Last week, I discussed the three sources of authority in the Catholic Church. One of them is the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, where our leaders gather to discuss issues the Church is facing and issue decrees on how the Church should address them. You have no doubt heard of the Second Vatican Council, which was called to order by Pope St. John XXIII in 1962 and closed by his successor Pope St. Paul VI in 1965. During this time, thousands of bishops and cardinals gathered to discuss the emerging pastoral needs of the Church at the time. Numerous new decrees came out of this Council which apply to our Faith today. There is a book that contains the entire collection of documents to come from the Second Vatican Council, but it is over 1,000 pages and it is not necessarily the most interesting to read. However, if you are ever curious enough to look at a particular topic, all of the documents are readily available online. I have selected one to summarize in order to illustrate how we learn official Church teaching on a particular matter, via the Magisterium.
If you’ll recall from last week, the first Council took place with the Apostles in Jerusalem as they discussed how to deal with the issue of circumcision for gentile converts. That was their biggest problem, at the time, in terms of Church teaching. However, through the centuries, the questions have become more complex. By the 1960s the Church, like the rest of the world, was learning to navigate the use of mass media for communication. Therefore, the Council found it an important enough issue to author the Decree on the Means of Social Communication.
The decree begins by marveling at how, with God’s help, man has been able to invent and innovate wonderful things that allow for communication with large masses of people at one time. It cites “the press, the cinema, radio, television and others” (Decree… #1). Of course, now we can add the internet, something unimaginable at the time, but still in the same category. The decree goes on to acknowledge, that like anything else, these new media platforms can be used to enrich man and build up the kingdom of God on earth, but they may also be misused for the purpose of being against God’s plan for man and cause him damage. It is for this reason the Council found it appropriate to specifically address media (#2). I find it fascinating how the Church, in all of her wisdom, can recognize social issues (such as the use of broadcast media), create Church teaching about that current social issue, and how relevant those decrees and teachings can still be in our modern day. Even though this document was written in the 1960s, see if you can recognize how relevant it remains almost 60 years later.
The Church’s primary mission is to preach the gospel for the purpose of the salvation of souls and she has access to media in order to help her on that journey (#3). Anyone using modern social communication must be aware of the impact it can have on souls and should therefore conduct use of social communication with morality and correct conscience. They must pay special attention when dealing with particularly controversial issues appropriate to the times. Human beings have a right to sufficient information as it is directed toward the common good. Therefore, special attention must be paid to making sure the information being broadcast is true. Additionally, the information must be delivered with love, in a way that upholds man’s dignity (#4-5). Media may also be used for art and as a way to explore “a deeper knowledge and analysis of man and…[the] manifestation of the true and good in all their splendor.” Again, with all of this comes a responsibility to consider morality in the use of media, to lead souls toward good and not toward sin (#6-7).
The decree goes on to lay out the responsibilities of the consumers of social communication. They are to choose sources that contribute to their virtue and avoid anything that communicates evil. They must inform their consciences to help them in recognizing poor uses of social communication (#9). Consumers must learn moderation and discipline in using media, something we can see a great struggle with today, as our devices have made our access to social communication so easy. Parents have a particular duty to monitor their children’s use of media so they do not endanger their souls (#10-11). Finally, this first section of the decree appeals to civic leaders to respect the liberties and freedoms with regard to access to information and the rights of those who wish to exercise their freedom in using media for their mass communication (#12). Essentially, the Council uses the first section to address both producers and consumers of media and social communication in order to remind them of their particular responsibilities in regards to their interaction with it. These are timely reminders when there are so many television channels, streaming series, websites, and flows of information in our eyes and hands every day. Are we taking initiative to responsibly consume that which is true, beautiful, good, and virtue-building information?
The second half of the decree goes on to deal with how the Church and her individual members should take advantage of new developments in social communication to build up the Body of Christ. Pastors should be “particularly zealous in this field, since it is closely linked with their task of preaching the Gospel” (#13). Those laymen who work in the production of mass communication should be good witnesses of Christ in their work and cooperate with the pastoral activity in the Church (#13). The Church is to support the press that presents the truth and promotes the common good, as well as support the creation of films that promote the common good, particularly for children. Radio programs are also recognized as needing support in their creation of good family content. In other words, all forms of media that allow for participants to share in the life of the Church should be encouraged and supported by the Church (#14).
In order to meet the needs of the people with regard to media, anyone within the Church who wishes to utilize it should have proper training and access to appropriate education, not only in the technical aspects, but also in the art forms. Members of the Church wishing to use these methods to promote the kingdom of God should have full support. It should be remembered that different demographics, age groups, and cultural groups use mass communication differently, so attention should be paid to reaching as many as possible (#16). Finally, the Council urges the importance of the Catholic voice to not be silenced in the media due to inactivity on the part of those involved (#17). The Church supports the use of mass communication in her mission and will assist individuals in doing so however she can. We now have official Church teaching on how this is done.
While this decree may seem to focus in on a very specific area, I hope it illustrates how the Church works in handing on the faith through the Magisterium. There is no way the early Church could have anticipated every issue we would ever encounter, nor, are there explicit answers for every problem contained in Scripture. If we had one pastor deciding things for his flock one way and another pastor deciding things for his flock another way, we would not have unity. We are blessed that the Catholic Church works the way it does in giving us unity in truth through the Magisterium under the watchful care of the Holy Spirit.