The new pope should know media. [Marshall McLuhan Monday]

Pope Benedict XVI in Portugal (Photo by Ricardo Ramalho)
Pope Benedict XVI in Portugal, 2010 (Photo by Ricardo Ramalho)

In an article at the Catholic Education Resource Center, journalist and author William Bole discussed a rarely-noticed section of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (1964) in which McLuhan points to the need for a pontiff who knows media:

“Pope Pius XII was deeply concerned that there be serious study of the media today,” wrote McLuhan, who was raised in a devoutly Methodist family in Alberta and became a Catholic at age 25, captivated by Catholic writers, especially G.K. Chesterton. He taught most of his career at St. Michael’s College, part of the University of Toronto…

The book related a quote from a public message by Pope Pius in February 1950: “It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual’s own reaction.” In other words, the more powerful these media are, the more adept we must be at discerning their messages or effects, ill or good.

McLuhan commented: “Failure in this respect has for centuries been typical and total for mankind. Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them (the media) prisons without walls for their human users.”

As we reflect back on the popes’ public teachings, we see that each (with the obvious exception of John Paul I) spoke more than his predecessor about the importance of understanding media’s effects on humanity. Benedict XVI has been most vocal in this regard.

Perhaps Benedict XVI’s “last word” on media can be found in his February 7 message to participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the focus of which was youth:

Indeed, many factors contribute to highlighting an increasingly fragmented cultural panorama that is constantly and very rapidly evolving. Far from foreign to this panorama are the social media, the new means of communication that encourage and at times give rise to continuous and rapid changes in mindset, morality and behaviour.

Consequently a widespread atmosphere of instability is to be found whose effects are being felt in the cultural sphere and likewise in that of politics and the economy…

Approaching the sedevacante, we can only hope that the next pope will continue this pattern of conscientious media engagement with similar wisdom and enthusiasm.

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