The Church and Social Communications by Rev. Pierre Babin, OMI

Sunday, October 17 1999

Address to the 1999 CCCB Plenary Assembly

I would, first of all, like to thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today. It is an honour that means a great deal to me, especially since I am here, in part, because of an illustrious Canadian who profoundly changed my life as a priest and a catechist. The Canadian was Marshall McLuhan, a man who has been called a “prophet of the media”.

It was Marshall McLuhan who secretly inspired that famous passage in Redemptoris Missiowhich I would like to speak to today: “. . . it is not enough to use the media simply to spread the Christian message and the Church’s authentic teaching. It is also necessary to integrate that message into the ‘new culture’ created by modern communications.” (RM 37)

Fundamental Thesis

My reflections and convictions are based on McLuhan’s fundamental thesis which states that the major causes of change in cultures and civilizations are not ideologies, wars or religions, but rather new communications technologies which structure societies. When a new communications technology is created, society finds itself restructured by it, as does the Church. Yesterday, it was the printing press, today it is electronics. It was Gandhi who said, “I forgive the British for all they have done, except for bringing technology to India.” Electronics, which forms the basis of all new communications technologies, is responsible for drastically changing cultures.

While there are of course many other cultures besides media culture, it is of major importance. Electronic culture is about to invade the entire world at a speed yet unmatched in history. As McLuhan said, “I am not pessimistic, I am apocalyptic!”

Consequently, I believe that we must radically rethink our pastoral methods, in the same way as the revolution which occurred as a result of the discovery of print technology and culminated in the Council of Trent. We have been invited not to a superficial restructuring of methods but rather to what has been termed a change in the priorities and paradigms of pastoral work. We must do with electronic media what Luther and Canisius did in their time with the printing press when they invented the catechism, seminaries, etc.

This is a new model which is little by little establishing itself, affecting what Sister Angela Zukowski, Director of Social Communications for the Diocese of Dayton, calls “new ways of being Church”. The Spirit is moving us toward this change: do we not already see the signs? I am thinking of Taizé and the World Youth Days in Paris, among other examples.

Of course, this transition may seem difficult. I recall the words of Cardinal Stephen Kim, Archbishop of Seoul, who confided this to me about modern culture: “It is another culture … I am not prepared for it. I cannot perceive it. I have no intuition what should be done … It will require young people ….”

This new evangelization is already in motion. Because the current change is so radical, I can foresee that as bishops you will bear a heavy burden. I humbly offer my observations, and invite you to try to relate my remarks to your situation, given that I am not Canadian.

New Emphases in Pastoral Methods for the Age of Media

In the past, teaching came from authority which saw to it that the truth was passed on. Today, the dominant model is commercial, whether we are speaking of shopping centres, Internet or the choice of television programs. The term “commerce” is taken here in its fundamental sense: an exchange of goods after bargaining (negotiation). It includes the following:

A central focus on goods, not on truth, but what I perceive as good for me. At this level, shopping centres constitute models for society and compete with the traditional university of arts and philosophy. According to this model, people unconsciously become interested in the Church only to the extent it provides them something: health, social status, personal growth, fulfilment in a personal spiritual search.

An emphasis on choice and negotiation through communication. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dictatorship of the audience”. People want to choose, experiment and have guarantees. This explains the predominance of marketing in the commercial world which provides the means to study the needs of a population, focus solely on goods and satisfy the needs of potential clients.

The power of the audience to judge the value of goods. The public, not an authority of some kind, judges whether or not a given product is good for it.
Such is the communications world in this new culture. For the Church, the message is clear: we can no longer deliver the Gospel as if people have the same sensibilities and the same ways of thinking as in the past. Evangelization must first of all present faith in terms of goods – salvation, healing – rather than in terms of truth. The mission of Christian radio must not be to teach Christian doctrine, but to give joy and reinforce personal identity. Televised Mass must make viewers feel alive and make them happy before provoking reflection or to teach doctrine.
The traditional communication schema has been radically changed. Whereas the communicator previously used media or various communications tools to relay a particular message to an audience, today the communicator and the audience become part of the medium. We no longer use the media. Instead, we become a medium for transmitting goods by communing with the audience, by becoming “a single entity” with people, whether they are good or bad.

Henceforth pastoral work must be approached from a perspective of networking, communing and developing loyalty. Priests must learn to do in their parishes what all radio and television program managers do – study their audience constantly – but in a Christian sense through love, discernment of values and attention to the poor. After the discovery of print technologies, pastoral initiatives and missionary work centred on transmitting the doctrina christiana. In the contemporary context of the media, pastoral work needs to focus on networks, communities of affinity, electronic relationships and “chatting” on the Internet. Evangelization has to be redefined in terms of conversation or dialogue. We must move away from proclamation and toward conversation (according to the deepest meaning of conversation – “to keep company with”), away from the exigencies of conversion and toward a call to friendship. To evangelize is to make friends and invite them to the wedding feast (Mt 22, 14).

Change in Language

Another important element is the shift from the predominance of words to the predominance of a language of symbols, modulation, and ­ using the English word ­ ground. At one time in educational culture, the dominant language consisted of words, books, clear ideas and doctrines. Today, according to rigorous scientific studies, words no longer carry the same weight. For example, when a person delivers a message on television, words account for only seven per cent of the impression left on the viewers. The rhythm of speech accounts for 38 per cent and body language for 55 per cent. Thus, in modern language we can say that “communicating is transmitting vibrations (or modulations) in a setting which has been prepared for this purpose (composition, background, or ‘ground’).”

Modulation is the energy that emanates from one body toward another. It is the way in which bodies communicate through an exchange of vibrations. Consequently, we must now reassert the value of the fundamental languages of modulation and atmosphere: the voice that is behind the words, images and parabolic language, lighting, music and songs, sound quality, microphones and speakers, rhythm and gestures. Women will naturally reclaim an important place in our churches because, more so than men, they have a genius for this language of ground and modulation. The culture of the media will by its nature mean new feminine influence.

I am also convinced we should no longer prioritize catechetical teaching. Rather, spiritual awakening should be our priority from now on. In all the turmoil of information and emotion, only faith built on the awakening of the inner self (the spiritual) will remain strong. A faith based solely on catechetical teaching will waver.

The church is no longer the central building of the village. Office towers and large hotels have long ago taken its place. We must ask ourselves why children would come to church to follow the teachings of Christ? How would it be possible for faith after childhood to remain unaffected by so many influences and so much agitation? One cannot be solid in the faith unless it corresponds to a personal interior awakening. The key to religious communication is relating the language of the Gospel to the progressive awakening of one’s inner self.

That is why there is need for pastoral initiatives that focus on a spiritual awakening in keeping with each generation as well as on the spiritual life and Christian experiences. Taizé is a good example of this way of teaching where music, prayer, liturgical splendour, community life and witness have replaced formal teaching (at least for the time being).

Phenomenon of Globalization

During a recent visit to Bangkok, I was surprised to read the following in bold print in the Bangkok Post: “Globalization is about to wash over the world by catapulting each member of the human race into the new millennium. To prepare for the future, we must understand the changes that are imminent and personally prepare ourselves.”

We are participants at a major time in the history of humanity. Should the Church not seize this moment, the most important opportunity of our time, which has been made possible through the Internet, the media and satellites – in other words, the global village? This is not to say that economic and media globalization do not pose a terrible danger to humanity – but barring a catastrophe of some sort, they constitute a fact that must be dealt with. A fact that has biblical reverberations. Is it not the Church’s most important historical responsibility to see this as an opportunity in the biblical sense?

It is not a matter of abandoning what in the past was a focus on the pastoral mission (enculturation). However, as disciples of the Bible, we must go about making enculturation not the goal but the path to globalization according to the Gospel. By means of religious education, the liturgy, position statements, newspapers and media, we must clearly declare that we are citizens of a country and at the same time children of the whole world: “The entire world is my family” (Pope John XXIII).

At a certain time in its history, the Church declared itself a social defender of the exploited and the working class. It must now acquire the image and leadership needed to bring about globalization according to the Gospel. Getting into globalization, like getting into the world of media, implies that we give up having the monopoly on truth and religion. An attitude of goodwill to and respect for each human being and every religion are the virtues that will let us get involved with globalization. It is difficult to imagine what kind of Church we are moving toward. When we consider the youth culture and the constantly decreasing numbers of Sunday worshippers, and at the same time all the crowds going to Taizé, we can easily see that the rhythm of life in the Church is changing. The Council of Trent emphasized Sunday observance as a way to do systematic catechesis. Today, we need new methods.

Which Pastoral Priorities?

It is above all up to the bishops to establish the pastoral priorities that apply in today’s context. However, there are three that strike me as most necessary. The first is without doubt educating pastors in the new culture and the new ways of being Church.

Faced with the enormity of the changes now under way, it is urgent that we prepare the pastors of tomorrow. We must put an end to the idea that pastoral initiatives involving the media have to be handled by specialists. If media are at the centre of our culture, then all those holding office in the Church must be adequately trained to function in the world of media. After the invention of the printing press, one of the first tasks undertaken by the seminaries was to ensure future priests could read and write. This approach must be rethought today in light of the new communication technologies.

It is a terrible mistake to think that it is enough to develop charismatic or intuitive leaders. One cannot be a leader without being trained in the effective use of words, reason and critical thinking. The Church would be creating a very different future for itself were it to abandon such training which is so necessary for leadership. When seminaries were established after the Council of Trent, one of the first demands on seminarians was to learn to read and write. I would suggest the same must be done today with electronics and new technologies. However, we should not be training specialists but forming a ‘medium’.

I see two types of formation: the first, intellectual, reflective and experiential, based on documents; the second, practical, based on periods of internship in various communications environments. This internship would allow participants to make a connection between their immersion in the culture of media and their spiritual life which is linked to experience.

We would thereby develop pastors with a strong sense of human relations (a sense of audience, being with others, “vibrating” with them). They would certainly need both a well-developed left brain and right brain (the side responsible for affectivity, imagination, receptivity, creativity, and symbolism). Technique in and of itself is to be avoided.

The second priority is constant and organized dialogue with professionals from the various media. I asked a high-ranking professional from New York who heads a television chain that serves 15 religious denominations what he would say to the Bishops of Canada if he had the opportunity. He told me, “They should collaborate with the professionals, not only with producers but the heads of television chains and the higher ups in the media world.”

Concretely what does “collaborate” mean? It means to work together with and become friends with. Friendship seems fundamental. It is risky but I am convinced it is important.

It also seems to me that in the Church’s pastoral ministry being visible is the best way to establish a presence. When they could, our ancestors built stone churches that created a visible presence of Christ and the Church. Today, we must do the same in electronic terms. This can be done in several ways. As an example, I refer to the remarks of Cardinal Kim who created Radio TV-Peace in Seoul, a costly project that has been highly criticized. He told me, “If I hadn’t created Radio Peace, the Church would be absent from this society. I cannot accept that.”

A certain visibility is one of our first objectives. Then there is the political choice of what medium to choose, what type of presence of Christ to create. This decision involves four essential considerations. First, what potential audience can be reached by establishing a television or radio station? Would it be possible to establish long-term loyalty and a network with this audience? Secondly, what do we have in terms of personnel and funding, as well as ability to mobilize a given population? Thirdly, what is the capacity of the medium to evangelize within a given country? For example, radio would obviously be more effective in Africa than television because the culture there is verbal and also because resources are scarcer. Cardinal Carlo Martini, Archbishop of Milan, once told me, “If I want to shock, I use television. If I want to reach people’s hearts, I use radio.” There is thus an entire evaluation to be made according to the culture and political needs.

Finally, and most significantly, is this the right time to get on board? In other words, we must know how to take advantage of an historical opportunity. That’s what the Christian radio station in Portugal did. Today it is the model for Christian radio throughout the world and enjoys the largest broadcast audience in all Portugal, more than any commercial chain. This radio station knew when to seize an historical opportunity. Today, it would not work. Little by little, it gained the loyalty of its listeners, evolved with them, and now is an established major and popular radio station.


Allow me to end with three stories from bishops who have much to say about the relationship that our Church has with the media.

The first is a Canadian story which I often tell people because it really surprised me. One day, several Canadian bishops went to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a training session. One of them asked a CBC journalist who were the most difficult people to interview. The journalist responded, “Politicians and clergy, because they always say the right thing but never say what they think.”

My second story is about Cardinal De Courtray. Before participating on the French television show “L’heure de vérité” (The Hour of Truth), he confided to his host that he was afraid he was not up to the task as he was not experienced with media and did not know how to speak on television. The host asked him if he could name three things to which he radically objected. Cardinal De Courtray responded that he objected to racism, the death penalty and . . . another issue which I cannot recall. “You are unequivocally and radically opposed to the death penalty?” asked the interviewer. “Yes,” responded the Cardinal. “Well then, the program will be a total success,” concluded the host, which is exactly what happened.

Last of all, when he was just a young Bishop of Dijon, Cardinal De Courtray asked Cardinal Marty if he should accept an invitation to speak on a television program. Cardinal Marty responded, “Yes, yes! It’s very important!” “But what if they ask me embarrassing questions? What do I do?” asked the young Bishop De Courtray. “Say anything,” said Cardinal Marty, “If you believe in God, that’s what people will see.”