Roman Catholicism and Mass Media

I’m pleased to present this guest post from Benjamin Heidgerken, a Ph.D student in theology at the University of Dayton. You can read more from Ben, who is working on his family’s cattle ranch in South Dakota this summer, at his blog, The Dakotan Yoke.

There has been, in my mind, a surprising amount of chatter surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s recent debut on Twitter.  People are apparently surprised that religious peoples–and especially religious leaders–would turn to modern, largely secular means of communication to bring attention to religious matters.  “The medium is the message” is what most are saying: the pope is modernizing, the Church is changing!  But a little historical context can go a long way on these sorts of things.

For instance, I have heard it argued that the codex–what we call a book–was one of the earliest Christian appropriations of media to spread the gospel.  Jewish leaders tended to use scrolls, which only allowed one to have easy access to one part of the manuscript at a time.  Christians, though, heavily preferred the codex with leaves of paper bound together, making the entire manuscript accessible and cross-reference-able.  This early move was not the object of secondary reflection at the time; it was a confluence of form and function that simply made sense.

It is also no surprise that the first book to be mass produced was the Gutenberg Bible.  By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, accessibility of information had become a hot-button issue–indeed, one of the central concerns of the Reformation.  Admittedly, Roman Catholicism was not the quickest to sanction lay reading or non-traditional renderings of the Bible, but Catholic investigation of the Scriptures existed right alongside Luther.  Erasmus did what he could with the resources he had to make accessible the best Greek manuscripts of his day–“ad fontes” or “to the sources” in order ultimately to make the Bible clearer to both religious and lay Catholics.

And in the modern era, Christians have not lagged all that far behind in the appropriation of media.  Pope Pius XI was the first pope to make a radio broadcast in February 1931–only a few years after the medium had really caught on around the world.  And probably most significantly, the Second Vatican Council issued one of its sixteen official documents precisely on the topic of religious use of mass media.  Admittedly, certain things are ruled out: you can’t have your confession heard by email or telephone (as an aside, I think this is defensible because it emphasized the importance of physicality and presence; we are not disembodied souls, but concrete individuals with both physical and spiritual needs).  But many other activities are now commonplace: homebound Catholics can watch Mass on television; Catholic radio stations talk about all types of religious concerns; New Advent and other Catholic websites bring religion to the internet.

Religious people have always made use of the media of their times.  It is part of their proverbial living “in” but not “of” the world.  Indeed, it is part of the Great Commission.  The fact that a tweeting Pope brings so much attention from the media says more about the latter’s knowledge of history than it does about the former’s appropriation of modern technology.

Please comment and share Ben’s insightful post!