press” and is wary of “the reporting, description or representation of moral evil.” Young people, it said, need media “which will provide wholesome diversion and will raise their minds to higher things” (IM 11).
Considering that at the time the decree was written, TV, in North America at least, was typified by shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, one might wonder why the council fathers were so concerned. Times have changed and their fears are more pertinent now than when they were first expressed.
Inter Mirifica also emphasized that the Church has the right to its own media, media which play a role in bringing its consumers to salvation. It gave strong support to the Catholic press.
Such publications are needed “to form, to consolidate and to promote a public opinion in conformity with the natural law and with Catholic teaching and directives” (IM 14). A Catholic press is needed for the faithful to judge events from a Christian point of view.
Today, the Catholic press is in a beleaguered state. In the U.S., in particular, many dioceses have cut back or eliminated their diocesan publications, usually for financial reasons. From my perspective, that makes it even more incumbent on papers like the WCR to publish, not only news of Church events, but also articles that will fulfill Inter Mirifica’s call to help the faithful think in tune with the Church.
The decree further emphasized the importance of Catholic journalists and artists who serve in secular media.
The laity are the front lines of the Church and those who serve in mainstream media are called “to animate the media with a Christian and human spirit” (IM 3). That call is very much in line with the more general urging of the council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity for the laity to permeate the world with the spirit of the Gospel.
Inter Mirifica has been largely ignored these last 50 years and the Vatican has produced other, fuller documents on the media in the meantime. However, it may now be the right time to blow the dust off that forgotten decree and its call for a morally upright approach to communications.
(Some of the information for this article came from What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley and from Richard John Neuhaus’ article on Inter Mirifica in Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, edited by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering.)