08 April 2017


I have heard many times the claim that the Catholic Church should have great success in her New Evangelization, because Catholicism is a visual religion and contemporary society is also visual. But to call Catholicism a visual religion is a meager assertion; it is no more visual than any of a thousand kinds of paganism. It would be more accurate simply to say that human beings are visual animals. The visuality of Catholicism is only remarkable because the religion’s most obvious alternatives are rather inhuman. 

And contemporary society, judging by (for example) its reductive architecture, is not very visual at all. Its interest in visual things is almost entirely concentrated on television and computer screens; it is not any pictures, but specifically motion pictures, that interest contemporary man. Even the static pictures now ubiquitous (advertisements, posters, billboards) are meant to be seen while walking or driving or rapidly flipping pages in a magazine; they may not move, but their frame of reference does, which gives the same subjective result. In contrast, a study taken in 1980 indicated that most visitors look at a painting hanging in an art museum for about ten seconds. The same study, taken in 1997, lowered the time to three seconds. Contemporary man does not love pictures; he loves motion. 

Live-action motion pictures create the most convincing false reality yet devised by technology. The intensity of the imagery, the sophistication of the editing and the ever-more impressive special effects fill the modern mind with an inventory of powerful, nearly unforgettable images. Regardless of his life experience, every man now knows what a cavalry charge looks like. He knows what a dinosaur in the flesh looks like. He knows what an exploding planet looks like, even though no man has ever seen a planet explode. These images become the references for his visual imagination; when he pictures death, judgment, heaven or hell, he pictures something resembling a cinematic special effect he has seen. 

Traditional sacred art and traditional sacred liturgy are symbolic; to appreciate them, a man must recognize that his senses are unworthy of the greatest realities, and that hieratic and canonized types, arrangements and gestures are needed to suggest them. It is a logic entirely contrary to that of live-action motion pictures, which attempt to show anything and everything as it really (supposedly) looks. 


I believe that the influence of live-action motion pictures has contributed enormously to the iconoclasm of recent decades. I also believe that any lasting restoration of traditional sacred art and traditional sacred liturgy will only be possible if Catholics seriously consider and seriously restrict their use of the media of mass entertainment. This would entail removing televisions from our homes; and seldom (if ever) patronizing the cinema, thus reclaiming our imaginations from Hollywood. But it also would entail resisting the intrusion of this technology into new places, most importantly our places of worship.

This, of course, is an unpopular idea; the prevailing strategy of evangelization, even among traditional Catholics, demands that every important or impressive liturgical celebration be photographed, recorded, and displayed to as many as possible. And challenges to this strategy, like most discussions about technology, are quickly derailed by faulty analogies.

Whenever one man raises an objection to the application of a specific technology in a specific context, another inevitably will try to justify it by bringing up a beneficial application of a different technology in a different context. He will point out that there was opposition to this other, positive development; the first objection is thereby lumped together with every foolish dismissal in history.

But one situation does not always justify another. Introducing a television camera into the sanctuary is not the same as introducing a stained glass window or a pipe organ. These have their own properties and their own justifications. Using a television camera to broadcast a Mass is not the same as using it to monitor hallways for security.


Technologies are not moral or immoral per se, but neither are they without built-in biases and culturally bound assumptions; they are invented and developed by men according to their own ideas about the world. As Neil Postman, An articulate technological critic, wrote:
Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism... To a man with a television camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments... The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether.

Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence: The medium is the message.
What, then, are the ideas that a television camera and the live-action motion pictures that it produces suggest?


One is that every man is entitled to a privileged view of events. The technology’s purpose is to make things visible and audible to a man who otherwise would not be able to see or hear them, to bring him to the action via the camera and the microphone, which stand in place for him and act as his eyes and ears.

Watching motion pictures creates a sense of entitlement in the spectator. He feels cheated if obstacles remain to his seeing or hearing what is happening - trees blocking the camera’s field of vision, for example. He expects the directors and editors and cameramen to avoid or remove these sorts of things, to give him unobstructed views, zoomed-in shots of important actions and clearly enunciated speech.

The more he watches motion pictures, the more accustomed he is to these production values; when this same man attends Mass, the expectation to observe and understand everything very often comes with him. When it does, the silent Canon, untranslated Latin, ceremonial veiling, a priest with his back to the people, the idea that there are important things he is not supposed to see or hear, all become offensive. Motion picture technology creates a cult of accessibility, and this even more than ideology has caused liturgical tradition to be despised.

Marshall McLuhan perspicaciously blamed the loss of Latin liturgical language on the introduction of the microphone into the sanctuary. After resisting for five centuries the Reformational idea that Mass was something to be heard, Catholics at last embraced the all-hearing principle as a result of expectations changed by technology. A century earlier, in his Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, AWN Pugin predicted the eventual end of traditional church architecture due to the rise of an all-seeing principle:
If religious ceremonies are to be regarded as spectacles they should be celebrated in regular theatres, which have been expressly intended for the purpose of accommodating great assemblages of persons to hear and see well. It has been most justly said, that there is no legitimate halting-place between Catholic doctrine and positive infidelity, and I am quite certain that there is none between a church built on Christian tradition and symbolism and Covent Garden Theatre with its pit, boxes and gallery.
Nothing has done more to entrench the all-hearing, all seeing, all-understanding principle in the modern mind that the media of mass entertainment. Watching live-action motion pictures also trains men to observe phenomena in a specific way; the important things to notice are those that move, and move within a defined, rectangular area; anything else is ignored. Minds so formed, when taken to Mass, do not see statues or icons as things themselves revelatory, but regard them like potted plants to the side of the television set. They are apart from the action, so they are unimportant. If they are noticed at all, they are distractions that ought to be removed.

I remember once watching a Mass, celebrated ad orientem on an elaborate Baroque altar, on television. I noticed that the consecration was filmed from the very front of a loft in the church’s south transept; it was obvious that efforts were made to find an angle from which the cameraman could get an unobstructed, zoomed-in shot of the host on the high altar. To show the consecration from a privileged angle negates the entire purpose of ad orientem celebration. Without touching a thing, the television camera turned around the altar and pushed aside the priest, making visible everything that tradition saw fit to hide. The dissonance was jarring.


Psychologically, men relate to live-action motion pictures differently than to other media; the combination of sound, image and movement so effectively engages our two most powerful senses that we attribute a greater sort of reality to it. This is revealed in the way we talk about television. A man will say that he saw the World Series, or the Vice Presidential Debate, when he actually just saw a television broadcast of it. He would not speak this way had he seen a drawing or a painting or a theatrical reenactment of the World Series, or the Vice Presidential Debate.

Even the rhetoric surrounding the televising of the Mass is revealing. How wonderful, someone says, that people who live in remote areas, who are sick or homebound, now have access to the Mass! But no, no they do not. There is no legitimate halting-place between attending Mass and not attending Mass. Watching television is not attending Mass. At best, it is an aid to devotion, something like reading a hand missal at home; at worst it is mistaken for the real thing.

Live-action motion pictures suggest the idea of a virtual reality: that experience, understanding and communion can be achieved by means of a technological approximation. It suggests that to see a thing is merely to receive through the eyes a certain arrangement of light waves, and that to hear a thing is merely to receive through the ears a certain arrangement of sound waves; and that these can be provided by a machine as well as by the thing itself.

I can think of few ideas more damaging to the important distinctions between substance and form that underlie traditional Catholic philosophy and theology, and few ideas that do more to inculcate the error of Descartes, by which the physicists’ model of the universe (an abstraction of hurrying quantities and extensions) is mistaken for primary reality itself.


The costs of introducing a new technology are not easy to predict or measure, and they may be irreversible by the time they are noticed. They may even go unnoticed, and for that reason, go untallied against the benefits. But they have the potential to alter the way we think, to redefine the very meaning of the words we use to express our most important beliefs.

By saying this, I am not arguing against all innovation; I readily acknowledge that television cameras and live-action motion pictures have fruitful applications that give real benefits. But sanctuaries must be allowed to remain, places and times where the innovation is not welcome, so that the wisdom and worldview reflected in the displaced ways, and the skills and habits fostered by them, are not forgotten. We may not realize just how important these are until they are forever lost. As we allow the technologies of mass entertainment to intrude into more and more aspects of our lives, we cease to remember what it was like to inhabit a world without them, and our bonds with that world, the world of our spiritual forefathers the saints and apostles, are weakened.

When St. John wrote the beginning of his Gospel, he had an idea of what a word was. It was something spoken, or something written, or something thought. Now, centuries later, our basic idea of a word is just as likely to be something on a computer screen that can be clicked on and dragged about a document, or erased with a keystroke. How can we understand what St. John meant when he said that in the beginning was the Word, when our idea of a word is something that St. John never knew? If motion pictures create in us different habits of seeing, and different definitions of seeing, how can we understand what he meant when he said that we saw His glory? We live in a semantic anarchy where words have ceased to have commonly agreed upon meanings. In such a world, an ordered and traditional context is needed for assertions of belief to have any meaning at all.

Because of this, there is no more important place and time of sanctuary than the literal sanctuaries of our churches, for it is here that the stakes are highest. Here, if nowhere else, we must reject those things that estrange us from the experience we share with the saints, in our common rituals of worship. If we introduce something that they would have found incomprehensible, we may soon find that the estrangement is mutual, that we no longer understand them either.