About us



Vol 36 No 3


John Ryan

John-Baptiste Bornand

Terry Lyons

Charles Hill

Mark Raper SJ

Michael Trainor

Peter Malone MSC

Editor, JSD, Stephen Hackett MSC, Kevin Mark


Social communications to media


Since 1998, when he was elected president of OCIC, the International Catholic Organisation for Cinema, Peter has been working to facilitate and co-ordinate the Church’s use of media of communication. In November 2001, OCIC and Unda, the International Catholic Organisation for Radio and Television, became a united organisation with the name SIGNIS. In this article he surveys their influence on world culture and on the Church from the earliest times to the present.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY can now be seen as a century of enormous transition in the means of social communication. It can also be seen as a media century. Facing the twenty-first century, we realise that it is going to be the century of multimedia and that the nature of social communications will continue to change rapidly.

This is a challenge to world culture and, in particularly different ways, to national and local cultures.Every nation knows that it must change but the pace of change and the resources to effect that change vary so much that technology rich countries will continue to dominate and the technology poor countries will be dependent and sometimes struggle in the quest to ‘catch up’.

This also poses a challenge to the Church. Not that the Church can be isolated from the world. The institutional Church is being forced, whether members like it or not, to keep pace with the new technologies. The Church also struggles with the quest to catch up with multimedia. One of the positive fruits of this experience within the Church is that the world organisations for media have realised that the 21st century will be a new world and that they must respond to the challenge by uniting, acknowledging the cross-media experiences of their members. 

It is useful to look back, beyond the twentieth century, to get an appreciation of the development of media.

The Evolution of Social Communication and Media

A survey of the history of social communications offers a broader perspective on the challenging future. This will finally bring us back to the computer and the Internet, but we need to go back—and observe the Church’s responses (and some failures to respond) to the changing media. We, as Church, face our communications and media future but in the light of the experience and wisdom of the past. As Church, we appreciate the tradition of communication and the development of media.

One of the important aspects of the development of media and social communications is the change in power structure and the effect of communications on authority. As we begin the 21st century with so much media technology available to groups and, especially, to individuals, we are in quite a different position from people a hundred and fifty years ago. In 1900, with telegraph and telephone available but recording and cinema in their infancy (and before plane travel), authority, both civil and religious, could be exercised in a more absolute way. There were few means for quick accountability.

While authorities used the developing media, the immediacy of radio and, then, television, meant that the wider public were sufficiently informed so that they could agree or disagree with what was being put to them. Some examples: in World War I, the public depended on print reports and on the new ‘newsreel’ footage and cinema verité; in World War II, with print, radio and cinema (newsreels as well as propaganda movies), the general public could be much more quickly aware of the activities of Hitler and the Nazis; the Vietnam War was the first major war seen nightly on television which was one of the reasons for the public, especially the American public, reacting against it; with the local wars of the 90s in the Gulf, in the Balkans, in East Timor, the whole world can see what is happening as it happens and public opinion can be formed instantly. In this way, the media has contributed to a devolution of authoritarian power and the democratisation of world activities.

It is important to trace how media has had its effect on power, authority and ‘democratisation’ in the Church and whether the Church has understood this and acted on it (and the same for dioceses, for religious congregations). What have we inherited from the development of communications and media in this regard? We retrace the development of media but look at the implications for power and authority, especially repercussions for the Church.

Oral Tradition: the tradition of personal storytelling. Social communication through the spoken word.

It is the oldest tradition, still preserved amongst, for example, Australian aborigines who never developed a written tradition; these are the indigenous cultures which still have a great deal to communicate on how to live in harmony with the earth since they survived thousands of years not destroying their land as the later comers have done.  Oral tradition has developed the creation and communication of myths and religious interpretations of life and of the world. The book of Genesis and the stories of Exodus are examples of this oral tradition that has been formative of cultures and still serves as means for interpretation of the world whether it be in liturgical proclamation or through a movie like ‘The Prince of Egypt’.

When oral tradition was dominant, it was the speaker (the leader, the shaman, the prophet, the sage) who had authority and it was almost limitless and absolute - consider the Hebrew Patriarchs and prophets. It is ironic that this model continues in our communications-sophisticated era, that many in authority (in society, in church, in family) still presume to utter prescriptions and expect them to be obeyed without question. We have moved far beyond this model.

Art: painting, architecture, sculpture and ornamentation. Social communication through the image.

Prior to written records, many cultures represented themselves in painting, cave art in France, paintings in Latin America, the rock paintings of Australian aborigines.  Artistic skills became more and more sophisticated through the centuries, but the desire to communicate through pictorial and design communication is primitive in the best sense—primordial.

Written records: the word visibly preserved. Social communication through the written word.

This can be seen in the symbolic hieroglyphs of Egypt, the classic books of Greece and Rome or the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Scholars are still working on translations of ancient texts, dating parchments to confirm the authenticity of traditions.  The written word was used for solemn records as well as for daily communication and domestic use.

With the written word and its permanence, authority found that there was accountability in reference to the word. It could be checked. This was a limitation on authority and gave power to those who could read and could have access. (Of course, the authority could act despotically and prevent access to the written word.)  But, with writing and the consequent checking and the development of commentary and interpretation, authority began to be shared. With the copying of manuscripts, the sharing of authority was broadened to a greater number of people who could read and who had access to the copies of the documents.  (As scholars will acknowledge, it also raised new difficulties with the reliability of the copyists and their errors and the science of authenticating the versions of written texts.

Drama, action and ritual, theatre. Social communication through ritual, dance, drama and performance.

Every culture has had its religious rituals of worship, at times beautiful and creative, at times ugly and destructive; cultures have developed a communication through the action of dance, a total bodily action of communication, one of the great means of communication still in African cultures and in the Pacific or in the exhilaration of dancing traditions in Latin America. 

Theatre was slow in developing in some cultures, but, in its various forms of performance and drama, it acted out stories, myths and religious interpretations of life and the world.  Liturgy combined word, image, ritual and performance.

The plastic arts and the performing arts also contributed to ‘democratisation’ of authority and power. Images are not as precise in their concepts as words and lead to varied interpretations. (It is interesting to note that the Hebrew tradition was founded on the word and that images were forbidden and shunned and, apart from the prophets’ symbolic actions or such verbal dramas as Job and The Song of Songs, there was no performance apart from strictly observed and legislated ritual and worship.)

The performing arts, as the classic Greek playwrights demonstrated, are a powerful means for questioning and interpreting (and mocking) life experience. Theatre was one of the most significant achievements of Greek democracy, giving power to its audiences. It is the mark of a despotic power and use of authority where performance is controlled or banned.

The printed word: books and the word widely read in newspapers, magazines and, now, computer screens. Social communication through the printed word.

While books were copied in the ancient world (the scriptures, the classics of Greece and Rome, the books of the early Church, the Gnostic literature, the tomes for medieval learning), printing is just over half a millennium old, not long in the eternal scheme of things. For the first one hundred and fifty years or so of printing, the spread of books was considerable but still limited. It was only in the seventeenth century and the eighteenth that books and papers were ‘mass produced’. 

It is significant that evangelising groups like the London Missionary Society took huge printing presses to the islands of the Pacific in the 1820s to spread the Gospel. By the twentieth century, the Church had become book and print focussed. The printed word had been canonised, made sacred, seemed immutable (thus suiting the Church’s late 19th century emphasis on revelation and its truth, immutable truth). This is the social communications legacy that those educated up to the 1950s inherited—and have tended to hold on to so tenaciously that they cannot imagine or are unwilling to imagine other, even better, ways of social communication.

The enormous change in world consciousness by media, communication and power came with the invention of the printing press. Would the Reformation have happened without print? Would the Reformation have continued in the way it did without print? With more books readily available, the sixteenth century (which began with the opening up of new worlds for Europe in the Americas and with the opening to a Copernican understanding of the universe) was the century of writers, of translations of the Bible into the vernacular, of theological polemic, of conciliar documentation, of catechism and seminary texts, of spirituality and devotion, of fixed liturgical texts. This was not even imagined in 1450, yet was taken for granted by 1550. 

The challenge to absolute church authority was enormous. The Roman response to Luther and the reformers was slow and initially inept, absolutist worldly church leaders ignoring the reform and hoping it would go away. But, the protesting of the reformers and the splitting of the Catholic Church was the first media-driven ‘democratising’ movement in the Church. As with authorities who rely on the oral tradition mode, some still see the printed word as the instrument of absolute authority and command rather than a medium available for all people to use.

Photography: naturalistic record of events and people;stylised presentation and interpretation. Social communication through the visual record.

The 19th century saw the development of the image as a ‘realistic’ image record of reality, the photograph. While it was a medium that could be stylised (and artistic photographers were able to turn their medium into an art form), most people initially saw photography as a ‘truthful’ visual record. It began to accompany the printed word and so found its place in the print medium. It was as static as the printed word—and, in that, there was a static quality and a permanency. Photography was accepted very readily.

The photograph was the first of the nineteenth century media to contribute to the democratisation process. When the likeness of a person, a place or the record of an event is available, more and more people who have access to the photograph have access to the truth. The photograph can identify a wrongdoer but it can also protect someone falsely accused of wrongdoing (although this now seems outmoded by the ability of computer programs and effects to alter photographs and, in the movies, insert fictitious characters like Forrest Gump into footage of actual persons). The truth about the American Civil War could be communicated by photographs. Events in the church like the First Vatican Council or the election of Leo XIII were available throughout the Church worldwide.

Telecommunications. Social Communication through rapid, instant delivery.

As the nineteenth century emerged as a century of progress and inventions, there seemed to be no limit to communication. The daring imagination of the mid-century focussed on immediacy and the overcoming of distance: the telegraph, the ‘wire services’, the telephone. The oral tradition received a new lease of life through telephonic communication; the written word received its new lease of life through the telegraph.  And this could be done with immediacy and with great speed. 

The element of speed, of rapidity, now became one of the features of communication that had not been possible before. And the media, especially the newspapers, benefited from this immediacy and news really emphasised the ‘new’. Along with the invention of the steam engine and the consequences for travel by train and ship in the nineteenth century, speed and immediacy were the signs of progress. The world started to ‘hurry up’ and we are the inheritors of the ‘I want it done yesterday’ syndrome.

Cinema. Social Communication through the moving image.

After the photographic stills, the photos had to move; great effort in many countries was put into inventing cameras for moving pictures, for projectors, for nitrate and celluloid stock that could hold the images so that they could be projected to move.  The cinema was the achievement of the 1890s and became the art form of the twentieth century, combining images, drama, and performance. 

Initially, the images were silent, relying on the printed word captions to communicate supplementary meaning to the moving images. It took over thirty years to make the transition to sound and almost forty years for a permanent colour process. But, with cinema, there was a new, accessible and popular medium. It could record events. It could dramatise and entertain like theatre, but with effects beyond theatre. It could make audiences laugh, cry, be afraid - and it might, as could visual art, printed material, photographs, it might corrupt. And this could happen for a mass audience together. Church response to this new means of social communication to this truly mass medium was mixed. 

There were many in the Church who recognised its myriad values—and OCIC (The International Catholic Organisation for Cinema) was established by 1928.

However, authorities viewed the medium warily, aware of its dangers before its benefits and it was easier to utter condemnations than take the trouble to learn the language of the medium and appreciate it. And, it was a medium of entertainment, so therefore not to be taken as seriously as print media. It was really frivolous, something of a pastime or a waste to time and so not worthy of serious comment. This was reinforced by the rapid spread of cameras and projectors, of the building of cinemas, of the perceived permissiveness in the United States and the establishment of the Motion Picture Code and the Legion of Decency to vet films and ask pledges of Catholics not to support objectionable and condemned movies. This meant that a more widespread censorious attitude towards a mass medium came into Church consciousness—and its still pervades many from the print era and those who are apprehensive about the ‘worldliness’ of mass media. Pius XI in 1937 and Pius XII in 1957, however, wrote encyclical letters encouraging the appreciation of cinema.

Recordings. Social Communication through recorded sound.

The photographic recording of images led to a desire for recording of words and sounds so that they could be played and replayed. Once again the end of the nineteenth century was able to reproduce words, sounds, music. Just as images could be recorded and kept on film, so sounds could be recorded and kept—and the twentieth century has seen extraordinary developments in the material used to preserve sounds and music, the size of the disks and their quality of sound, the transition to tape, the transition to sound tracks, to digital registration. Recording has enabled us to have sound archives.

Radio. Social Communication through the broadcast word and sound.

Once sounds were recorded and able to be kept, the challenge was to broadcast the sounds, the words, the music. Sound could now be the focus of mass communication and radio would quickly become a mass medium. The world would rely on the diffusion of words, sounds—and ideas. While the moving image could be used for education and propaganda, the equipment was cumbersome and expensive. 

However, with radio—which still remains the most individual and personalised of the mass media, despite its being listened to at first by groups and broadcasts often being theatrical events—the potential for education and propaganda were not lost. The Church welcomed radio much more readily and quickly than other media. 

And soon after the establishment of radio stations and networks, its propaganda potential for good and for ill was tested during World War II. While the technology has developed to the digital era, radio use and impact still have many of the traditional benefits of contact with individuals and a more personalised response. This is true for isolated individuals and groups and for technology poor communities.

Television. Social Communication through broadcast images and sound.

If words and sounds could be broadcast, why not images? Experiments during the twenties and pioneer transmissions through the thirties of images were rudimentary and the pioneers did not realise how television would transform the communication habits and styles of every part of the globe. Television offered the diffusion of images and sounds - and of ideas and of emotions.

While there are still some isolated areas of the world, in mountains or on small islands, where television is not yet a reality, it is true to say that the major media thrust of the second half of the twentieth century has been the spread of television. (And videocassettes and generators have been able to provide for viewing where television has not yet arrived—though with satellites, this is a small percentage of the world.)  By the end of the twentieth century, we had become television people. The technological developments have been more familiar to most, from black and white to colour, to bigger screens and sound systems, to satellite transmissions, to cable reception, to public television and public access, to digital communication and clarity of image. 

Television has provided its audiences with almost instant images and sounds. Because of the link with cinema images, Church authorities were loath to endorse television. It is still a problem of what can be screened and how access is available almost without discrimination, especially for children. While the church has embraced television, it is still wary of it (and alarmed by the costs of production and transmission). However, Unda, the International Catholic Organisation for broadcasting, for Radio and Television, was established as far back as 1928.

Telecommunications and authority.

At the same time as photography was being developed, telegraph and telephone and rapid sea and rail transport had a revolutionary effect on communication. Authority, and Church authority despite Pius IX’s wariness and with Leo XIII’s more open approach to information and Encyclical writing, had to become even more accountable and rapidly so. 

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, clergy would write to Rome complaining about the adaptation of liturgy or the language of doctrine to the culture of China. A letter would take months to get to Rome, months to be considered, months for the reply to get back to China. Years could pass before the higher authority could make its decision felt. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw that change completely. While information could be carried quickly around the world, the telephone provided instant recourse for delating to Rome or for defence from attack. The conduct of the Modernist crisis at the turn of the century and its aftermath is the first example of a communications-rapid Church controversy.

Video. Social Communication through recorded images.

Just as records from discs to cassettes enabled groups and individuals to keep records of music and sounds, so video has enabled the recording of images and their replay by groups and individuals, providing access to images since the 1980s that was almost unimagined twenty years before.

Personal records via video have made the times of 8 mm filming seem antiquated. Video shops and libraries are taken for granted and education (and copyright problems) rely on video clips as much as on printed quotations from books or periodicals. Laser disks and DVD continue to improve the quality of reproduction and quality of image for viewing.

Computers. Social Communication through software.

The latter part of the twentieth century was the era of the computer. As we move on into the twenty-first century, we can see the last decades of the twentieth century as the pioneer years of the computer and speculate on the potential for this artificial intelligence, this management of all human organisation and communication with accuracy and speed, the hardware being continually streamlined and the seeming limitlessness of software. (The fax machine is beginning to look like an antique!)

Internet. Social Communication through instant information, words, images, sounds, imagination.

The communication dimension of the computer has only been realised worldwide in the last decade. The internet is transforming communication, providing speed and often inexpensive exchange and a worldwide web (both a good and a sinister word) for information and contact. It also creates a highly individualistic world, the web buff surfing the net for hours, the computer game enthusiasts competing against themselves, the prospect of entering into other worlds, worlds of virtual reality, living and imagining a contrived environment. And this is where we are at the beginning of the decade, century, millennium.

Social Communication is ‘cross-media’.

This overview of the development of social communications and of media indicates the wealth of resources that we have inherited - and of which we are stewards. But, with the rapid development during the twentieth century, we realise that no person is involved with one single medium: the movie director uses computer effects, the print journalist appears on radio and television, a movie is marketed with cassettes, CD Roms and computer games…

The immediate popularity of cinema, radio and television introduced the term ‘mass’ into the phrase ‘mass media’. In the world of politics, it is no longer possible (unless in a totalitarian state of either the Right or the Left) for a politician to be personally colourless. Charisma of voice, of appearance, of action are required. When the politician is accountable, there is rapport between people and government. Election campaigns, while they might take on the character of a circus, ‘media circus’, they are open and authority has to be credible.

One of the consequences of mass media on power and authority is that no longer can an authority make utterances that will be universally accepted, even on pain of the binding of conscience. An authority has to earn the respect of the public who respond to them on the media. They have to be authentic and credible. Authority has to have moral integrity. And whatever is communicated has to show that what is put before the public is reasonable and is not simply a decree from on high. (In the past, in religious orders, what was considered the will of God from authority was, in fact, merely the whim of a superior.)

Mass Media has brought about this change in the Church. On the one hand, John Paul XII can use his charism in all the media and be seen as credible on the world stage.  However, within the Church, and with controversies from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, it is clear that some of the Vatican Offices have not taken into account the way that media works. The controversial response to Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) has been studied extensively by Andrew Greeley and serves as a reminder that the Church needs to understand how the openness of media has altered the exercise of and response to ecclesiastical authority. The language of ‘cross-media’ has given way to ‘multi-media’ because of the complexity of the links between the particular media, as one uses the other, and makes demands on communications practitioners to be skilled in various media. They too have to be ‘multi-media’.

Social Communication is ‘multi-media’.

In summary, Social Communication is through: the spoken word; image; the written word; ritual, dance, drama, performance; the printed word; visual record; rapid, instant delivery; the moving image; recorded sound; broadcast word and sound; broadcast image and sound; the recorded image; software programs; cross-media; multi-media.

Experts in the field can give us a list of current multi-media developments and can foresee and indicate trends for the coming decade. They generally relate to electronics and computer development and their myriad applications. What is more important than merely listing is to examine some of the consequences of the development of media for the Church’s ministry and for the involvement of religious groups, like church media offices, religious production companies, religious congregations, in media ministry.


We need to consider for a moment, the individuals who are caught up in the exhilaration of computer technology. Cinema produced the avid moviegoer and the cinema buff, television produced the ‘couch potato’ (or, as one columnist put it, ‘I am looking at less and less television, even when it is on’.)  Now the internet has produced millions of individuals who spend hours, physically alone, but in communication with friends and anonymous correspondents from all over the world.  A key moral question about computer technology and internet-addiction is whether the computer is isolating individuals even as they would say they are in contact with others.

And what of computer and data-overload? Who can watch two TV channels without two sets or without playing switching channels? Who can watch five channels, ten channels, a hundred channels? Just because it is there, does it mean that it is good?  And what of students with so many programs on their hard disk but who get so much data for an assignment that they cannot cope or are unskilled in determining the relative merit of their information?

And what of the computer program creators who, while ingenious, and often providing useful tools, are contributing to the consumer culture that wants to possess everything even if there is no opportunity to use it?

On a more cultural level, one of the comments of people in the Pacific Islands faced with the sudden irruption of American videocassettes in local video libraries was ‘too much, too fast, too soon’. This cultural issue is important for Church as well as for society and government. At the OCIC/Unda Congress in Montreal, 1998, an American lecturer quoted Vice-President Al Gore as saying that in the United States, every child should be able to have their computer link to the Library of Congress.

While that may be (or may be not) a goal for the United States and media development, it is not a goal for the mass of children in developing nations. 

In the past, wealth was gauged according to economic norms. This is still the case, but as the twenty-first century begins we can speak of technology rich nations and technology poor nations. But, even then, we have to make distinctions. In the poorest of nations, satellite transmission of television programs (as in India) abounds; in some African nations, government (and church) officials have satellite phones, email, internet facilities while not so many kilometres from their capitals, ordinary people have limited access to water, let alone electricity.

What are we contributing to when we go into multi-media?  Making the rich technology richer and the poor technology poorer? We hope not, but the questions must be utmost in the minds of Church media experts and workers.

The Audio-visual Culture and the New Areopagus

John Paul II has used the phrase, ‘the audio-visual culture’, frequently in his discourses. Multi-media is the new Areopagus where the new Saint Pauls meet the local culture and its art and poetry and offer a dialogue between religious culture and Church culture to the enrichment of both.

The audiovisual culture can be appreciated, in the terms of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, as the true, the good and the beautiful. In each finite experience of the true, the good and the beautiful, there is an openness to the infinite, an openness to God.  This means that, as Church, wherever we choose to work in multimedia, the technological means and the content must have these ‘signals of transcendence’.

And, a consequence of this is study, education and training, areas that Church personnel are much better prepared for: media education of the media-makers and the media-consumers, theological reflection on what is communicated and how it is communicated, ethics of media and communication (a values-ethics which is not merely founded on individual morality but which understands the ‘mass’ aspects of mass media), sociological studies, aesthetic studies, psychological studies. We cannot do them all but we can collaborate.

The great challenge to societies and individuals today is to move away from presuppositions of consumerism (and that is a good examination of conscience question for the Church and for any religious order) to a service presupposition.  Those who work in the media should love the media.

It should be the right vocation for them. But, it must have the dimension of service. What service do I as a Church person working in media, what service do we as a Church congregation working in media, have to offer the members of the Church and those beyond? Unless we have an answer to that, we are merely participating in a consumer ideology of the development of Multimedia.

Peter Malone, former editor of Compass (1972-1998), is now president of SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication. He is a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.