The National Catholic Review
On Feb. 21 the Vatican issued the most authoritative papal statement on the church and communications in nearly 50 years. Addressed to those responsible for communications, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Rapid Development (Il Rapido Sviluppo) stirred a ripple of interest at first, but was eclipsed within days by the story of the pope’s diminishing health. Although that is understandable, it also is regrettable. Rapid Development not only re-emphasizes the importance of media education; it offers some important reflections on the internal communications of the church. As such, it deserves attention.

The new apostolic letter is best seen as another link in a chain that, in modern times, began in 1936 with Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on motion pictures, Vigilanti Cura (With a Watchful Eye). Movement in a positive direction was signaled by the title of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on movies, radio and television, Miranda Prorsus (Very Remarkable Inventions, 1957).

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Social Communications (Inter Mirifica), promulgated on Dec. 4, 1963, is often dismissed as the council’s weakest document. (Journalists for American periodicals like The New York Times and Time magazine even lobbied for its defeat.) Yet Inter Mirifica took a cautious but generally constructive view of the media. The church’s shift from watchful to marveling marked a significant change of emphasis.

Since the council, the Holy See has had a fair amount to say about communications. John Paul II’s encyclical on missionary work, Redemptoris Missio (1991), contains a noteworthy section likening the media to the Areopagus of St. Paul’s day and underlining the McLuhanesque insight that besides using the media to evangelize, the church must adjust its mode of communication to the new psychology brought into being by modern media. In addition, Blessed Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II all issued short yearly messages on media-related themes for the annual World Communications Day mandated by Vatican II. John Paul II’s most recent, on media as instruments of understanding (and sometimes misunderstanding) among peoples, appeared last January. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications has also issued a series of useful documents on such topics as advertising, the Internet, pornography and violence, and communication ethics.

Emerging from this context, Rapid Development makes a number of sound, if not exactly new, points. Media education and media planning are presented as necessities in today’s church. The current phenomenon of communications impels the church toward a sort of pastoral and cultural revision so as to deal adequately with the times in which we live. As part of that, media must be decisively inserted into pastoral programs. New technologies, especially the Internet, create further opportunities for communication understood as a service to the pastoral government and organization of the different tasks of the Christian community.

Brief but provocative comments are also offered on other topics as well. The apostolic letter insists on the importance of formation and pastoral care of media professionals. Though lacking specifics about how this should be done, the papal endorsement is welcome. Furthermore, Rapid Development considers the media’s role in the common good, and imagines a principle of what it calls co-responsible participation: If the communications media are a good destined for all humanity, then ever-new means must be found, including recourse to opportune legislative measures to make possible a true participation in their management by all. The culture of co-responsibility must be nurtured. This intriguing suggestion, too, is left undeveloped, but it opens vistas that need to be explored.

The most interesting aspect of Rapid Development, however, may be its comments on communication within and by the church. After citing a number of other statements and documents on public opinion in the church, the letter states:

Communication both within the church community, and between the church and the world at large, requires openness and a new approach towards facing questions regarding the world of media. This communication must tend towards a constructive dialogue, so as to promote a correctly informed and discerning public opinion within the Christian community.

The church, like other institutions and groups, has the need and the right to make its activities known. However, when circumstances require, it must be able to guarantee an adequate confidentiality, without thereby prejudicing a timely and sufficient communication about church events. This is one of the areas in which collaboration between the lay faithful and pastors is most needed.

Earlier Vatican pronouncements on communication have gone a good deal further than this. The postconciliar Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications, Communio et Progressio, published by the Pontifical Commission (now Council) for Social Communications in 1971, asserted: Since the development of public opinion within the church is essential, individual Catholics have the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the church....The normal flow of life and the smooth functioning of government within the church require a steady two-way flow of information.... On those occasions when the affairs of the church require secrecy, the rules normal in civil affairs equally apply.

Marking the 20th anniversary of Communio, the pastoral instruction Aetatis Novae likewise articulated a fundamental right of dialogue and information within the church. It explained: Partly this is a matter of maintaining and enhancing the church’s credibility and effectiveness. But more fundamentally, it is one of the ways of realizing in a concrete manner the church’s character as communion.

In the wake of disasters like the sexual abuse scandal in the United States, in which misguided official secrecy played such a large role, it is disappointing that Rapid Development goes no further than it does on the subject of honest, open communication in the church. Progress in this area of the church’s life can be maddeningly slow. Speaking in 1963 on The Social Function of the Press, John Courtney Murray, S.J., called attention to the obvious fact that access to information on the part of the public is a necessity in any well-ordered modern society. Murray elaborated two fundamental principles in this regard. First, The church, for all her differences as over against civil society, remains a society. And the societal character of the church creates a public right to information about all that concerns the church. Second, If the function of public information in the church is a social necessity, then the discharge of this function must be free.... There ought to be no arbitrary limitations imposed upon the dissemination of public information within the church.

Certainly there is need for vigorous debate about which limitations on the dissemination of information in particular cases are arbitrary and which are not. Still, in the never-ending contest between secrecy and openness, Murray’s principles suggest that the presumption should be in favor of openness, while the burden of proof should rest upon those urging secrecy.

We are still far from having a policy on freedom of information in the church. At the same time, in speaking of the need for the church to cultivate openness and a new approach towards facing questions regarding the world of media, Rapid Development keeps the door open to future development.

Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.