The Social Function of the Press

The Social Function of the Press 1

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

In the "Foreword" to WHTT (pp. ix-x) Murray claimed that any attempt to judge the church by criteria developed in the secular order would be "impertinent," for the Catholic "knows that the principles of Catholic faith and morality stand superior to, and in control of, the whole order of civil life." He therefore hesitated to import the ethical requirements for moral living, as developed by the Anglo-American tradition, into the internal life of the church. With the conciliar discussion of religious freedom well under way, however, he attempted, in the following address, an "analogous" application of democratic theory to the church. The stumbling block for such an analogy was, of course, a democratic people's right to "judge, direct, and correct" its government. No parallel right could be claimed for the faithful vis-a-vis the magisterium. Murray therefore shifts the grounding for free speech in the church to a right to correct information (at face value a rather passive right). Since the church is bound together by the meanings that its members share in common, church authorities acquire an obligation to encourage communication within the church. However, Murray had difficulty identifying who are to challenge abuses of that authority, and by what right or even obligation they might do so—Editor.

I fear that I am standing here this morning on rather narrow and shaky footing.

I spent only one year of my life as a journalist, between 1945 and 1946, at the Jesuit weekly America. Apparently I was not a great success, because after one year, I was sent back to Woodstock as Professor of Theology where I have been ever since.

Gentlemen, you are approaching here a very difficult subject, when you undertake to discuss the function of the Catholic press within the Catholic Church, to discuss the service that the Catholic press is to render to the Church and to her members, to discuss the function that the Catholic press must play as the source of radiation of truth throughout the world. I suppose the basic difficulty arises from the fact that the Church is a unique society, a society sui generis. The Church is somewhat like and totally different from civil society. The Church has her own unique origin, her own unique purposes. She has her own structure of institutions, of government. She has her own order of law. There obtains within the Church a relationship between those who rule and those who are ruled, those who teach and those who are taught. And this relationship is somewhat like and totally different from the political relationship in the civil community. There obtains within the members of the Church a bond of union which again is somewhat like and totally different from the bonds of union that bid together civil society.

Nonetheless, I thought it might be useful to begin our discussion with a word or two about the political analogue, I mean the function of the free press as an institution of public information within civil society.

A. Information and Civil Society

Today, as we all know, in every well-ordered, democratic society, political censorship of information and opinion is considered to be not only impossible but also imprudent and indeed unrightful. It is a violation of an objective right of the people. The reason is, that in every well-ordered society today, public information is a social necessity.

The premiss, the true premiss of the institutions of free speech and of free press is not of course that frightfully thin piece of rationalist ideology that was current at the beginning of the 19th century, namely, that a man has the right to say what he thinks, simply because he thinks it. This is about as silly a piece of nonsense as was ever foisted on the world. No, the premiss of the institution of free speech and free press is not an individualistic premiss, but a political and social premiss. These institutions are essential to the conduct of free, responsible and democratic representative government. These institutions find more particularly their bases in our true political tradition, the body of principles that are integral to the liberal traditions of the West. The true liberal tradition of the West which is a compound, as you know, of Greek, Roman and Germanic elements.

The first principle is that of the consent of the governed. The medieval principle held that the medieval monarch, unlike the absolute monarch of later times, was obliged to obtain the consent of his people to his legislation, very likely in those days, of course, financial legislation, fiscal legislation. And if this legislation was not just, the people possessed the right of resistance. This was the great Germanic contribution to the liberal tradition.

The second principle is that of the participation of the people in the processes of government. This too is an ancient principle as a principle, but only in modern times has it been so institutionalized as to be active or dynamic within society.

These two principles have been wedded together with the result that today in every well- ordered society the people are indeed governed, but they are governed because they consent to be governed and they consent to be governed because they govern themselves.

From these two principles there flows the fundamental right of the people in every well- ordered contemporary society. It is the right to judge, correct and direct the processes of government. I am using, you see, the medieval words: Judicare, corrigere, dirigere. This right is inherent in the people as a people, as a body organized for action in history. And this right becomes a personal right through one's membership in the body politic. From this right there flows the social and political necessity of means of information of the people.

First, the people must be informed, need to be informed about public affairs, about what we usually call affairs of state. They need to be informed precisely in order that they may judge, correct and direct the actions of government.

The free press therefore is the vehicle, as it were, of a dialogue between the people and the government. It is the channel through which the government seeks the consent of the people and through which the people themselves give this consent.

Secondly, the people need to be informed and must be informed about the larger affairs of society, making the distinction—the classic distinction—between society and state. Therefore the free press is the instrument of a dialogue among the people themselves. The English Dominican Father Gilby said once that civilization is formed by men who are locked together in dialogue, in conversation. It is from this argument, this public argument that continually goes on, that the people become a political community in the strict sense. There is such a thing as the simple multitude and then there is the civil multitude. The multitude is civilized, made civil precisely by the fact that throughout the whole social body there is continually taking place this conversation among the people, this conversation between government and the people. This is the means for the integration of the people as the people, is the means toward the formation of a common mind and a common purpose in history.

What is the principle of limitation of public information in a well-ordered society today? The principle is simply the people's need to know. And the need to know of a free people, in a free and open society, is in principle unlimited. Indeed, this is why, of course, a political censorship is regarded, as I have said, as imprudent and also unrightful, a violation of right.

Repression of information may indeed be justified at times by grave reasons of state, such things as military security. But in the end, it is for the people to judge with regard to their need to know. It is not for government arbitrarily to decide what the people need to know and what they need not be told. This, I take it, is the contemporary theory. This, I also take it, is a sound theory. But you can see immediately the difficulty of applying it to public information, to the Catholic press within the Church.

B. Information and Church

The Church is not democratically organized. I do not need to delay upon this point, do I? This is a fundamental thing that we all are entirely familiar with. Within the church there exists among the people no right to judge, correct and direct the actions or the teaching of authority. Nonetheless, despite this fact, between civil society and the Church there exists this analogy, They are somewhat alike and totally different. There are points of resemblance and it might be useful to point them out.

In the first place, within the Church, as within civil society, public information is a social necessity. The press performs a social function and this function is indispensable. Is it necessary to linger on this? I hope not. The Catholic free press within the Church is not some sort of luxury that is really to be frowned on. It is not a nuisance that has to be tolerated. The quest of information by the professionals of the press, by you gentlemen and ladies, this quest is not a matter of idle curiosity and your publication of information that you collect is not pandering to curiosity. It is not a regrettable sort of indiscretion that we would rather like to stop but dare not. No, no. The Church for all her differences as over against civil society remains a society. And the societal character of the Church creates a public right to information about all that concerns the Church: about her teaching, about her discipline and law, about her policies, to call them that; that is to say, about the total action of the Church in history, in this present moment of history. What is the Church doing here and now today? The people of God need to know all this. The subject of this right to know is, first of all, the people as a people. And this right derives to you and me through our membership in the people of God.

Secondly, if the function of public information in the Church is a social necessity, then the discharge of this function must be free. This public information is a response to a public need. The need is basic, essential to the Church; and the need can not be satisfied apart from the full validity of the principle of freedom. There ought to be no arbitrary limitations imposed upon the dissemination of public information within the Church.

The Catholic press, I take it, is not the organ of some class within the Church. It does not exist to further certain interests of the Church merely, especially if these interests be conceived in some narrow and rather sectarian sense. The Catholic press does not exist to glorify the clergy. The Catholic press does not exist in order to create a public image of the Church that will be untrue to the reality of the pilgrim Church, the wayfaring Church, The Church that trudges along the road of history and gets her feet dusty at times, the Church that has hands by which she takes hold of dirty stuff of history...because history is rather dirty stuff! (You remember what Péguy said about Kantianism: Kantianism has clean hands, because Kantianism has no hands.) If the Church is going to guide the course of history as indeed she must, sometimes the hands of the Church—of churchmen, perhaps I should say— get dirty. And therefore this public image of the Church must be the true image, the image of the pilgrim Church, the wayfaring Church, that we have discussed in this session of Vatican II. The Catholic press can be nothing but the vehicle of truth and of fact. Freedom therefore is the indispensable condition for the fulfillment of the social function of the Catholic press within the Church and for the Church. The freedom of the press to inform is nothing really but the other side of the rights of the people to be informed. And therefore, through these rights of the people to the freedom of the press knows only one limitation, and that is the people's need to know. And I think within the Church, as within civil society, the need of the people to know is in principle unlimited.

Now we must leave the realm of general theory—in which discourse of course is always easy—and come perhaps to problems of application. This is always difficult. I might, however, touch upon just one practical problem of a certain general nature; it arises out of our own times, out of the tempo of our own times, which has been described both by Sig. Manzini and also by Père Gabel. This tempo of the time was noted by Pius XII in his great Christmas allocution of 1944. "With respect to the State, with respect to governments, they (the people) have a new attitude: questioning, critical, suspicious. Taught by bitter experience, they oppose with increasing violence the monopolies of a power that is dictatorial, insidious, and untouchable, and they demand a system of government more compatible with the dignity and freedom of citizens." He said again in the same allocution: "In a people worthy of that name, the citizen senses in himself an awareness of his own personhood, of his sorrows and of his rights, of his own freedom linked with the respect and dignity of others."

This same phenomenon had been noted in a different style and tone by John XXIII, in his great testimonial encyclical Pacem in terris, in which he left us so much the legacy of himself. He speaks here of the desires that are abroad today. He says they are the manifestations that in our time men have become more and more conscious of their dignity. And for this reason, they feel the impulse to participate in the government of the state (that is of the republic). And also they feel the impulse to demand the rights that are their own, the rights that are inviolable. They demand that these rights be acknowledged and protected in the government of the city. Nor is this enough, nor is this all. Men today ask one thing more, namely, that those who rule the city should act according to the norms of a public constitution and that they should perform their functions within definite limits set by the constitution.

This is the political phenomenon of the day. It is a phenomenon whose appearance Pius XII greeted with joy and approval. He applauded the wakening of the people from their long sleep, as he called it. For so long the people, he said, had been simply the objects of the political and the social process. Now they realize that they are to be awakened to consciousness, that they are not simply subjects of rule; they are citizens.

This of course, as you know, is the great advance in Catholic theory made by Pius XII over Leo XIII. It is rather difficult to find in Leo XIII, for instance, the concept of the citizen, the concept of citizenship. He seems to regard the people as simply the subjects of rule. This, I say, is a political phenomenon. Call it the emergence of the will to self-direction on the part of people and also on the part of individuals. Together with this will to self- direction, there has emerged the will that government should be constitutional, that it is to be limited by law, limited by the consent of the people, that government—in a word—should be on the part of the people self-government. As a political phenomenon this is not to be deplored. It is a sign of growth, it is a sign of progress, it is a sign of maturity. It sows the flowering of the human person into a consciousness of his true dignity before God and men, and out of this consciousness of dignity there emerges the personal demand for freedom.

However, this political phenomenon, it seems to me, has larger implications to which the Church herself surely must be alert. You see, here is the active self-conscious citizen within the civil community cannot be expected to be simply a passive subject within the community of the Church. This ancient symbolism of the Gospel retains all its validity of course. This symbolism, I mean, of the sheep. But this symbolism is not today to be pressed too far. We cannot consent to any schizophrenia. Between civic life and Christian life, we recognize direct differences between the civil and ecclesiastical community; but these differences must not be allowed to effect a schism within the soul of the Christian today. Here in society is the mature man or woman who cannot be considered in the Church to be an infant or an adolescent.

The problem is to harmonize an affirmation of this new spirit of self-consciousness, this new will to self-direction, to harmonize this new spirit with the altogether permanently necessary affirmation of the principle of authority in the Church and with the Christian spirit of obedience.

There is not a sphere of life, it seems to me, in which this problem is not encountered. Not least, of course, in the classroom, where I spent my life. In classrooms of theology we meet this in a particular way. I am not going to discuss the problem. I shall merely suggest, ladies and gentlemen of the press, that the problem itself constitutes, offers, an opportunity for the Catholic press, an opportunity that must be grasped. This very problem itself makes your function, the function of public information in the Church all the more indispensable. The opportunity, briefly, I suppose, would be this: the situation now poses the necessity that the press should be the vehicle of dialogue between clergy and laity, among the laity themselves and of course between the local Churches across national boundaries. The premiss of this dialogue is evident, it seems to me. The personal will to self-direction is not incompatible at all with the principle of authority. But it is incompatible with such exercises of authority as might be arbitrary or capricious. This spirit of self-direction is incompatible with such exercises of authority as are not constitutional, that go beyond the limits that are always legitimately set to authority, so as to become an abuse of authority. Here the dialogic function of the press may do a service to the Church. The freedom of the press creates no right to stand against authority and its legitimate exercise. It does, however, create a responsibility to note abuses of authority, and thus to serve the true interests of authority. It is to the interest of authority that its method of exercise should be pure, free of all taint of the arbitrary.

Moreover, the press, as a function of information, serves the public advantage of the Church by offering a channel of communication through which the teaching of the church, her laws, and her policies in contingent circumstances may be explained and made intelligible to the people whose desire is to understand in order that their faith and obedience may be more profound and personal, in order that their solidarity as a people may be strengthened, in order that the sense of unity and spirit of confidence between the people and those who govern them in the name of God our Father may be more solid and operative.

Reference has already been made here by Signore Manzini to certain qualities of the time in which we live. It is a time in which many complex issues confront us all; a time of rapid change. And this complicated nature of the time in which we live makes more emphatic the need of the people of God to know. To know not only the doctrine of the Church more perfectly; that, of course. Primarily to know not only the laws and the disciplines of the church; that too, by all means is essential. But to know the pastoral directions in which the Church wants her people today to move.

These pastoral directions need to be made intelligible to the people, and here is where the press can play its purpose. Differences in such pastoral decisions are influenced by political considerations. The people and their pastors need to know this. If certain doctrinal orientations are considered to be dangerous—not wrong, but dangerous—the people need to know this, need to be told this.

Why? Very simply: in order that the faith and obedience may be more profound, more personal, more worthy of a Christian and more worthy of a man. The people need to know these things in order that a spirit of confidence may obtain between those who teach and rule the church and those who are taught and ruled. This spirit of confidence must be made more intimate in these troubled times, this spirit of confidence must not be disturbed by misunderstandings, by the intrusion of the emotional in any sense.

The people need to know, to understand the pastoral direction of the Church today in order that the sense of unity in the church may be all stronger and more solid and more operative, in order that the church may be more and more fit for the perilous pilgrimage upon which she has set her feet.

It seems to me that the Catholic press lives and works upon, as it were, a border line, the border line between the Church and the world. The Catholic press occupies an exposed place and therefore a perilous place. If you stand on the border line between the Church and the world you must expect to be shot at from both sides. You will be; you have been, undoubtedly.

And what is your armor? I think it is twofold. first there is the armor of your Christian integrity, your faith and your loyalty to the Church. Secondly there is your professional integrity, your devotion to the ideals of your profession. And perhaps these ideals were never more perfectly expressed by Leo XIII, when he opened the Vatican archives and laid down that rule of the historian which is the rule of the journalist: to say nothing that is false and to conceal nothing that is true.

(1)Editor Note: Expanded form of an address to the International Press Association, 1963. Originally published as "The Social Function of the Press," (Journalistes Catholiques 12 (Janvier-Avril 1964): 8-12). Text here form 1964a: "Information and the Church: The Function of the Catholic Press within the Catholic Church." (Social Survey. 13 (1964): 204-8).