The greatest communications theorist ever’s Catholic faith [Marshall McLuhan Monday]

Consider this as introductory material to my presentation during Thursday’s Apostles in New Media Mini-Conference.

If you’ve never ‘met’ the greatest communications theorist ever, Marshall McLuhan, especially if you’re a Catholic in communications, then you’re missing out on a wonderful role model. Although I call him a theorist here, he was truly unclassifiable. He was in a class all his own and remains so.

McLuhan’s Catholic faith has been either ignored, perplexing, or downright enraging to many. I’d like to change that tradition by embracing his Catholicism, and I invite you Catholic media professionals and amateurs to join me.

As many of his biographers and former colleagues (and children) have said, his Catholicism was the very foundation of everything in his life. I’d like to illustrate his faith with several points, gathered from a variety of sources. More to follow in later MMMs.

His Conversion

I was reading [G.K.] Chesterton, and [Christopher] Dawson and [Jacques] Maritain and those people. That’s how I came in.

I had no instruction even from clergy at any time but there was a friend of mine who said, ‘Well, since you don’t believe in Christianity’ – I was an agnostic – he said ‘you could pray to God the Father. So you pray to God the Father and simply ask to be shown.’ And so I did.

And I didn’t know what I was going to be shown, all I said was, ‘Show me,’ and I didn’t ask to be relieved of any problems. I had no problems. I had no belief and no problems.

Well I was shown in a quite amazing way and quite unexpected: I was arguing about religion with a whole group of grad students one night at Wisconsin and one of them said to me suddenly, ‘Why aren’t you a Catholic?’ and I shut up because I didn’t know. Up to that moment, it had never occurred to me that I would ever become a Catholic. But I was suddenly caught. I became a Catholic at once within a few days.

His Faith Life

“It is difficult, actually, to identify him as either a conservative Catholic or as a liberal Catholic.” – Michael W. Higgins

“He was a real, true believer…” – Nina Sutton

“The Eucharist meant a lot to him…He was a daily communicant.” – Michael W. Higgins

“He read the New Testament daily in various languages […] as a way of keeping in touch with a number of languages. […] He would have been amazed and delighted by the books put out in recent years by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, particularly […] the Theology of the Body…” – Eric McLuhan

“He was a lector at Mass at Holy Rosary Parish – he lived in Wychwood Park […] this was his local parish. One of the things which struck me there was his remarkable and quite predictable ability at mispronouncing every name in the English language. This great communications guru would often get the name wrong, mispronounce it, if he was reading the first lesson, he would read the second lesson, thereby driving the priest crazy, or he would read the Gospel, thereby confounding the liturgy for the day. I was always quite struck by this.” – Michael W. Higgins

“He took part in Right to Life demonstrations constantly.” – Michael McLuhan

“We said the Rosary as a family before retiring to bed most nights.” – Eric McLuhan

“He had a direct connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary. He alluded to it very briefly once, almost fearfully, in a please-don’t-laugh-at-me tone. He didn’t say, ‘I knew because the Blessed Virgin Mary told me,’ but was clear from what he said that one of reasons he was sure about certain things was that the Virgin had certified his understanding of them. I have a feeling we have a saint in the wings.” – one of McLuhan’s associates, to biographer Philip Marchand

His Faith & His Work

One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.

One of his most prominent critics of McLuhan was a British intellectual named Jonathan Miller who wrote a little book about McLuhan where he basically said that all of McLuhan’s thoughts amounted to nothing more than a system of lies. A running theme of that book was that McLuhan was not really a serious social scientist – that he was in fact a kind of Catholic apologist and that Catholic social themes were a covert message of McLuhan’s writing and there were a lot of other people who felt the same way. An American intellectual named Thomas Edwards said that a lot of the critiques of McLuhan hearkened back to the anti-Catholicism of the Reformation […] there was this widespread sense that McLuhan and his Catholic colleagues were covertly trying to smuggle in Catholic dogma into media studies. – Jeet Heer


  1. Thanks, Angela, for this good concise presentation on McLuhan’s faith.

    McLuhan is hard to categorize. “Theorist” is a *hot* term. “Guru” is *cool* but doesn’t fit, really, since he didn’t attract disciples. “Sage” or “prophet”? I do think McLuhan’s approach is profoundly Catholic, not as a covert agenda but simply because of who he was and how his faith fulfilled his concrete perspective on reality.

    Do you know much about the friendship between McLuhan and the philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen, who taught for many years at the University of Dallas? FW was a brilliant, if perhaps eccentric, disciple of Gilson’s existential Thomism. He wrote on the philosophy of communications, and the relation between media, sign, and symbol.

    FW is unjustly neglected, probably for his unabashed Catholicism, his political incorrectness, and his enthusiasm for certain romantic and quixotic “Catholic” political movements in the Europe of the ’60s. But he was not a reactionary. He was an original and stimulating thinker within the Thomistic tradition, and had a lot of positive and provocative things to say about the potential of the media.

    I don’t know enough about FW’s work here to judge whether it is still relevant. I know this much: McLuhan was a close friend and a strong influence on his thought. Also, FW was not a covert, but rather very much an overt Catholic apologist. It might be interesting to dig his stuff up.

    Well, there, I’ve added a bit to the conversation. Thanks for the “inspiration”!

  2. Angela, nice posting. However, I am compelled to ask – why do some Catholics find it necessary to insist on McLuhan’s Catholicism, to which he converted in 1937 at the age of 26? His parents were Baptist and Methodist. He is famous for his ideas on literature, culture, media and technology, not religion. Do you think that his ideas on communication and media need to be understood from a Catholic perspective or as expressions of a Catholic point of view? Protestants do not usually insist upon mentioning the fact that their thinkers are Protestant and mostly consider the matter of someone’s religion or lack of it to be irrelevant. McLuhan is not generally viewed as a Catholic thinker and he did not promote his religion to non-Catholics.

    Be that as it may, I know that McLuhan’s Catholicism is important to some people, so I’d like to ask your permission to re-publish part of your posting on the McLuhan Galaxy blog with a link back to your blog. Thanks.

    • Hi, Alex. You may certainly re-publish the post on your McLuhan Galaxy blog.

      As to your first question, I’ve actually found that persons of varied faith traditions have highlighted or emphasized McLuhan’s Catholicism (not just Catholics).

      I would wonder why anyone’d consider a person’s religion as an afterthought, or irrelevant, to his or her thoughts. Religion, especially Catholicism, emphasizes a certain worldview.

      During an address on his father’s faith, Eric McLuhan said that Catholicism is a matter of “percepts” more than “concepts.” If that’s the case, Marshall McLuhan’s Catholic faith no doubt affected his thinking. As a Catholic myself, I’d say it’d be quite impossible for any devout Catholic to somehow reserve Catholicism for one corner of his or her mind.

      To your second question: McLuhan’s theories, thoughts, observations, etc. reflected the many different influences which shaped him – Catholicism, literature’s ‘new criticism’, comics, languages, physics, etc. I’d think the same could be said about anyone.

  3. You are right about the significance of his Catholicism. McLuhan wasn’t very explicit about his personal beliefs, but the Catholic way of understanding the world permeates his work. I feel he should have been more forthright about it.

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