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Beyond censorship

· The Holy See and new communication technologies ·

Throughout history, the Church’s relationship with new communication technologies, which from time to time appear on the social scene, has always been characterized by a sort of dual pedagogy: an attitude of bold encouragement followed by a parallel, prudent but strong appeal to pastoral goals along with a stern warning about the improper use of such tools. Although the Pontificate of Pius XII followed this line in certain aspects, it also brought substantial innovations.

A wide series of studies have shown that Pacelli was the Pope who, thanks to the instruments of communication, was able to inaugurate a new relationship between the Petrine Ministry and the masses. He was the radio Pope (the practice of broadcasting talks by radio, begun by Pius XI, became the tried-and-true model of magisterial dissemination under Pius XII). He was the “cinema Pope” (as L’Osservatore Romano predicted in the days of his election to the papal throne). Lastly, he was the first television Pope (or the first to be “God’s wayfarer on the airwaves”, the title effectively given him by Il Messaggero on the occasion of the Holy Year of 1950).

The media became established on the global social scene in the years of Pius XII’s Pontificate. His undeniable openness to the media was underpinned by precise doctrinal foundations and was grounded on the key objective of his ministry to “connect Church doctrine to all aspects of contemporary society” with the aim of founding a “new Christian society”. It was no coincidence that with this Pope the Holy See in 1948 inaugurated the first official institutional expression dedicated to the new forms of media: the Pontifical Commission for Educational and Religious Motion Pictures, which in 1954 became the Pontifical Commission for Motion Pictures, Radio and Television. In this context, Pope Pacelli’s practical use of, and the corpus of his magisterial production dedicated to the instruments of communication, very clearly demonstrate the combination of a prudent approach and the wish for a more appropriate use.

If previously, with Pope Pius XI’s inauguration of Vatican Radio on 12 February 1931, the radio began to be used to spread the Gospel, it was developed even further by Pope Pacelli, who, in June 1939, disposed that a blessing imparted over the radio could benefit listeners with the Plenary Indulgence. Then, beginning in 1940, he approved the regular radio broadcast of the celebration of Mass. Radio communication was to become for Pius XII the privileged means for the worldwide dissemination of his social and political Magisterium in the great turmoil of the Second World War and of the Cold War. It was with the great Easter and Christmas Radio Messages during the War that Pope Pacelli invoked the return of God’s governance in society. In the post-war period it was also with the important Radio Message of 24 December 1948 that the Pope manifested his opposition to communism and did not exclude the hypothesis of Italy’s participation in a military alliance. Also at the end of the 1940s Pius XII sanctioned radio’s newly acquired status for the Pontifical Magisterium, affirming over the microphone of a French radio programme that this medium had become an exceptional resource: “The world, through this wonderful means, will see the crowds overflowing from the St Peter’s immense Square in order to receive the Pope’s blessing, to hear his words”.

Pacelli’s Church would not miss the occasion to also take on television. The Holy See’s pioneering interest in the practical use of the new medium is well known. Indeed a high point was recorded on the occasion of the Jubilee of 1950 — a good four years before the beginning of regular television service in Italy — when the French Government donated to the Pontiff a television station to broadcast in the area of Rome and the Vatican. The structure was realized by the Dominican Fr Raymond Pichard: a first experiment, an insight which only in subsequent decades would find a real opportunity to develop. Indeed, Pius XII maintained an ambivalent attitude to television: in the Apostolic Exhortation I Rapidi Progressi given on the occasion of the initiation of broadcasting by RAI (Italy’s State owned TV broadcasting company), he emphasized that if “well regulated”, the audiovisual medium could “constitute an effective means of wise Christian education”. However, according to the Pope it was important not to underestimate the hidden dangers of television: “the more serious the dangers, the greater” was “the suggestive potential of this instrument and the wider and more indiscriminate” was the public to whom it was addressed. But the evolution of Pius XII’s guidelines regarding the mass media is probably best clarified through his attention to the medium of motion pictures. It should not be forgotten that in the 1930s, in his role as Secretary of State, he had previously played a pivotal role in the drafting of two texts that would characterize his Predecessor’s Magisterium with regard to filmmaking, the ‘seventh art’. It was a Magisterium which adopted a predominantly defensive attitude. In 1934 Pope Pacelli wrote to Canon Brohée, President of the International Catholic Organization for Cinema, the Letter that would come to be considered the Magna Carta of Catholic participation in the realm of filmmaking. It was also the future Pontiff who managed the process of revising the 1936 Encyclical Vigilanti Cura, which specifically addressed the delicate relations with the American episcopate. During the 19 years of his Pontificate, Pius XII would return on various occasions to the subject of cinema, both in speeches (eight between 1941 and 1949), and in Encyclical Letters, such as the Letter Sacra Virginitas of 1954 and the Letter Miranda Prorsus of 1957. However, it was through the Exhortations on The Ideal Film (1955) that he made clear that, in the heart of the Church, there was a growing need for dialogue and openness with regard to the vehicle of the cinema.

Dario Edoardo Viganò




St. Peter’s Square

April 22, 2019