Give Us Back Our Words, Please

The debate over the impact of the media on the minds and hearts of adults and children has raged since the onset of radio and television and never more pointedly than in the two decades since the explosion of the Internet.  During that time we have argued over explicit song lyrics, ratings systems for movies and television, the sub-text of commercials and even the availability of and free speech arguments for pornography online.

Modern Iconoclasts Hard at Work

What is less obvious, and sometimes more insidious, is the subtle twisting of the words that are ordinarily used to define and defend the most important aspects of our faith.  Simply put, pop bands and pornographers are not necessarily the liars, they don’t hide their identities.  But the omnipresent words and images that drench the American landscape through advertisements and press releases are subtley distorting the meaning of words traditionally in the comfortable possession of popes, patriarchs, priests and deacons.

Just try conducting a web search of the following: the second coming, true religion, seven deadly sins, incarnate, heaven and resurrection.  Would it surprise you to know that these words are used to describe everything from clothing and food to cars and games?  Though their etymology is long and varied, the modern distortion of these words makes it all that much more difficult for the Church to catechize the young and old alike.

The Sacred Canopy

On page 48 of his book, Why Religion Matters, the late Huston Smith offers one explanation for the problem:

Today we do not live under a sacred canopy; it is marketing that forms the backdrop of our culture. The message that advertising dins into our conscious and unconscious minds is that fulfillment derives from the things we possess. Because this is not true, the message serves us badly, so we need to be aware of the worldview that sponsors it.

By and large this quotation speaks for itself, but I do want you to take note of an important item within it.  Dr. Smith uses the phrase sacred canopy, which evokes for us an image of the tabernacle. Think about that.  Envision the tabernacle.  It provides protection for what is sacred and holy.  The Church, in general, does this for us too.  It provides the sacred canopy that shelters us by defining and protecting what is true, good and beautiful.

The marketing backdrop, on the other hand, cannot, by design, provide long-lasting structure and true meaning.  So why should it surprise us that in the most recent surveys Americans seem to be growing ever more lax in their faith?

Responsibility Goes Both Ways

During the Second Vatican Council there emerged a minimally-publicized document.  Inter Mirifica, The Decree on the Media of Social Communications, set a course for how the Catholic Church would view, use and challenge the media.  It starts by recognizing the benefit of the media as early as paragraph two:

The Church recognizes that these media, if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God.

But that same paragraph continues with the recognition of a problem that has been visible in every living room in America since the 1950s.  “The Church recognizes, too, that men can employ these media contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss.”

So, the Church called on the laity “…to instill a human and Christian spirit into these media, so that they may fully measure up to the great expectations of mankind and to God’s design” (§2).  In other words, the Church was asking those who work in advertising and public relations to take upon themselves the responsibility of being the guide for what is acceptable when it comes to the words and images that are used to promote companies, products, services and ideas.  At the same time, though, the Church did not abdicate the viewer, listener or reader from his responsibility of turning off the radio, television and Internet or putting down the newspaper, magazine and book.

Paragraphs 10 and 11 in Inter Mirifca bear out the idea that responsibility works both ways.  “Those who make use of the media of communications, especially the young, should take steps to accustom themselves to moderation and self-control in their regard…”  And, “The principle moral responsibility for the proper use of the media of social communication falls on newsmen, writers, actors, designers, producers, displayers, distributors, operators and sellers, as well as critics and all others who play any part in the production and transmission of mass presentations.  It is quite evident what gravely important responsibilities they have in the present day when they are in a position to lead the human race to good or to evil by informing or arousing mankind.”

 Evangelizing the Communicators

These and other documents — particularly the 1997 Ethics in Advertising — showed how media abuses became realities and not hypothetical possibilities.  And now, today, we are faced with a tough dilemma: with so many people struggling to understand the faith, how do we catechize them and, at the same time, change the culture of anti-religious and anti-Eucharistic advertising and public relations?

While we should keep sending e-mails and making phone calls to companies when their product advertising offends us, we should also talk to local news outlets when their stories contain obviously biased material.  More than that, the time has come to evangelize those who work in the fields of marketing, advertising and public relations.  In the absence of knowing who to call inside an advertising agency, I suggest you start by seeking out those professionals already in your parishes.  Encourage them to have strength in the workplace.  We want them to know the Church supports them when they are being productive and creative but remind them that they too have a responsibility when it comes to the building up of the Body of Christ.  After all, that is exactly what Pope Benedict XVI wrote on the occasion of the 42nd World Communications Day in 2008: the task of “seeking and presenting the truth about humanity constitutes the highest vocation of social communication” (§5).

The bottom line is that words and their definitions matter, and for too long the faithful have watched as advertising and public relations professionals twist and torture ours.  If the words we use in faith became any more muddled among the masses we will find it increasingly difficult to evangelize the unchurched and catechize, inspire or incite action among the faithful.

Thomas Colyandro is a professor for Catholic Distance University and the author of two books, including: The Judas Syndrome: Seven Ancient Heresies Return to Betray Christ Anew. He is completing a certificate from the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge University, and already holds masters’ degrees in divinity and theology from the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Texas, a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and a certificate from the Harvard-MIT Public Disputes Program.

Filed under: » »