Media Ecology, Church and Pandemic
Media ecology, a subset of communication studies, approaches communication as an ecosystem. Borrowing the metaphor of a natural ecosystem, this type of study imagines communication as an environment in which many different elements interact. The environment contains not only different communication media – telephones, radio, television, social media, printed materials, and so on – but also people, ideas, cultures, historical events, and so on.
As with any ecosystem, changing any one part affects all of the others. In a natural ecosystem, say a pond in a forest, the introduction of a new species of frog will affect the insects living near the pond, the grasses and flowers in the locality, the birds, the fish, the animals, in short, everything.
The same alteration of an environment takes place in media ecology. We have seen this dramatically just in the last 15 years. The addition of a smartphone, that is, a mobile phone that allows internet access, has changed the ways that people communicate. Rather than talking, they text; rather than reading a newspaper, they follow newsfeeds; rather than watching films or television, they look at video clips; rather than gathering with friends, they connect on social media.
Many more such examples can be found. However explained, this ecosystem model describes the communications environment in which the Church has faced the pandemic of Covid-19. But rather than the introduction of a new communication technology, the incursion of the virus has caused the changes.
Seeing the Church through media ecology
When the pandemic struck, the Church, like all social actors, had already faced an upheaval in its communication patterns, though a relatively minor one. Church institutions continued to use print media and the Vatican, for example, had its own radio and television outlets broadcasting to countries and networks around the world. Church leaders nationally often benefited from similar arrangements with national broadcasters. The Internet provided additional means of distribution, with Church offices sponsoring websites. Crucially, these retained a “broadcast” model, with institutional sources distributing content. Social media, with its bidirectional communication, opened new opportunities and by its very nature challenged the existing communication models.
The Church both universal and local responded to the pandemic by acting across the communication spectrum. Communication that affected most people in technologically advanced countries occurred online, with parishes live streaming Masses when local health authorities halted all public gatherings, thus vastly increasing the instances of televised or online Eucharistic celebrations. Parishes and dioceses moved religious education online. Religious communities and other ecclesial groups prepared online devotional guides, increasing the store of spiritual aids – reading, guided meditations, art, commentary, and so on. Individual parishioners continued Bible study and prayer groups online. On more traditional media, the Vatican continued to broadcast the pope’s activities, most memorably an Urbi et Orbi blessing to an empty St. Peter’s Square.
Most likely, other changes will occur, given the nature of online communication. But the influence of new situations takes time to diffuse throughout society.
Media ecology at work in history
Historical perspectives can illustrate this media ecology. The communication ecosystem constantly changes and occasionally changes dramatically. But it took both society and the Church decades, if not centuries, to begin to adjust to the first experience of mass communication provided by the printing press. The initial response included shifting from a manuscript to a print-based culture, from centralization of communication products in libraries to wide distribution through book sellers. Here, like other institutional actors, the Church tried to maintain the status quo ante, that is, to control the output of the printing presses, both promoting the printing of acceptable works and barring the faithful from reading unacceptable works (as listed on an Index of Forbidden Books). On the other hand, enabled by the independent distribution channels afforded by printing, the Protestant Reformation’s theological writers began to challenge Church control of information and Church authority, publishing and disseminating their own works.
Another development, quite different from the distribution or control of information, arose from the form of information. The orally based presentation of manuscript culture did not suit the printed page. It took several centuries for scholars, for theology and for the Church to understand the world of the printed word: how best to frame arguments (changing from an oral style to one designed for reading), to take advantage of the layout of a printed page (adopting a visual arrangement), to choose audiences (using Latin rather than a vernacular language), or to assert authority (directly or through the control of information). Over time, some elements of the ecosystem evolved and others disappeared.
Consider another example. Starting in the mid-19th century, the Church faced yet another slow revolution in the communication ecosystem, resulting from the rise of electrical technologies and their impact on communication: the telegraph, the telephone and the radio, and the mass media that they enabled, such as newspapers, films and broadcasting. The increased speed and reach of communication allowed the Church to increase centralization, since Vatican offices, for example, could communicate immediately with local dioceses and indeed immediately with the people.
At the same time, the Church faced new competition in communication. Beyond competition with other religious voices as in the Reformation, the Church had to compete in an ecosystem in which popular culture helped shape the possibilities of communication. Changes involved government (including democracy), news (immediate reporting of distant events, an increased role of news as a commodity, and an agenda-setting function of the mass press), entertainment (a move to mass entertainment based on music, film and radio), the migration of peoples (who saw new places and opportunities), and employment (the move from farming to manufacturing, an electrical goods industry, information sector work, and so on).
Models of the Church as an ecosystem
The experiences of centralized control and of the Church’s existence as one social actor among many others invited a rethinking of ecclesial patterns. As people embraced the technologies of the mass press, radio, film and television, they also accepted multiple centralized systems, something that required an increased consciousness of central Church authority. For example, the characteristics of authority in the Church shifted from the patterns of a medieval and renaissance court to a bureaucracy set up to support her teaching office.
In reflecting on Church structures after Vatican II, Cardinal Avery Dulles observed that different models or understandings of the Church aligned with different communication patterns. The Church’s institutional structure worked well with broadcasting because broadcast networks preferred a single point of contact. Who would better speak for the Church than the pope? In fact, the Vatican developed its own broadcasting arm in Vatican Radio to take even greater advantage of that technology. Similar things occurred with national broadcasters who preferred a single point of contact for religious leaders. In the United States, the more centralized religious groups obtained more access to broadcast networks.
Other ideas of the Church, often patterns more suited to the local Church – such as the Church seen as a community of believers – aligned with interpersonal or group communication. Dulles also identified still more understandings of the Church – as sacrament, as herald of God’s word, as servant, as a place of dialogue with secular culture, and so on. All of these exist simultaneously with the others and each aligns with different communication practices. When he considered communication, Dulles’ understanding of the Church resembled an ecological model with many different parts of the Church interacting and sustaining one another in a balanced communication system.
Each of the historical examples and each of Dulles’ models indicate something of how a media ecology approach can help to understand parts of Church history. Because the ecology model focuses on communication, it does not attempt to explain all of the events or actions or understandings of the Church. However, the model suggests ideas about the current situation as the Church encounters challenges posed by the pandemic.
Two of the proponents of the media ecology approach, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan and his son and collaborator, Eric McLuhan, attempted to synthesize some of the ways media ecology works in “the four laws of the media.” What happens, they asked, when the media ecosystem experiences disruption? They suggest some particular characteristics, posed as a set of four questions:
“What recurrence or retrieval of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form?”
“When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?”
“If some aspect of a situation is enlarged or enhanced, simultaneously the old condition or un-enhanced situation is displaced thereby. What is pushed aside or made obsolete by the new ‘organ’?”
“What does the artefact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate?”
Marshall Soules gives the example of the Internet enhancing decentralization, speed of access, and networking; reversing into information overload and isolation; making travel, distance and retail outlets obsolete; and retrieving writing, small groups and local activism.
While these “laws” focus primarily on the media, they illustrate two more general connections. First, communication media and other events are interrelated. Whatever happens with one communication medium affects the others. While we see this most particularly with new communication technologies affecting old ones (the printing press increases the efficiency of scribal copying), the phenomenon also appears as people seek new ways to use existing communication technologies (for example, the Church televising the Mass).
The simultaneous dependence upon old forms and change with new forms result from the fact that each communication medium has its own specialities, that is, goals which the medium enables or makes easier to accomplish. People need not use these but they are available for development. Here, too, historical examples of unused opportunities abound, as for example the early European attempt to develop the telephone as a broadcast medium where individuals could listen to entertainment programming through shared telephone lines. This anticipated the later use of the radio even though it did not succeed for the telephone. But other opportunities do lead to successful adoption (the Internet as a social medium or the ability to livestream the Mass).
Second, these “laws of the media” can apply to other kinds of historical change (Roman roads made the migration of peoples easier; the bubonic plague indirectly led to the development of labor-saving devices, including the printing press). Whenever people deal with historical change, they often look to past experience (“retrieve” and “reverse into”) to see how they might benefit from something they knew (Gutenberg’s printed Bibles resembled manuscript Bibles in font and columnar arrangement) or recover something (the radio reinforcing the value of oral discourse after centuries of emphasis on print). The “laws of the media” also suggest how people dealt with something becoming obsolete (as motorized transport replaced animal power, wheel makers and blacksmiths became tire manufacturers or tool makers).
The impact of the pandemic on the media ecology of the Church
These generalizations about the “laws of the media” suggest some reflections about the impact of the pandemic on the Church, its communication and its nature.
The Catholic Church largely followed the directions of public authorities to limit gatherings of people, whether for worship, sacramental celebrations, religious education or other parish activities. Bishops dispensed individuals from Sunday obligation while pastors and parochial workers looked for ways to help maintain and nurture people’s faith. These approaches varied widely across the world, but in developed countries they involved communication technologies: many parishes celebrated the Eucharist in a video format either in making the Mass available in real time or in a recorded fashion. The Vatican used broadcasting to feature the pope’s Urbi et Orbi message and other activities.
The experience of these rapidly introduced changes in the routine life of the Church varied from place to place, but they included people worshiping at home in front of a screen of some kind; individuals substituting devotional activities for parish activities; individuals setting up online Bible study sessions or prayer circles; pastoral workers telephoning vulnerable (often elderly) members who did not have online connections; priests making hospital visits wearing protective coverings, more active social networking by retreat centers and online spirituality sites, using advertising and marketing techniques to offer prayer helps, and an increased sense of the local (and voluntary) networks connecting families and friends but not necessarily the chance encounters of a parish. Some, either by necessity (no parish online Mass) or by choice (dislike of the quality of their home parish’s digital presence) used the time to explore other parishes or communities.
When churches reopened, they did so to limitations on the number of worshipers (only a few family members at funerals, weddings or baptisms; limits to attendance at Mass, with the need to distribute tickets to enter); limitations on liturgical practices (physical separations, no singing, restricted manner of Eucharistic reception), and limitations on diocesan and parish autonomy, and the subsequent questioning of the knowledge and authority of pastoral leaders (regarding the health and safety of parishioners, the need for certain pastoral practices, or even the obligation to attend Mass).
More systematically, on the level of specific actions, the pandemic led the Church to retrieve the centrality of Eucharistic devotion and various devotional practices suited to the home. It led to a retrieval of traditions and forms of personal prayer – never forgotten but stressed now in the Church’s online ministries. It also led to a reversal back to the medieval practices of viewing or seeing the Eucharistic elements from afar but not receiving them. Similarly, it reversed the physical reception of Communion to the 18th and 19th century practices of “spiritual communion.” The responses to the pandemic have pushed aside if not made obsolete some of Church’s exercise of authority, with the directives of civil society and public health officials superseding Church law.
The pandemic also curtailed face-to-face religious gatherings, whether in parishes, retreat centers, pilgrimages, and so on – in some ways the Church response to the pandemic has lessened the importance of physical place. And the pandemic enhanced the importance of the local Church with the parish maintaining its role as the most visible (even online) point of contact with the Church. It enhanced the role of other kinds of Church leadership, with the laity taking the lead in religious education, spiritual direction, and even the technological services that make the Church present.
Interestingly, the pandemic did not seem to affect the centralizing role of the pope and the symbolic role that the papacy so publicly plays. A decidedly negative effect was that the pandemic enhanced and even increased digital media inequalities, separating those individuals and parishes without the connections or expertise to use these technologies from those who could. Because of this the pandemic has made obsolete much of the recent movements in the Church to greater participation and inclusion.
On a more general level, the pandemic also highlights how the different models of the Church suggested by Dulles interact. Like the four “laws of the media,” the models of the Church exist simultaneously and with equal validity. While the Church remains an institution, a communion, a sacrament, a herald and a servant, people’s sense of and experience of the Church have changed during this time of closures. The pandemic highlighted the Church as an institution, particularly at the parish level, as parishes controlled the communication from the center to the parishioners, typically using unidirectional formats to send out information or streamed liturgies to people. On the other hand, in many locations the middle level of the institution – the diocese – tended to have less of an impact on the people.
The sense of the Church as a communion decreased as face-to-face contact lessened, although some places did manage an increase of a sense of communion through social media, where individuals linked home Churches and prayer groups. The sense of the Church as sacrament shrunk as parishioners, with rare exceptions, could not participate in the celebration of the sacraments but remained limited to watching a few people celebrating the Eucharist, for example. Some few, where civil or medical officials allowed it, did manage to celebrate the sacrament of the sick.
To balance this loss, many experienced an increased experience of the Church as herald, announcing God’s word. This occurred through an increase in Bible study, spiritual reflection, online spirituality, and so on, typically through links to resources beyond the parish or diocese. Finally, many individuals banded together with institutional Church efforts to care for the sick and feed the hungry.
What might this mean for the Church as it moves forward? If one draws on the “laws of the media,” it might take the idea of retrieval and draw on its historical experience of limited worship, either in those parts of the world under persecution or in others with a limited number of priests. Though not globally, the Church has had similar experiences before. Considering reversal, the Church might more consciously evaluate the practical responses taken by parishes and dioceses – practices drawn from the past like spiritual communion – and ask about their theological value. Perhaps the Church’s Eucharistic theology does not always align with its Eucharistic practice. Similarly, the Church might reflect on the relative emphasis or weight that it places on the different models of the Church. In some ways, the pandemic has shifted the relationship between the sacramental and herald models.
Though public health authorities may find ways to limit the impact of the pandemic, the experience of the pandemic will remain in the memories and history of those who lived through it. Most likely, the Church will return to many of its pre-pandemic activities but it will have the opportunity to reflect on the opportunities presented by this experience, on the communication and structural ecosystems that they create, and on how it made use of them in an extraordinary time.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 10 art. 8, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.1020.8
 W. A. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word, London, Methuen, 1982
 A. Dulles, The Church is Communication, Rome, Multimedia International, 1971, 5-18; id., Models of the Church, Garden City (NY), Image Books, 1974; id., “Vatican II and Communications”, in R. Latourelle (ed.), Vatican II: Assessment and perspectives, twenty-five years after (1962-1987), vol. 3, New York, Paulist Press, 1989, 525-547.
 Cf. M. McLuhan – E. McLuhan, Laws of Media: The new science, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988.
 Cf. G. Sandstrom, “Laws of media—The four effects: A McLuhan contribution to social epistemology”, in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (2012/1) 1-6 (cf. wp.me/p1Bfg0-uc).