September 15, 2008


Do you know what the Catholic Church's position is on abortion? Helping the poor? You probably do. How about the Catholic Church's "official" position on the media? (By media we're referring to the whole enchilada: media content, technology and culture.) Not so sure? You're not alone. Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church has been trumpeting (at least in her documents since the mid-twentieth century) that the media are gifts of God. Any gift of God can be abused, but that doesn't make it any less a gift. More recently, the Church has declared that Catholics must be an "active, listening" presence in today's world which is created in part by the media. When you think about it, isn't that what the Church is called to be in the world in general? "Active"—we're "in the world, not of it," helping our fellow human beings, creating a "civilization of love." "Listening"—we care deeply about the struggles of our contemporaries, their sorrows and joys. We strive to listen to the heart of humanity.


So, what do we call this "official" position of the Church toward the media? "Media Literacy." The Church began wholeheartedly adopting the language of Media Literacy in the 1992 document: "Dawn of a New Era." Then, in 2003, just two months before he died, Pope John Paul the Great signed off on "Rapid Development," a small document on the "new media." New media refers to the recent explosion of new media technologies and applications: internet, wireless capabilities, digital technology, cell phones, social networking internet sites like Facebook, mp3 players, texting, computer games, instant messaging, etc. John Paul II repeats over and over in the document: Do not be afraid of the new technologies! Do not be afraid to use the new media! Put out into the deep! (And JP2G also gave us the example—he wasn't exactly a scaredy-cat when it came to media.) Not being afraid of media is a big part of Media Literacy. How can we be "literate" in something we're apprehensive of? (Both Vatican documents are available at


The "National Directory for Catechesis" from the U.S. Bishops (what every catechist has under their pillow when they go to sleep at night) is full of Media Literacy. Here are some powerful Media Literacy quotes from the NDC:


"Especially in the U.S., 'the very evangelization of modern culture depends to a great extent on the influence of the media.' In fact, the mass media are so influential that they have a culture all their own, which has its own language, customs, and values."


"If the Gospel message is going to make sense to the next generation of Catholics…catechesis needs to find more sophisticated ways to employ these new technologies."


"Reality, for many, is what the media recognizes as real; what the media do not acknowledge seems of little importance."


"Communications media themselves are suitable subject matter for catechesis."

"The Church's mission requires her to be 'in the very midst of human progress, sharing the experiences of the rest of humanity, seeking to understand them and interpret them in the light of faith.'"


"Those to whom the Gospel message is addressed today, both young and old, are, in a sense, children of the media."


"The anonymity and lack of accountability in cyberspace requires a more sophisticated level of MEDIA LITERACY that has ever been needed in the past."


So, as you can see, the Church is asking something new of us.


What's the history of the Media Literacy movement? Although Media Literacy is not a religious movement, Catholics have been involved from the beginning because we care deeply about communications and culture. Canadian (and convert to Catholicism) Marshall McLuhan, a brilliant scholar and professor, wrote extensively about how media was profoundly changing the way we live and relate to one another. He was famous for his dictum: "The medium IS the message." Fr. Walter Ong, SJ, was also an early ML pioneer. Canada has been teaching ML in its schools at all grade levels for many years now, and the United States is catching on. Pittsburgh is the first diocese in the U.S. to mandate ML in its Catholic schools.


The best way to define ML might simply be: to question media. (A comprehensive definition can be found at We don't want to be cynical with regard to media, but we want to understand as fully as we can what our fellow human beings are trying to communicate to us and why. In this stance of inquiry, our relationship to the media is such that WE are in charge. WE have the power. WE are asking the questions. Teach young people to ask questions of the media, and instantly, they, too, are in charge. ML does not avoid media, but engages in dialogue with media.


There are five basic approaches we can take to media in life: 1) stay away  2) look mostly for the bad  3) MEDIA LITERACY: think critically, participate actively  4) look mostly for the good  5) couch-PC-console potato. Which do you think is most helpful for navigating the media culture we're all living in?


Media Literacy also wants us to develop four media skills: 1) access media (use it!)  2) analyze media  3) evaluate media  4) act (anything from giving feedback to creating media ourselves). As an example of skill #4, check out Chicago seminarian, Andy Kirchoff's blog:  Andy plays and critiques video games from a Catholic perspective.


The Five Core Concepts of Media Literacy are also turned into questions to make them easier to use. They can be used with any media.

  1. All media are CONSTRUCTED. Even the most "objective"-looking media (like a news report or documentary film) have been constructed and filtered through someone. Certain things were included, certain things were excluded. Question: How was this media constructed?
  2. Every media uses its own media LANGUAGE. Novels, plays, TV sitcoms, science fiction movies, oil paintings, comic books—all have their own unique language, rules, conventions. Question: What techniques were used to get my attention?
  3. Different people EXPERIENCE media differently. The easiest illustration of this concept would be a particular style of music. People will have completely opposite experiences of the same style of music. Question: How might different people experience this media?
  4. All media have embedded values and POINTS OF VIEW. There is no such thing as "values free" media. To even try to create "values free" media would itself be a value. Question: What points of view are presented/not presented in this media?
  5. All media messages are constructed for PROFIT and/or POWER. Profit and power are neutral. It's what we do with them. Power is acquired through media mostly by getting media users to agree with an ideology. Question: Who created this message and why? Who pains, who gains?


A new movement called "Media Mindfulness" seeks to bring the faith component to Media Literacy. A new book for use with pre-teens, teens and adults called "Media Mindfulness" is available from St. Mary's Press: Media Mindfulness adds two more questions:


  1. What CHRISTIAN VALUES does this media support or not?
  2. In light of my Christian beliefs, what will my RESPONSE be?


Still feel conflicted about media? Think of it this way. "Everything works together for the good of those who love God." That includes media! Make media work for you with the "3 D's."

DISCIPLESHIP—If we are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we want to honor, glorify and imitate Him in everything we do, yes? But the same way we don't ignore non-Christians, we don't ignore media that doesn't represent Jesus' way of life.

DISCERNMENT—God has given us so many tools for discernment, not just for making good choices in our lives, but also for discerning media: philosophy, theology, our minds, wills, hearts, consciences, imaginations, the Bible, the Church, mentors, etc. The more we know about our Catholic Faith (and also how media works), the better we will be able to discern our media experiences.

DISCIPLINE—Self-discipline, self-mastery. We need to be constantly asking ourselves: How is this particular media influencing my relationship with God, myself, my family, others, my enemies, Creation? Adjust accordingly.


In addition to Discipleship, Discernment and Discipline, we need to pray about and with media in order to stay strong in our own convictions in a pluralistic media world.


Media Literacy and Media Mindfulness is a lifelong journey because we are constantly having new media experiences and growing in our faith. There is too much at stake for us not to be media literate in today's media culture. As the National Directory for Catechesis states it: "For many people, experience itself is an experience of the media." And as the Center for Media Literacy puts it:

"Media: love it or hate it, it's not going away." 









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