Catholicism and the Media

If you wanted to influence the personal ideals of future Americans, would you rather have the power to name the next President, the Chairman of General Motors, or the producer of a prime-time TV program? It’s not a particularly easy question to answer, I think, and one’s response might well vary with the particular ideals one wished to further. But my point in suggesting the last answer is simply that the media (and TV in particular) can have an enormous impact on our lives by the way they form our popular culture.

Americans watch an incredible amount of TV (it is on 6-8 hours a day in most households, according to. some authorities), read a lot of magazines, see quite a few movies. Exactly what the effect of this media-viewing is cannot be known for certain, but there is some empirical research which suggests that its impact can be significant. More importantly, perhaps, a sensible understanding of human nature helps to make it clear why this is inevitable.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Their virtues and vices, their “routine” behavior in daily life, are habits, rooted in the fact that human beings find actions easier when they have been repeated many times. This applies to physical motions (as in sports) and acts which are both physical and moral — i.e., involve the body and the will — as for example the simple act of getting up in the morning at a particular time. It also applies to our intellectual world.

If a person regularly and consistently looks at reality from a particular perspective, a habit of viewing reality that way can be created. That is why Catholics, feminists, and others have been right to see in pornography not just particular discrete acts of disregard for women, but a source of habitual attitudes of disrespect.

But these habits of viewing reality include not just what is seen but also what is not seen. If people look at life selectively, sensitive to some things and insensitive to others, their awareness of the latter will tend to fade. What other people bring to our attention (or fail to) affects this too. A championship-caliber team in a city excites more notice and news reporting and conversation, and people will be much more constantly aware of it than a lesser team, as Milwaukee experienced powerfully last baseball season. (The Cubs are merely the exception that proves the rule).

If much of the daily “world” of Americans is the world they live in vicariously through TV viewing or movie-going or reading newspapers and periodicals, then what is in that world — and what is not — is bound to affect them. The influence of the media is not all-powerful, because there are other worlds we live in, but it is likely to be substantial. The question I want to ask is about the effect of the media on American Catholics.

 I am not thinking so much of TV and periodical news reporting, with its portrayals of different “factions” (“bold and innovative” or “old-fashioned” and “archaic”) within the Church — although that is not a minor issue. What I have in mind at the moment is especially the effect of prime- time entertainment shows (situation comedies, adventure shows, etc.)

Religion in the Entertainment Media

What is the “world” of prime-time TV, and what is the place of religious ideals in that world? It is fairly clear, I think, that if you asked most prime-time TV characters what is the greatest goal of their lives, it would not be to love God with their whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves for His sake. The “higher-toned” characters of TV-land would probably be men and women whose outstanding qualities are kindness, compassion, honesty, tolerance, and other democratic and humanitarian values. The general tone, however, includes healthy doses of frank, good-natured hedonism, and (on net) people are pretty superficial.

A fascinating study of the world of TV can be found in Ben Stein’s The View from Sunset Boulevard (Basic Books, 1979), which is based on interviews with many of prime-time TV’s moving forces conducted during a year of work in Hollywood. Stein’s examination of TV showed him that “in the midst of the most inane and repetitious television shows, comedy and adventure, and even soap operas, there was a spate of political and social messages …”, which appeared in attitudes toward police, businessmen, poor people, rebellion, etc. The findings in general are fascinating, but the one of particular interest for the moment concerns religion:

…religion is mostly an irrelevancy, thrown in to move the plot along and with no importance one way or another … I cannot remember any recent episode in which a character was moved by religious feelings to do or not do any important act. In short, religion is something about which little interest is shown on prime-time television.

When religion does appear, Stein might have added, it is as likely to do so in the form of a fanatic or “nut” as in more conventional forms. The “best” presentation of religion, for the most part, is when occasionally it stimulates people to do good for their neighbors, providing an alternate motive to the typical vague and indeterminate humanitarianism of TV’s higher types.

Is it possible to use the media effectively to represent or depict people who are trying to love God for His own goodness, to worship Him, to bring Him to others — in short those who try to live the First Commandment as well as the second table of the Decalogue (and the latter unamended)? I have seen some instances of it, for example a PBS show on Fr. Damien the Leper a few years ago. I don’t know whether a regular series could do it well. Hitting the mean between secularism and religiosity would not necessarily be an easy thing and the felt need to steer clear of denominational differences in a pluralist, society would exert pressure to be vaguer and less determinate about the intellectual content of people’s faith. Still, whatever the difficulties, it would be interesting to see what might result from a good stab at it.

Insofar as the lighter “entertainment” part of the media world is concerned, there might be a problem if religion is not all that entertaining. Religion is, after all, a serious business and a difficult one in some ways, dealing with spiritual realities not susceptible to sense experience for the most part. If the media aim to entertain, and if religion does not entertain — and if the audience which the media serve finds other things more entertaining — then it is not likely that religion will have much of a niche in that narrow but influential world. (One problem in a free and free enterprise society is that people are freed to pursue their lower as well as their more exalted inclinations, and free enterprise can be all too effective in serving the former.)

Media and Morality

Foregoing for the moment questions about portraying personal relationships with God, what about the moral content of TV programming or movies? Could the moral values implicit — and sometimes explicit — in prime-time TV and movies be brought closer to Catholic ideals? I don’t think there can be any doubt that they could. The media are very sensitive to what is novel, and therefore “fresher” and more “interesting” than “old”, traditional, “tired-out” themes or ideas. If public opinion sets some (meager) limits to this, the tendency is still there. The media often went to bat for the rights of blacks after the civil rights revolution had begun — where are the movies and TV programs portraying abortion for what it is: the cold-blooded, very profitable, heavily rationalized “termination” of a very young human life to suit the preferences of other human beings? Much more likely to appear on screens is a show manipulating compassion to justify crimes such as euthanasia, or sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality. And sex in general… If a Martian landed on earth tomorrow, and used media presentations of sex as a basis for his (or her) (or its) judgment, would he (or she) (or it) perceive that sex was significantly related to marriage, much less children?

But, then, it is not surprising that the content of the media be so, given the personal values of those responsible for running it. Another great source on this question, apart from Stein, is a series of studies by Rothman, Lichter, and Lichter in Public Opinion magazine. One article, “Hollywood and America: The Odd Couple” (in the December/January 1983 issue), was based on interviews with “the cream of television’s creative community” — 104 producers, writers, network vice-presidents for program development and selection, etc. The findings were striking. For example, their religious backgrounds: Jewish-59%, Protestant-25%, and Catholic-12%. Their present status: Jewish-38%, Protestant-12% and Catholic-5%. Forty-four percent have no religion; ninety-three percent seldom or never attend religious services.

This utter lack of religious ideals among so many of the media elite helps to explain an almost amusing incongruity on one recent TV show. Two nights before the Academy Awards, a show called “Your Choice for the Awards” appeared on national TV, with clips from different movies. The word “ass” was delicately bleeped out of several scenes (e.g., a Paul Newman shouting match with the judge in The Verdict), while it apparently never occurred to anyone to bleep out Sidney Lumet’s “Jesus Christ” used as an expletive in a scene from Tootsie.

And when it comes to the views of morality among the media elite, the results were predictable, except perhaps in the magnitude of the one-sidedness. For example, the responses to several questions were as follows:

                                                                       Strongly                                         Strongly

                                                                        Agree           Agree    Disagree  Disagree

Woman’s right to abortion                           91%          6%          1%          2%

Homosexual relations are wrong 5%          15%       31%       49%

Adultery is wrong                                         16%         33%       32%       19%

When you can’t even get a simple majority to say that adultery is wrong, one can only wonder at the extent of the corruption…

Possible Roots

What are the causes of all this? Why is it that the media are dominated by those whose ideals are so often antithetical to those of Catholics? I do not pretend to have any clear answer, but I can suggest a few reasons that may explain a bit. There may be some conscious discrimination by individuals against those with more traditional ideas of religion and morality, as one will find discrimination in any personal selection process where somebody doing the choosing has strongly held ideas about matters he considers important and finds that an applicant has diametrically opposed ideas. I don’t think this explains much, however, partly because religious and moral issues will not always arise in these selection processes, and the commitment of the media elite to personal autonomy is genuine enough that some will tolerate almost any exercise of it, even in “traditional” directions.

There may be more unconscious discrimination, as I think is even more typical of much personal selection generally. Those who uphold traditional ideas may disproportionately often have ideas or attitudes or even personalities such that they do not “click” with those who most influence the selection of people for media positions.

There is no direct or deliberate discrimination, but there may be subtle and indirect and unintentional forms. While this strikes me as a more plausible explanation, I find limits to it too in my observations of young people, especially students, who are entering media fields. At this point — that is, before “discrimination” (intended or not) can have much of an impact — my experience suggests that they are already more likely to have views hostile to much of the Church’s teaching.

What this suggests to me is that self-selection and education may be factors. There may be something about the media business — at least the American media in these times — which makes it tend to attract people who are disproportionately less likely to have Catholic ideas and ideals. For example, media work requires the ability to portray reality well — all kinds of reality, but perhaps especially what is most perceptible. The focus tends to be less on judging that reality than on understanding it and representing it effectively — a pseudo-objectivity. But such a job could breed an ideology of its own — taking everything on its own terms and exalting the freedom of all to follow their own inclinations. (I have listened to one talk show hostess who, I am sure, could dispassionately, even sympathetically, interview a cannibal about to boil and eat her). Thus, religion may suffer insofar as it is “intolerant”, in its objective moral norms, including norms which can appear to some to be very un-compassionate.

If there is any aspect of media work that encourages those without a Catholic outlook on life to self-select into it, then the self-selection is likely to be reinforced by the part of the educational establishment closest to that work (e.g., schools of theater, art, journalism, etc.). Media values may help to inform the education of future practitioners of those arts, as, for example, the ideology of almost unlimited free speech seems to dominate journalism schools, often merging with the positivistic relativism at the root of such philosophical positions (e.g., John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty).

But plumbing the mysterious depths of self-selection — including the extraordinarily complex personal decision as to what to do as one’s work, the infinitely varied aspects of given jobs, and the factors affecting how different forms of work are perceived — is no easy task, and one should be reluctant to rest an explanation too much on an attempt at such analysis. And there may be at hand an explanation much simpler, if not complete. Not just media education, but education generally is correlated with lower levels of religious belief and practice in the U.S. Gallup poll questions contained in a Princeton Religion Research Center book on Religion in America (1982) indicate that the more education one has, the less likely one is to have strong religious beliefs and practices. For example, people with less formal education are more likely to consider religion important in their lives (p.112), to have a religious preference (p.25), to read the Bible (p.105), to pray (p.114), and to believe in the divinity of Christ (p.122) and the divine inspiration of the bible (p.174). It is only a tendency, of course, but it is a definite one. Much of the media elite’s attitudes toward religion may simply reflect its higher average educational achievement (the Public Opinion article cited above notes that 90% had some college, 75% had college degrees, and 31% had some graduate training). (Nor would education at a Catholic University necessarily alter this tendency — some of the religion editors of major media who are most hostile to the Catholic Church are graduates of Catholic colleges.)

And finally, this point about education may point beyond itself to a yet broader underlying problem: the modern world of the intellect generally tends to be hostile to traditional religion and morality. Not just the media elite, but modern intellectuals in general tend to be moved by ideas different from and often at odds with Catholicism (more so than those who are less educated and less intellectual). Why this is so, and what to do about it are two of the most important questions facing Catholics as they approach the start of the Church’s third millennium. No greater field for evangelization and apostolate exists today than the intellectual world and, within that, the media.

One Step

Having barely raised the question I would make one point about part of the solution. Bright young Catholics who will be entering different fields of intellectual work must see the necessity of, to borrow from the title of an Etienne Gilson essay, putting their “intelligence in the service of Christ the King”. Gilson anticipated by some years Vatican II’s discussion of the laity’s sharing in the royal power of Christ. The laity, said the council in Lumen Gentium (No. 36), have a principal role in the ordering of the whole of creation to God, by means of their competent secular activity, impregnating culture and human work with Christian ideals.

While some Catholics in media work will get involved in specifically “Catholic” activities, the vast majority, I think, will — and should — be ordinary people who work extraordinarily hard and well on the same secular projects as others they work with. They will bring their spiritual ideals to bear on their work without necessarily trumpeting them publicly (though they may very well have to speak up at times). Their personal prestige — based on secular competence — and their friendships with their colleagues may be a more silent but more effective means of influencing the world in which they work. Perhaps one reason for the state of the media — and many other institutions — today is that there have not been enough Catholics who see the supernatural and apostolic dimensions of ordinary work and the need to achieve human excellence as one condition for greater supernatural apostolic efficacy.

 Intelligent young Catholics must be encouraged to enter media work, and to stand out in their work as much by their secular competence as by their spiritual ideals. This will not necessarily guarantee short-term success (nothing does), but it will not be without its effect, both now and in the long-run. The world and America need people who will pursue “social justice” not just in material goods but in ideas and culture — not just in Appalachia and Bangladesh, but in those other centers of poverty, such as Hollywood.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...