Church and Social Communication
40 years of Inter Mirifica and beyond
Franz-Josef Eilers, svd
he decree on
Social Communication Inter Mirifica was one of the very first two
documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council on December 4, 1963;
the other being Sacrosantum Concillium on Liturgy. After a long
discussion on liturgical matters the Council Fathers turned to the
proposed Schema on Social Communication, a document with some 114
paragraphs. Actually at the beginning of Council preparations after Pope
John XXIII’s announcement in June 1959 such a document was not foreseen.
Only in the course of deliberations, especially on the “modern means of
the apostolate” and the erection of a special commission through the Motu
Propio Superno Dei Nutu, that a proposal to draft a document for
discussion was made.
The draft document of Inter Mirifica in the hands of the Council
Fathers had an introduction (nos. 1-5), then a first part on the doctrine
of the Church (6-33) with subdivisions on the rights and obligations of
the Church, moral norms to be followed and the obligations of the
individual and the state. A second section dealt with the apostolate of
the Church in this field (34-48) and a third part on the discipline and
the ecclesiastical order (49-63). In its fourth section the document
considered the different means of communication individually (64-105) like
the Press (49-63), film (84-94), Radio and TV (95-105) and other means of
Social Communication (106-111). The following conclusion (112-114) is
basically contained in the present Inter Mirifica document.(1)
This proposal was discussed only for a little more than three sessions
within the Council Hall from November 23 to 27, 1962 with all together
some 43 interventions. One was a written intervention by then Auxiliary
Bishop Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, who proposed to also
consider the importance of culture for communication. This was a concern
he later as pope developed further in establishing a Pontifical Council of
Culture at the Vatican.
The discussion on the document(2)
revealed not only quite a diversity of opinions but also a level of
understanding of Social Communication which can not always be called
professional. The concern of the bishops was pastoral and quite some of
them felt not being sufficiently prepared and qualified at that time for
an extensive document on the subject. Since the proposal was handled at
the beginning of the Council, further theological perspectives which
surfaced in later Council documents like Dei Verbum or Gaudium
et Spes could not be incorporated yet. Thus, it is understandable that
the presidency of the Council proposed to accept the document in principle
but to reduce it to the essentials, and asked for a more extensive
pastoral instruction to be published at a later stage.(3) Thus, the final version
of Inter Mirifica has 24 paragraphs only. The decree, however, got
with 503 the highest number of “No” votes in the whole Vatican Council.
Between this decision on November 27, 1962 and the final promulgation on
December 4, 1963 there were a growing number of voices proposing to
retract or rewrite the document. This developed so far that some Council
Fathers distributed leaflets against Inter Mirifica in the proposed
form at the steps of St. Peter Basilica where the Council sessions took
place. Many professionals in Communications felt that the proposed text
would not be up to the standard of an Ecumenical Council and the reality
of modern communications despite the Council Fathers having approved the
first text already in principle and judged it as being “worth a council
the reduction to 24 paragraphs the document was also reduced in its ranks
from a constitution to a decree.
More than 40 years after the final promulgation by Pope Paul VI on
December 4, 1963 one might see Inter Mirifica in a different light.
One has to admit that the Council Fathers in their decision to reduce the
document to its essentials but at the same time asking for a more
extensive pastoral instruction to be worked out by professionals was a
wise move. This pastoral instruction “with the help of experts from
various countries” was published as Communio et Progressio on May
23, 1971 in order to “ensure that all the principles and rules of the
Council on the means of Social Communication be put into effect” (Inter
Mirifica, 23). This instruction which was endorsed and approved by
Pope Paul VI therefore must be considered as integral and interpretative
part of the Council Decree.(5)
The decree itself sees the use of the modern means of communication as
being already included in the teachings of Jesus Christ to share the faith
with all the world (Mt. 28, 18). From here the decree states that it is
the birthright of the Church to use and own these means of communication
for her pastoral activities. Such a stand has consequences for all pastors
as well as lay members of the Church (IM, 3). From such a
conviction flows the need to keep and develop the moral order within which
the media are to operate and used according to the circumstances but also
the conscience of those involved (IM, 4-5). The right to
information as a moral right and part of human dignity is confirmed; art
and moral law as well as the presentation of evil are addressed (IM,
6-7). The role of Public opinion is underlined, but also the
responsibilities of recipients, communicators and civil authorities are
mentioned (IM, 9-12).
After such basic considerations the decree goes to Church activities in
the field of Social Communication (IM, 13-14) challenging the
different members of the Church like pastors, priests, religious and
laity, especially stressing their need for professional training and
formation (IM, 15-16). This is followed by demands for establishing
structures and offices for communication and the celebration of World
The Pastoral Instruction Communio et Progressio is quite
different in its approach to communication as a pastoral obligation of the
Church. It does not start with the right and obligation of the Church but
rather considers first in the long section the “contribution of
communication means to human progress” (Nos. 18-100) before the
“commitment of Catholics” is presented (Nos. 101-180).
What now are the special merits of Inter Mirifica after 40 years
and what still has to be done?
Despite the negative comments during and after the Council the short
Inter Mirifica decree triggered several developments and also
clarifications in the understanding and subsequent handling of Social
Communication. These positive developments are mainly structural and can
be summarized in the following points:
- It is the first time in Church history that an ecumenical council
treated and discussed Social Communication as a special Christian
concern and declared it a concern worth treatment at an ecumenical
- It is Inter Mirifica and the Council which introduced the
expression Social Communication. By now, the expression is
accepted even by non-Church related institutions. With this, a fixation
on only or mainly Mass Media is overcome and the ground was prepared for
a broader understanding of communication as a happening and expression
of human society in general. Social Communication includes all forms and
ways of communicating in human society from traditional forms like
storytelling, rumor, drama, dance and music to the Internet and
- Inter Mirifica clarifies and develops a permanent structure
and line of responsibility for social communication within the Catholic
- The Vatican office on Press and Film is to be extended for all
means of communication (IM, 19). This was done already five
months after the promulgation of the decree on April 2, 1964 through
the Motu Proprio In Fructibus Multis. The office was also
responsible for the elaboration of the Pastoral Instruction
Communio et Progressio. In 1988, the office was elevated to a
- Already, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Vigilanti Cura (1936)
called for national film offices which, through Inter Mirifica,
were extended to cover all media. The offices were also made part of a
permanent structure for the whole Church: “This Council therefore
decides and ordains that national offices for the Press, Cinema, Radio
and Television be established everywhere and be properly supported”
(IM, 21). Together with this goes the establishment of an
Episcopal Commission for Social Communication in every bishops’
- The full responsibility for social communication of every bishop
in his diocese is clarified as being responsible “to oversee
activities and projects of this sort in their own dioceses, to promote
and regulate them including those under the control of exempt
religious” (IM, 20).
- On the international level, the different national offices are to
cooperate with other offices and also with international Catholic
media organizations (IM, 22).
- Another legacy of Inter Mirifica is the establishment of a
World Day of Social Communication. It is in fact the only special
day set aside for a special celebration by the Second Vatican Council.
On this day, the Council Fathers say the “faithful will be reminded of
their duties.” They are asked “to pray for the success of the Church’s
apostolate in this field and to contribute towards it” (IM, 18).
Every year a special theme is studied and considered. Since its first
celebration in 1967 the Pope issues a special annual message for the
occasion. Over the years, this has led to quite a rich and impressive
body of Pontifical teachings and reflections on different aspects of
Social Communication from different groups of recipients like youth and
family to Internet and computers.(7)
- A special emphasis is given by Inter Mirifica (15, 16) to the
need for training and formation: “Priests, religious and laity should be
trained at once” it says. For this beside others training and
learning institutions in the field of Social Communication should be
developed and there should be a special attempt to promote Media
Education (critical use of media) for consumers of modern media to be
able to “use the media properly.” From all Inter Mirifica’s
demands and proposals this one is repeated in succeeding documents over
and over again, e.g. Communio et Progressio (107, 111) and
Aetatis Novae (18, 19). Still it has not been followed and executed
enough. Whereas structures are somehow in place in most parts of the
world the aspect of systematic training and formation still needs to be
developed in a much more responsible way.
Writing on 20 years after Inter Mirifica one of the authors of
the draft, Fr. Enrico Baragli, sj, laments the lack of practical pastoral
application of the document. According to him, the texts approved by the
Council have become to quite an extent “dead letters.” He said the need
and call for proper formation is still not responded to. This results in
the inability to bring the communication dimension into all the different
pastoral activities of the Church. In Italy for example, he notes that
there are still big amounts of money invested in buildings like churches
and other institutions instead of similar investments into communication
things go better in the next 20 years after Inter Mirifica?” he
asks and hopes for the best.
Similar things could be said after 40 years of Inter Mirifica.
One has to admit, however, that the document somehow moved the importance
and need for social communication in and of the Church from a ‘marginal’
position into a greater consciousness in general. This is further
developed through additional documents like the Pastoral instructions
Communio et Progressio (1971) and Aetatis Novae (1992) and
other documents of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication e.g. on
Ecumenical and Interreligious Cooperation (1989), Pornography and Violence
(1989), Ethics in Communication (2000), Advertising (1997), Internet
(2002) and the pastoral use of the Internet (2002). It is also reflected
in Apostolic Exhortations after the different Synods of Bishops, where
there is almost always a special section on the topic in these final
In fact there is no scarcity of documents, proposals and admonitions up
to John Paul II’s last Apostolic Letter Il Rapido Sviluppo (January
24, 2005) which was devoted to social communication. It is rather the
integration and systematic development and implementation of these
proposals which is still missing. There are many single initiatives, but
only a few are joint and systematic efforts for a real integration
especially if one looks at the need to go beyond an ‘instrumental’
approach seeing the media only as instruments. But somehow these efforts
still overlook social and spiritual conditions and the real needs of the
recipients. Real communication starts with people and their cultures to
see how they perceive and deal with each other and also how such a
communication determines the positive or negative climate within and
between human societies and individuals. Any pastoral plan, which is
promoted e.g. in the Pastoral Instruction Aetatis Novae (nos.
20-33) should be based on this.
Within forty years after Inter Mirifica, a paradigm shift
can be gleaned through a section on Social Communication in the Encyclical
Letter Redemptoris Missio (1990, 37c) on Mission. Here, Pope John
Paul II not only affirms that “the means of communication have become so
important as to be for many the chief means of information and education,
of guidance and inspiration in their behavior as individuals, families and
within society at large.” He also admits that “to some degree perhaps this
‘aeropagus’ (marketplace) has been neglected.” He affirms, however, that
the media are “not meant to merely strengthen the preaching of the Gospel.
He says that “there is a deeper reality involved here: since the very
evangelization of modern culture depends to a great extent on the
influence of the media, it is not enough to use 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.” The Pope admits, that “this is a complex issue,
since the new culture originates not just from whatever content is
eventually expressed, but from the very fact that there exist new ways of
communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology.”
These considerations are often repeated in other documents in the years
There is no word any more about Inter Mirifica’s “birthright” to
own and use these media and a moral obligation but there are rather new
challenging perspectives which are based on a cultural perspective:
- The world of social communication is the first marketplace
(like the Greek “Aeropagus”) of our time. This statement is complemented
in the World Communication Day Message 2002 (No. 2) in referring to the
“Forum Romanum”, a “public space where politics and business were
transacted, where religious duties were fulfilled, where much of the
city’s social life took place, and where the best and the worst of human
nature was on display.
- It is from such a new social communication ‘culture’ where people,
especially the young, get their values and directions in life. The World
Communication Day message 2000 further sees the advent of information
society as “a real cultural revolution” (9) which forms peoples
“understanding of the meaning of life”.
- We live in a New Culture determined by the media. The Church
has neglected this, the Pope admits. “Generally, preference has been
given to other means of preaching the Gospel and of Christian education,
while the mass media are left to the initiative of individuals or small
groups and enter into pastoral planning only in a secondary way.”
(Redemptoris Missio, 37c).
- This New Culture “created by modern communications”
originates from the fact that there exist -
- New ways of communicating, with
- New languages
- New techniques, and a
- New psychology.
The consequences of this New Culture, however, have not yet been
sufficiently determined and studied under the perspective of Church today.
In his last Apostolic Letter Il Rapido Sviluppo (2005), Pope John
Paul II does not take this matter up in more detail nor gives any new
directions. The document repeats many things from the past but rightfully
underlines stronger than ever the need for a deeper communication
spirituality based on the life and example of Jesus Christ himself.
After 40 years, Inter Mirifica is still far from being fully
implemented. Despite negative feelings in the beginning and limited
expectations at the proclamation in 1963 the decree remains a more solid
base for action and structure. It demands further efforts, especially in
the fields of formation, considering the communication dimension in all
pastoral and missionary activities and as an integral part of Christian
life, proclamation and theology. The challenge of today’s New Culture
goes beyond the expectations of the Council Fathers and demands new and
deeper efforts not only to master the modern times but also to see the
challenges for a new way of being Church in a modern communication
On the history, discussion and documentation see: Enrico Baragli,sj:
L’Inter Mirifica, Introduzione, storia,discussione, commento,
documetazione. Collana Magisteruim 2. Roma 1969; Further Franz-Josef
Eilers, svd: Church and Social Communication. Basic Documents. 2nd
Edition. Manila (Logos) 1997.
cf. Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II.
Vol. 1, Pars III. Congregationes Generales XIX-XXX. Vatican 1971, pp.
ibid. p. 613.
cf. Ralph M. Wiltgen: The Rhine flows into the Tiber. A History of
Vatican II. Rockford (Tan Publishers) 1985. pp.130-136.
cf. Enrico Baragli,sj: L ‚Inter Mirifica’ vent’ anni dopo. In:
Ecclesia Mater Roma. Vol. XXI, No.1 1983 pp.51-55; Helmuth Rolfes:
Gibt es eine kirchenamtliche Lehre der Sozialen Kommunikation? Ein
Rueckblick 40 Jahre nach „Inter Mirifica’. In: Communicatio Socialis
(Mainz)Vol. 37, 2004 p.219-244.
cf. Franz-Josef Eilers: Social Communication: The Development of a
Concept. Appendix A In: Franz-Josef Eilers: Communicating in
Community. An Introduction to Social Communication. 3rd Edition Manila
(Logos) 2002. pp 311- 318).
All messages for World Communication Day since 1967 are documented in
Franz-Josef Eilers, svd: Church and Social Communication. Basic
Documents. 2nd Ed. Manila (Logos) 1997 and in the respective Supplement
under the same Title 2002.
L’Inter Mirifica vent anni dopo ..ibid. p.54.
Eilers 2002 (Supplement 1), p. 80.
13 -7- 2005