Marshall McLuhan: The "Medium" is the Message


Few Catholic scholars would claim the late Herbert Marshall McLuhan as one of their own. But this unswerving Catholic convert and pop-culture luminary had much to say about the effect of the media on society.

Recently the Vatican booted up its analysis of ethics in communications, and some images that came on screen belonged to a celebrated Catholic intellectual who was scarcely known as a Catholic during his decade of fame.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan's name didn't surface in the document released in June by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. But the late media guru's presence could be detected in the 40-page pamphlet: in its call for media literacy, its tribute to the unifying pull of global communications, and its recognition that the process (the medium) is as morally weighted as the content (the message).

An unswerving Catholic convert, the tweedy literature professor from Canada became an instant pop-culture luminary of the 1960s. So ubiquitous that Goldie Hawn could score a laugh on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In by giggling, "What-cha doin', Marshall McLuhan?" His latest biographer, W. Terrence Gordon, notes the double irony of a God-is-dead counter-culture giving "a man of faith the status of an icon."

Few who glimpsed the bumper-stickers with the words laughed out by Hawn had any inkling of his papist leanings. What they probably heard were his playful (and often inscrutable) aphorisms like "the medium is the message" and his most lasting locution, the "global village." (Contrary to a near universal impression, McLuhan was hardly infatuated with the media-made world.)

Those insights, or "probes" in McLuhan talk, have landed in such disparate realms as Hollywood (he had a cameo on Woody Allen's Annie Hall)and the Holy See. As for the latter, he often lamented in private letters that the Church was way behind the media technological learning curve.

(Gordon, in his 1997 biography, Marshall McLuhan: Escape Into Understanding, published by Basic Books, reports without elaboration that McLuhan tried to stimulate a dialogue within the Pontifical Council for Social Communications on the effects of television on the liturgy, but to no avail.)

Still, in what has to be one of the least noticed passages of his 1964 signature volume, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the media guru clapped for a media-wise pontiff.

"Pope Pius XII was deeply concerned that there be serious study of the media today," wrote McLuhan, who was raised in a devoutly Methodist family in Alberta and became a Catholic at age 25, captivated by Catholic writers, especially G.K. Chesterton. He taught most of his career at St. Michael's College, part of the University of Toronto, and died 20 years ago at age 69.

The book related a quote from a public message by Pope Pius in February 1950: "It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual's own reaction." In other words, the more powerful these media are, the more adept we must be at discerning their messages or effects, ill or good.

McLuhan commented: "Failure in this respect has for centuries been typical and total for mankind. Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them (the media)prisons without walls for their human users."

Lately the Church has been catching up to Pius XII, and perhaps to McLuhan. In its 1992 pastoral instruction, Aetatis Nova (A New Era), the Pontifical Council urged Church institutions to offer programs in "media literacy for teachers, parents, and students." In an upbeat spirit, it welcomed "the world of communications which is unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a 'global village.'"

The new pamphlet, Ethics in Communications, signed by Council president Archbishop John P. Foley, calls again for enhanced media literacy. Evoking McLuhan's village, it also notes that social communications can serve the human person by drawing people together "for the pursuit of shared purposes and goals."

In his most memorable utterance, McLuhan said, "The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village." Not a systematic thinker, McLuhan usually left readers with diverse impressions of what he meant. And, while many saw him as the media village's prophet, the oracle himself had many worrisome doubts. "I don't approve of the global village," he clarified once. "I say we live in it."

He certainly could give impressions of immense optimism. For example, in Understanding Media he saw the promise of "a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity" in the global village. (In this vein he invoked the language-transcending power of computers, long before the advent of PCs.)

Nonetheless, McLuhan feared that the merging of global consciousness through instantaneous communication was dissipating human individuality, the sense that each person is a unique, bodily image of God. It is from this direction that he arrived in the pro-life movement, once leading a march for life on Ottawa.

"It is important to realize that all of our thinking about abortion is taking place in the smogged-over world of TV. It is becoming monstrous to even mention the individual rights of the born, or the unborn," he wrote in a July 24, 1974 letter to the Toronto Star (carried in Letters of Marshall McLuhan, Oxford University Press, 1987). "Only huge categories will serve, such as the 'rights of pregnant teenagers …."

Some of his warnings against the media's corrosion of individuality could sound obsolete in the digital age of cell phones, palm pilots, and other customized communication. Often, though, McLuhan seemed to uncannily anticipate the cyber-realm of virtual reality.

He said the celerity of communication — in which the "sender is sent" — has for all practical purposes rendered the human being bodiless, "essentially discarnate…. Much of his [modern man's] own sense of unreality may stem from this." He worried especially about what this may hold for Christianity. "Discarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate Church," he wrote to Clare Boothe Luce in 1979.

McLuhan wanted Western culture to probe the ways in which the "medium is the message." Though he enjoyed adding new meanings to that tantalizing phrase, he was arguing essentially that the great (though largely unseen) effects of a medium lie not with its contents, but with the medium as such.

From a McLuhanite perspective, media technologies have shaped society more by their very forms than by what they transmit. Telephone, radio, and television have reconstructed the sight-and-sound world of preliterate societies. As the dominant medium, television has transmuted print,which has come to reflect the quick cut images and abbreviated attention spans of TV culture.

The ultimate medium that becomes the message, in McLuhan's faith, is Jesus Christ.

"Christ came to demonstrate God's love for man and to call all men to Him through himself as Mediator, as Medium. And in so doing he became the proclamation of his Church, the message of God to man. God's medium became God's message," he said in a conversation recorded by his wife, Corinne, with whom he raised six children. Gordon, a linguistics professor in Nova Scotia, notes in his valuable biography that McLuhan promised a year before he died to deliver a lecture on the Eucharist and contemporary media, but it was not to be.

He also once wrote to a Catholic communications official that "the new responsibility" is to develop an awareness of the effects of specific media processes. The latest Vatican document echoes and stretches that sentiment. "The ethical dimension relates not just the content of communication (the message) and the process of communication (how the communicating is done) but to fundamental structural and systemic issues," such as media ownership and control, and how to balance profit with the public interest.

While he would be pleased that some of his intellectual probes have reached the ecclesiastical realm, McLuhan would undoubtedly pick an argument with Archbishop Foley over one persistent refrain in the text. "We say again: the media do nothing by themselves; they are instruments, tools, used as people choose to use them," the document says.

McLuhan, of course, believed that though they are indeed extensions of the human person, media technologies do quite a lot by themselves. In Understanding Media, he said the conventional view — that it is the way media are used that counts — is "the numb stance of the technological idiot.

For the 'content' of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind."

To this day, probably few Catholic scholars would recognize McLuhan as one of theirs, perhaps because of his perpetual association with the flightiness of the 1960s. But as the journal Communio said, postmortem, "What the Catholic public needs to know is that McLuhan remained morally serious and finally untrendy."

He died on December 31, 1980. Gordon relates that in spite of a stroke that had left him in an aphasic state, he had been able to sing all the hymns at Sunday Mass.


William Bole "Marshall McLuhan: The "Medium" is the Message." Our Sunday Visitor April 25, 2001.

Reprinted with permission from the author. The article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.


William Bole is a freelance journalist living in Lowell, Massachusetts, a senior correspondent of Our Sunday Visitor, and an associate fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He is co-author, with Msgr. George Higgins, of Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a 'Labor Priest' (Paulist Press, 1993).

Copyright © 2001 Our Sunday Visitor

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