Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 8-17.

Michael J. Dempsey:
      Prospects for Ecclesial Life and Mission with Electronic Media

By adopting new communications technology the church will succeed in keeping up with the social revolutions which advances in electronic communications are bringing about in our world.

Father Dempsey is director of pastoral communications in the Diocese of Brooklyn and especially well informed on developments in electronic communication in the American church.

THE world in which spirituality lives is increasingly formed by electronic media. Economically, one third of all U.S. jobs now relate to communications directly or indirectly, and within a few years that figure is expected to be 50 percent. Socially, the influence of TV on elections, morality, customs, values, and interpersonal relationships is indisputable. Physically and psychologically electronics are miniaturizing, quickening, precisioning, and mathematizing our products, studies, structures, even our persons.

To the degree that spirituality depends upon the world, it cannot, therefore, escape being profoundly influenced by electronic media. Three general areas of influence spring to mind: the new content or conditions created by the media explosion that must now be oriented to God, the very processes of spirituality itself, and the reality that communication is at the core of the church's ministry.

The spiritual effort of religious people must now cope with key new conditions of life caused by communications technology. This huge new industry has brought people into electronically mediated relationships that never existed before; data, values, opinions, hatred, and love that once were beyond our horizons now flow freely among us. Family influence on children has diminished and extrafamilial influence increased. our personal feelings, hopes, fears, and loves are shaped as never before by films, radio, TV, cable, satellites, and video cassettes. The weight of that new shaping influence can only increase with direct broadcast satellites, laser technology, holography, and the myriad new electronic media already unveiling in the marketplace.

All the above relate to the content of spirituality, but electronic media may have an even more profound effect on the processes of spirituality. It has dramatically altered how people learn, the language of communication, the ways we influence one another and create community, the technology of choices, and our relative degrees of freedom. Most of us who were educated in another generation learned verbally; now 80 percent of what people learn they learn visually. Visual learning is concrete; verbal is abstract. Visual learning is feeling-oriented, experiential; verbal is idea-oriented, intellectual. In other words, we think differently now; we grow differently; we relate to one another differently. All of these are at the center of spiritual life.

Communication, finally, is at the heart of the church's ministry and therefore its spirituality. Evangelization is essentially a process of communication, of reaching out to people; so also is catechesis. Prayer is dialogue with God, as good works are with one's neighbors. Repentance, conversion, preaching, education -- all are variant aspects of divine or human communication.

We can think of communications, therefore, including modern electronic technologies, as both our tool and our goal. This has always been true, but electronics have revolutionized that tool and even our understanding of that goal -- revolutionized its reach, its language, its influence, and its speed. Coping intelligently with this new phenomenon is vital to both our apostolic and spiritual lives.

To understand the situation it is important to understand five key changes in technology and four social revolutions flowing from those technical developments.

1. Broadcasting (radio, TV) means mass, instantaneous communication. 750,000,000 people watched, live, the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. It is now technically possible to address virtually everyone on earth simultaneously. That has never been possible before.

2. Computers are broadcasting's reverse image in that they deal with individuals, not masses; and they do that with precision, infinite patience, and increasing respect for individual differences. Computers have made it conceivable, for the first time, to deal with every individual individually.

3. Satellites are transmitters orbiting 23,000 miles out in space. They have eliminated distance as a cost factor in communications. Until now the longer the distance over which one wanted to communicate, for example, by telephone, the more expensive it was, because the telephone wire had to be that much longer. For the satellite, it makes no difference if we send our message to Detroit or to San Francisco. That is a cost revolution.

4. Miniaturization, now going to fantastic degrees with items like integrated circuits, is eliminating space and bulk as a cost factor. A $20 calculator, with a single integrated circuit, now has as much computing power as the multimillion dollar Iliac, one of our earliest computers which required several rooms to house its electronic brain.

5. Lasers, highly specialized light beams, are dramatically altering the capacity of telecommunications. A laser light beam can carry several times as many electronic signals as can the traditional wire. That means less bulky, more efficient, and faster interaction, with light instead of electricity as a medium.

Socially, four dramatic revolutionary shifts flow from these technical inventions, each of which are vital to the church's interests,

1. From products to information as the source of wealth. We are in a postindustrial age. Data is power, increasingly more valuable than manufactured goods. One-third, now approaching one-half, of all jobs in the U.S. are related to information creating, handling, storing, retrieving, changing, etc.

2. From verbal to visual as a dominant style of learning. Eighty percent of what Americans now learn they learn via the eye, not the ear. Visual is different from verbal learning. Its plusses and minuses are different too.

3. From reality to images as the key to influencing others. TV, radio, advertising, elections, and brand names are creatures of image, not reality. How something or someone appears is far more decisive than what it, he, or she actually is. People have always reacted to what they perceived to be true. Now, perception itself -- creating it, utilizing it, managing it -- is a large segment of the electronic business.

4. From local to mass audiences. Reach has been altered radically to the point that anyone with access to media can address virtually everyone who will listen or watch. The "warmth" of the interchange is different; it tends to be exclusively one-way and restricted to those in control of the technology; but it is universal, and that factor is critical for the universal church.


Stripped of detail, the church has made a key decision regarding its mission, namely, to commit itself to the tools, the art, the language, and the expense of electronic media, in order to be faithful to its mission of preaching the gospel to all who will listen and to preach it in the language and style of communication they understand. While it would be impossible to handle all permutations of the church's media involvement, I will describe it in terms of seven categories each incorporating a particular avenue of apostolic activity.

1. Radio and TV apostolates. There are now literally hundreds of church sponsored programs on mass media. We are quick to note the "ghetto" time slots, the sometimes unsophisticated production, and the small Nielson ratings; but we tend to miss the lively entrepreneuring, new formats, and growing self-confidence Of the increasing number of laity, clerics, and religious now on the air. The Passionists' Sunday Mass in New York does have 1.8 million viewers weekly. Fr. Tom Hartman's rock disc-jocking on New York area radio reaches an audience of 100,000 with a call-in for"tat. Most of this audience consists of the very youngsters who never appear in church but who will phone in, anonymously, on the air, questions about life, God, faith, and so forth. Is that not at the heart of our "business"?

2. Cable. The huge number of new cable channels (new systems will have 104 channels) has given the church a second chance to firm up control over valuable air time. We are gradually being frozen out of the standard broadcast market, but cable is still largely open and available. As a result of the efforts of Diocesan Communications, every new franchise in the Chicago area will provide the archdiocese with a twenty-four hour channel free. The same local effort is occurring nationwide. Cable TV is narrowcasting, not broadcasting. It reaches everybody, figuratively speaking, but its wide number and variety of channels tend to break up audiences into many different interest groups, whereas CBS, NBC, and ABC strive for, and program for, homogenized mass audiences. While there will continue to be mass appeal, particularly for entertainment programming, increasingly narrowcasting will capture a significant audience segment.

3. Catholic Television Network (CTN). Back in 1962, the FCC set aside a group of channels for nonprofit, primarily educational use. The service is called I.T.F.S., or Instructional Television Fixed Service. It is a broadcast service, with reverse (usually four) channels, low power, and uniquely tailored to the geography of the user.

Seven dioceses or archdioceses now operate ITFS stations for their schools and institutions. It represents a $20,000,000 capital investment and about $3,000,000 in annual operating costs. CTN is the national consortium through which these stations program, purchase, promote, and defend themselves. Seven more dioceses are now planning new ITFS installations.

CTN probably represents the largest communications investment of the church. It grew unheralded and still operates largely on a shoe string, given the realization that a single ITFS station typically transmits 180 hours of programming every week. That huge volume dwarfs the average public radio or TV station, which has substantially larger resources. Out of this core of machinery, imagination, and experienced people have come many of the subsequent initiatives in church communications, cable TV, satellites, integration of technologies, and related ventures.

4. Association of Catholic Television and Radio Syndicators (ACTRS). If we have air time, our own or somebody else's, we need software, that is, something to say. The Christophers, "Christopher Close-up"), Paulists ("Insight"), Franciscans ("Teleketics," etc.), Jesuits ("Sacred Heart Hour") and, of course CTN, create programs both for a broadcast and narrowcast audience. The facilities and organizations are often spare; but they are growing in skill, technical sophistication, and funding. The new Catholic Communications Collection, for example, has been of substantial financial assistance; Chicago's archdiocesan ITFS production center ranks at the top of that area's commercial production houses; and "Teleketics" and "Insight" are nationally acclaimed for their creativity and production quality.

5. Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA). The Catholic church is slow to move, but when it does, decisively and massively as in this case, it makes an enormous impact and, in effect, reconstitutes itself. Four years ago only a few "looneys" in the church were muttering about satellites. Today the U.S. Catholic church is launching the largest satellite network in the United States. It eventually will interconnect all 170 dioceses, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Alaska. In time it will reach virtually all TV homes in the country and, materially, will represent the largest central enterprise in its history.

CTNA is a corporation set up by the United States Catholic Conference (USCG) to run the satellite network. It has a top professional staff, strong support from the bishops, limited but solid financing, and carries the hopes and dreams of many of us who have been in the communications field for years. CTNA represents the most significant step the church has taken since it decided in the last century to create the parochial school system. The comparison is deliberate: as the school system decisively shaped American Catholicism and its institutions, so will CTNA and the communications "tilt" it represents shape the future institutional structure and apostolate of the Catholic church in America. In effect, it has crystalized the communications ministry and opened a dramatically new future for the whole of evangelization and catechesis.

Each diocese in CTNA will have an earth station which will allow it to receive whatever the satellite (CTNA leases time on one) is relaying from the so-called "up-link" at CTNA headquarters in New York. The diocese then relays programs and services, at its option, to homes and its own institutions (via cable, ITFS, cassettes, broadcast station links, etc.). Eventually the system will be two-way, and a wide variety of administrative and evangelical services can be supported.

EWN (Eternal Word Network) is another Catholic satellite network operating out of Birmingham, Alabama. It lives because of the verve of Mother Angelica, its foundress and director. For over a year it has been on the air with four hours of programming every evening. While quite different in design and purpose from CTNA, EWN is imaginative and faith-filled, a daring effort to bring Catholic values to America via satellite.

6. Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS). Obsolescence is endemic to electronic media. New technologies appear and engulf the old. DBS is scheduled for 1985-86 and it means that a new generation of satellites, with much higher power, will be able to beam directly into private homes. In other words, the days of earth-based broadcast stations, cable networks, ITFS, etc. are already numbered, at least as presently utilized.

DBS is more than bigger and better satellites. It means that anyone with access to a DBS satellite can address anyone in the U.S. simultaneously and cheaply. One will not need a CBS, an AT&T ground distribution system, or a system of network affiliates to reach the nation. One can create one's own network instantly.

The church has filed letters of intent with all the possible DBS operators in order to secure time on those "birds" when they fly. This time we are first in line -- for a change.

7. Computers. The Catholic church is computer-poor at the moment, but work is being done. Many computers are in administrative use in church hospitals, finance offices, universities, even high schools; but what is lacking is networking, the interconnection of computer capacity. Some small movement in this direction is encouraging. The National Catholic Computer Conference, operating out of Chicago, is attempting to put together that core of interested people, facilities, and funding needed to trigger national development. The USCC has sponsored meetings toward this end.

From a strictly administrative viewpoint, let me cite one example of why computers are a must for the church. The diocese of Brooklyn is, at this writing, launching "Electronic Cash Management." This means that Sunday collections, deposited in appropriate banks, are electronically "collected" and invested on Monday of high short-term rates, with the money returned to parishes by the week's end. In the past nearly all of these deposits generally went into noninterest-bearing checking accounts; now a totally new source of income is generated. Brooklyn estimates that ECM Will generate for its parishes several million dollars annually in hew income, simply because computer controlled electronic cash transfer is now possible.


With respect to our apostolates, many of us pay lip service to media in general and electronic media in particular. We have grown tip with the phrase audio-visual aids and we still think of media as peripheral to the apostolate, something that is accessory, not vital. "Utilizing" media can mean viewing as well as producing or broadcasting. TV, radio, records, cassettes are at the heart of people's experience, including our own. We should be reflecting on them, discussing the telecasts, using TV episodes in the same way Jesus used his people's farm experiences of flowers, animals, and crops. When we need illustrations of doctrine, examples of reputable and disreputable conduct, inspiration or put-downs, we should use what people know -- "Archie Bunker," "MASH," "Sesame Street," "Dallas." We must be current, speak this language easily, reflecting our incarnational approach to religion.

Then there are the technologies themselves. Why not individually directed retreats by telephone, or CCD instructions recorded on video-cassette for use by students? Both Albany and Scranton dioceses have carried out, after careful planning, diocesan-wide renewal weeks by means of public television. Audiences were in the hundreds of thousands; local parish-level participation was concrete; and letters of appreciation, many and heartfelt. In those circumstances we surely are not preaching only to the so- called saved.

We should capitalize, too, on the widened access to spiritual resources that electronic media make possible. The visual parables that Franco Zefferelli drew in his now famous film, Jesus of Nazareth, are unforgettable. Can most of us demonstrate faith and the power of conviction as well as Chariots of Fire? When Mother Teresa speaks on TV, do we need afterwards to explain holiness or Incarnation? In the classic, two-part interview by Bill Buckley of Malcolm Muggeridge, faith was dissected and hearts laid bare as seldom happens.

We perceive ourselves as pray-ers in the interior life and as doers in the apostolate. We need to reclassify both as processes of communication. The interior life is a progressively deepening interchange, a communication, with God, who communicates to us his grace, his life. It is communication, even though in an analogical sense; and it is accomplished in a mediated way, through "media," not electronic, to be sure, yet media nonetheless.

In the apostolate we are instruments of incarnate grace; we are media by which God alters the life and substance of others. We personally are God's media of communication with others. We generally think of ourselves in this respect as instruments in the sense of witnessing by word and example to our neighbor; we can gain another level of understanding by speaking more passively of ourselves as channels of grace, particularly since what God accomplishes through us is largely unknown to us. In God's wisdom we are media for him. The more sensitive any medium, the more attuned it is to the message, the greater its capacity, then the more it radiates and transmits, the more faithfully it reflects the message.

"The medium is the message," said Marshall McLuhan. In the spiritual life, that is a statement of the goal, not the reality. In our world and the Lord's, both medium (we) and message (he) shape one another until they are one, "till we . . . form that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature" (Eph. 4:13).

In spiritual direction we make a big point of spiritual diaries and of feedback as means of seeing ourselves more objectively. With videotape we can look directly at ourselves preaching, praying, celebrating liturgy, creating. Nothing aids self-correction as swiftly as seeing ourselves as others see us.

We cannot put the heart on videotape, but we can reflect on how we have been altered by the multiple influences on us of contemporary media. How have I been tempted or encouraged, persuaded or dissuaded by media? Do I think as well now as before, given the visual rather than verbal accent of TV and film? Has this helped me to pray or been a distraction? Have I allowed for the spiritual effect of media on the people I serve or do I persist in dealing with them as if they were premedia people.

As the church today is post-Vatican II, people today are postliterary. If we want to be all things to all people, we must take this new situation into account. We must learn how to translate our personal and communal spiritual experiences into the language of electronic media. We have an obligation to reveal, not just the content of faith, but its lived heart. That revelation begins with personal and ecclesial holiness, but then that holiness must be "translated" for people today, people of the electronic communications era.

Why do we seem so irrelevant to young people, to many civil libertarians, to large segments of the so-called intelligentsia? Largely because the fire within us is invisible to them. We like to say that fire is witnessed best by actions flowing out of it. But if our good actions do not in fact convey meaning to some contemporaries, or if our actions do not in fact make contact with these contemporaries, they remain unseeing. Our body language is faulty.

We need an integration of lived spirituality and professional media expertise. On the one hand, we cannot simply hire top-quality media people; at best they can only guess at the "fire" in us if they have never experienced it themselves. Yet, on the other hand, nothing is as discouraging as poor media presentations by well-meaning but amateurish people. It is like typewriting; we must become so familiar with the media key board that we need not look at the keys. At the same time we must know the Lord intimately, so that when we talk, in whatever medium, it will be the lord who speaks. Technical professionalism and spiritual passion are both required for effective "translation," for revealing the lived experiences of the Spirit within us in a medium our contemporaries understand.