Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 18-25.

Bert Akers:
      Electronic Communication, Community, Church

The revolution in communications through new technology offers new opportunities and challenges to the church because communications are the heart of community.

Father Akers, S.J., is director of the Office of Radio and Communications in the diocese of Houston, Texas.

ALL things are passing, as the Ancients quite rightly observed. Bul not nearly so much as they used to. Today those "condemned to repeat history" are probably watching "instant replay." In all o human history we are the first generation ever to experience a sight or a sound from yesterday, the past as present as now. There are people still alive who shout into the telephone (just 100 year old) and louder for long distance. Most of us would have trouble explaining half the toys under the Christmas tree. But to SOME considerable extent the future of communications is already here After a few decades we are reaching total saturation with phones phonographs, radios, and television sets; and we are expanding explosively with cable, satellites, home recorders, and computers The technology already exists for a kind of total information system. Global switchboard? Wired world? Terms and concepts from the sci-fi world of yesterday already seem strangely antiquated it describing this sudden and epochal phenomenon that has broke in upon us.

It is not surprising that the transforming impact of electronic communications on other fields escapes our notice: for example, in banking (where "money" as we think of it has already become something of a curio) or biogenic (cracking the life-codes). Most of today's wacky gismos are designed, tested -- and scrapped -- in the computer. But even the changes in our own lives are hard to recognize. Television, scarcely in its infancy, already supplies most people with 80 percent of their "information." This one medium occupies a larger segment of their lives than any other human activity except working and sleeping: nine years out of the allotted four score and ten. Leaving aside the immeasurable formative influence upon youth of recorded music, the transistor radio, and video games, we have seen the one medium of television, in less than a generation, unelected, unanointed, unaccountable, largely supplant the role and authority of the home, the school, the government, and the church.

More significant for our present inquiry, how are we to measure the transforming impact on the human spirit of those indelible images: muffled drums and a riderless horse, war in living color in the living room, Olga and other Olympic fires, earthrise over moonrim, and a billion-mile swing through the rings of Saturn? Now we have not only new perceptions but new ways of perceiving. Hungers and hopes are of a different order of magnitude. We dire confronted with a radically unaccustomed way of experiencIng ourselves and our world.

Revolution is a term that should be used sparingly. But it is significant that among those breakthroughs in human history that deserve the name, heralding changes in human society commensurately rare, explosive, momentous, and irreversible, four are directly related to communication. Language itself was the first. Writing the second. Printing the third. Of the fourth, electronic communication, we ourselves are witnesses.


We are also called, as Christians, to witness of a different sort. And the planes of interaction between the church and electronic communication are so manifold and promising, even on the more superficial levels, that it is tempting to start listing them. We could limit our notion of communication to its narrowest, everyday meaning (getting a message from one to another) and abstract from the practical reality that, these days, there is scarcely any medium of communication that is not in large part electronic. Still, the merest survey of the ways in which communication relates, might relate, and ought to relate to the church would far exceed the scope of this article.

To begin with the more traditional areas of moral concern, there are our old friends sex and violence, and stereotyping of women and minorities, false advertising, and the baneful effects of media on the young. Ever more serious questions arise regarding censorship, fairness (equal coverage of controversial issues), bias in the news. In structure the communication industries (more recently -- and more ominously -- called the knowledge industries) embody largely unchallenged assumptions about ownership, accountability, and the very nature and purpose of communications in modern society. At home, progressive conditioning to escapism, consumerism, spectator ship, passivity in the face of outrage to our sensitivities; on a world scale, "cultural imperialism" and a widening gap between the information-rich and the information-poor. The church, with all its faults, remains, uniquely, the defender of human rights and freedom, the only truly "catholic" voice on Planet Earth. For the church, modern communications is surely a new frontier -- still largely at this stage a terra incognita -- to challenge its spiritual energies.

At the same time it would be a grave distortion to view the church's involvement with electronic communication primarily, let alone exclusively, in terms of "problems" (the church serving as a moral fire brigade). Past and present initiatives of the church in this area scarcely begin to suggest the possibilities for presence, witness, prophecy, outreach. Programs for information, inspiration, formation. National, regional, local efforts. Tested services together with new and creative formats. Legitimization of the neglected, sacramental charisms of the church in the arts, drama, dance. Improved distribution systems linking broadcast, cable, satellite, microwave, low-power, and group-media capabilities. Utilization for education, catechesis, health care, vocations, pastoral ministry. And a new experience, unique to ourselves: Urbs et Orbis in new transposition, as we sense the true "catholicity" (over the whole earth) of the church for a global village.

Taking stock at this level is altogether valuable and necessary as base for further analysis, a good place to begin but not a good place to end. What is needed is a different methodology, not counting the "ways," but gaining insight into the deeper interrelationships of our three topic-areas of electronic communication, community, and church. For it seems clear that, on the one hand, the relative ineffectiveness of the church in making use of electronic communications is a direct result of an inherited theological and spiritual orientation that needs examining. On the other stand, there is every reason to hope that the communications revolution, once discerned as itself a thing of the spirit, may elicit in us, as we read the signs of the times, a spirituality proportionately original, exciting, energetic, and bold.


"What's wrong with my swing?" asks the beginning golfer, applying well what he knows about hitting a baseball or chopping trees. "Everything, just everything" is about the best the pro can say in response. This response is no reflection on the prospective golfer's ability. It simply expresses the fact that the golfer is confronting, in the most meaningful sense of the cliché, a whole new ball game. If we have the courage to accept, spiritually, that growth begins in humility, then we can start to adjust to a strange new mirror world where what you see is not what you get, where coverage validates reality -- and most of our notions about what is going on are not so much "wrong," missing the target, as shooting the wrong target.

For example, a far larger share of electronic communication than we ordinarily recognize is dedicated to the business of entertainment, including, to our dismay, those presumably exempt and objective areas such as news, documentaries, investigative reporting. Even as we watch the boundaries erode between work and play, leisure and learning, we have scarcely begun, in our spirituality, to take seriously what we dismiss as entertainment, which, moreover, is, and progressively so, the primary instrument of "socialization" in the contemporary world.

Then, of course, there is the business of business. We are forever forgetting -- so kindly is the image of themselves that they have created -- that the gigantic communication industries are not a public service. Whatever the rhetoric may be, they do not exist to serve the public's "interest, convenience, or necessity" but in reality assume even their traditional roles ("to inform, to instruct, to entertain") only as a means to, and in as much as this accords with the bottom-line criterion of, making a buck for the owners. While we have long since learned to make fun of "commercials," we have scarcely begun to recognize the fact that the far more effective "commercials" are the programs themselves, carefully designed to sell a way of life, a philosophy: escape, consume, buy this and be happy, this is the good life, that's all there is, my friend. Nothing in this probe indicates that this extraordinary human achievement is radically antithetical to gospel values, only that as a system, having its own internal dynamic and teleology, it cannot be coerced into service as a kind of amplified pulpit.

Far more serious, the traditional moral theology has not served the church well vis-à-vis the communications revolution. However valuable as a logic in other contexts, the notion of "means" or "instruments," misapplied, can lead to the dangerous misconception that all tools and technologies are in themselves neutral, value-free, as though a sword and a ploughshare do not "say" different things, do not carry a different "message," quite apart, in our traditional ethic, from particular usage, circumstances, or intent. A frequent and very misleading illustration for communication is the pipeline, as though the channel were indifferent to content. On the contrary, a great deal of contemporary history is there to remind us how far from "neutral" a pipeline really is.

For us, at present, stand a spiritual problem and a challenge: an, as yet, underdeveloped theology and spirituality of the church in the modern world; ambiguity in our attitude about technological achievement; and perhaps a certain innocence about the more subtle workings of that world itself.


Centuries of individualism and the compartmentalization of contemporary life have obscured the relationship, verging upon identity, between communication and any form of society, and most especially in its fullest human expression, community. What appears evident upon reflection is that communication is not simply one among many important functions in a society, but that it is important in an altogether unique way. There can be some level of life in society, however inefficient or unpleasant, without transport, sanitation, or government itself. Without communication, however, society cannot even exist. Still less can there be authentic community. Part of the difficulty stems from the very range and richness of communication. On the deepest level where it begins to equate with the total complex of mechanism for "saying" and "signifying" (what is acceptably clean, for example, for a rug or a towel? how long is a visit? how long is a skirt?) rather than in the all too restrictive sense of "talking' or "writing," communication becomes too close to see, too kaleidoscopic and elusive to bag in a definition. But there is metaphor.

It is comforting that no less a master of definition than Aristotle himself found metaphor to be "among the most useful tools for thought, lying midway, as it does, between definition and the unintelligible." Like many of the great words that have tried to capture and convey some segment of human experience, the word communication is based on a picture -- actually a montage of pictures -- which grew as the word expanded its meaning.

Surprisingly, the original picture is not at all about "speaking" or "sending a message" or any of those things that we think of when we hear the term. The Sanscrit root of the word means, first of all, "to bind." If we consider for a moment how fundamental, how simple and strong is this notion, and how myriad are the "ways" of binding, connecting, joining, uniting, making one out of two, we recognize how much of human existence (our relationships to the external world, to each other, to ourselves, to God) can be described in function of "the ties that bind."

The images unwind, reflecting centuries of historical development, though we limit ourselves here to the Latin words from which our own word communication and its cousins are derived. Very early we find the idea (from munus, moenia) of "goods" and then "exchange." How far removed from our contemporary and strangely dehumanized understanding! How much of the human story is found there: needs, shared needs, symbol systems, law, justice, trust, community. The word bears an even nobler meaning, having to do with goods, with exchange, of a different kind: a "gift." To communicate is "to give a gift."

Finally, from a less appealing side of human history, the need for defense, comes the rich and active meaning of "building the walls together," with the task (munus) of mending and defending the walls developing eventually into the responsibilities of citizenship and the duties of public office. Thus communication at this deepest level has a meaning almost coextensive with the very life-together of those who share the same "walls," who know themselves as "we," who commune, who are community.


Like other institutions in the contemporary world, the church is deeply affected by the communication revolution. And while the church may not blindly follow the lead of the secular world, it is called to "test the spirit" and it might well discover in communications an exceptionally helpful locus for theological reflection. What theological stance, what spiritual priorities, led the Catholic church in the United States to make such an unswerving commitment to its school system, for example, rather than involve itself more energetically with the developing electronic media?

Furthermore, so close is the relationship, as we have seen, between communication and community, that there is no better way to learn the inner life of a community, to get inside its head and heart, than to study the style and quality of its communication. Given some necessary qualifications, the same is true for the church. Each "model" of the church brings with it a corresponding style of communicating: more authoritarian or more participative, more secretive or more open, and so on. Reflection on the various "channels" of communication in the church (far more numerous and varied than we are usually aware of, ranging from papal decrees through the type of hymnals to the arrangement of the furniture in the rectory parlor) would reveal more than a predictable lag between the goals of Vatican II and their implementation, but a veritable juxtaposition of two ecclesiologies (as can be traced even in the documents of Vatican II itself): the Tridentine, based on the more pyramidal, juridical model of the societas perfecta; and the biblical, more familial model of the church as the people of God.

But the church, while she has much to learn from others, remains always more than an organization, more than an organism. The church is, in her total reality, the Mystery, who only as she is "taught of God" knows who she truly is and to what, to Whom, she is called. Not just mysterious, not just a mystery, but the Mystery: what it's all about. Pervading this Mystery from outermost rim to inmost core, the most simple and exquisitely subtle dynamic of call and response, of needs and goods, of exchange, of gift and self-gift, of shared life: the very paradigm of communication and community.

At its center stands the revelation through which we are given to know that God's own inner life is communication and community. That same revelation through word and wonder and, finally, in the Christ is communicated to us who are called to believe in his Name. Far more than a fellowship even of Christian love (though this is a sign of its validity), the church is the ekklesia, the "called," objectively, ontically, the community of those incorporated into Christ.

Finally, we realize that the church is not just the "believing community"; she is also the "communicating community," charged with the mission to witness and to preach, to communicate, to be word and sacrament, to be medium and message of salvation, bringing to all an updated edition of today's good news, featuring Jesus Christ, symbol of hope.