Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, spoke before the Episcopal Synod held in Vatican City in 1974. In the following remarks, Arrupe discusses public opinion (“one of the great forces in today’s world”). He stresses how the Catholic Church can use “the mass-media of social communication” as a means to “fulfill its task of forming healthy and objective public opinion” provided the Church “collaborates with those in charge in a constructive plan: of sincerity and openness, of rapidity of information, of acceptance of criticism, and of greater use of the influential media.”
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1. One of the Great World Powers
Public opinion is one of the great forces in today’s world. It is evident in the attempts of politicians and businessmen to influence and mobilize it in order to attain their political objectives or commercial goals.
Pius XII defined public opinion as, “the natural echo, a more or less spontaneous communal repercussion of events and of the present situation in the spirit and judgment of men.” In our time, the rapid increase and multiplication of means of communication, a higher standard of education, a greater social and democratic awareness, and a more active consciousness of the right to be informed have enormously developed the influence of public opinion.
The Church cannot ignore this phenomenon which constitutes a real “sign of the times.” Formation of public opinion and its freedom from forces which would suppress or distort should constitute one of the prime objectives in the evangelization of the Church today.
A proper formation and expression of public opinion is necessary for the integral human development which evangelization seeks to promote. Therefore, as the Second Vatican Council put it, “Within the limits of morality and the general welfare, a man should be free to search for the truth, voice his mind and publicize it … and … have appropriate access to information about public affairs.”
2. Two Factors in Social Communication
The two principal elements which in fact form and limit public opinion are: on the one hand, the information which is published concerning facts, ideas and the historic reality in which we live; on the other, the values, mental sets and attitudes which condition the reception of this reality and at times distort it.
To do the work of evangelization is to exert a force so that public opinion is not manipulated but formed in an objective and impartial manner, and so that this information can be received and interpreted in the light of a Christian vision of the world, man and society.
There is no doubt that means of social communication are among the most effective to inform and to shape public opinion. Frequently, these media are controlled by political or economic interests and the information they report, if not false is at least partial and incomplete, filtered, and contaminated at the very source.
Even when attempting to be objective, those responsible for means of social communication frequently find themselves subject (as is very well expressed) to a triple tyranny which constantly overpowers them: the tyranny of time, which forces them to present their contributions within very reduced time margins, hindering them from working with sufficient calm and tact, particularly in complex and delicate matters; the tyranny of interest, which demands that whatever is said be interesting, thus making the selection of topics people tend to choose preferably those that “shock,” arouse interest, or cause surprise; the tyranny of originality, which forces them to have to say something that others have not said or in some way is different from what others have used or will use.
These circumstances and tensions explain in large part the inexactitude of information and the abundance of strange and scandalous cases and the sometimes deformed presentation of a fact or a point of information.
3. How the Church Can Help in Communications
The Church can help so that the mass-media of social communication can fulfill its task of forming healthy and objective public opinion if she collaborates with those in charge in a constructive plan: of sincerity and openness, of rapidity of information, of acceptance of criticism, and of greater use of the influential media.
Sincerity and openness, facilitating true and complete information, not only concerning facts and events of general interest, but concerning too the life and activity of the Church. Naturally, in some cases the Church may have particular reasons to maintain a certain reserve, given the nature of its mission and the sensitivity of the subjects that it treats. But in general it is preferable to avoid secrecy, that is, to make secret what is not necessary to hide, the tendency to communicate the very least possible, as this forces the means of social communication to procure clandestine information – not always complete nor exact—or to speculate with the insufficient data that one has. The Church has made great strides in this field and it is to be hoped that it continues.
Rapidity of information. In the world of information time (sometimes minutes) is essential and has a decisive value. News as such has a very brief life. Delayed information is of no use, when news has already become subject to distortions or has lost its interest.
Acceptance of criticism. Credibility is quickly lost if we communicate only the good. The fear of criticism is always harmful; it leads to public cover-up of possible errors or of limitations subject to criticism. An honest authenticity is the best foundation of credibility and is the best way to avoid recourse to a defensive attitude which induces us to overlook and even to defend our failings.
Greater use of the influential media, since these are the great agents and organs of information which can shape public opinion more efficiently. Ecclesiastic inversion and the almost exclusive use of ecclesiastical means of information must be avoided. Nevertheless, in cases in which advantages created by the political or economic order have reduced the normal means of communication to servitude, the Church should courageously create and operate its own veracious and reliable channels of information.
4. Dialogue between Church and Media
The need for dialogue between the Church and the media of social communication must be emphasized. They are not enemies, but collaborators in the building up of a well-informed and vigorous public opinion. They should therefore be open to a frank yet cordial exchange of views, leading to constructive self-criticism. It is true that the Church has suffered much from biases and distortions to which public opinion has been subjected. .But it must also be asked whether certain limitations we have imposed on ourselves, and certain attitudes we have adopted with regard to the free flow of information have not provided the occasion, at least in part, for such biases and distortions.
But complete and impartial objective reporting is only one of the elements which constitutes public opinion: an indispensable requisite or condition for its evangelization.
The souls and minds of those who receive information must be free, not only individually but collectively, from prejudice, conditionings and emotions—products of our surroundings and our society which obstruct the perception of objective reality. But to be able to speak of evangelization it is also necessary for the minds and souls, once they are free, to be informed by evangelical values and criteria, by the ideals of truth, charity, and justice.
Other Apostolates Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—III, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1981, “Social Communication: Investigation and Collaboration,” pg. 137–140.