"In truth, peace is in danger where public opinion ceases to function freely"
ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS POPE PIUS XII
The importance of the Catholic Press, which you represent at this international congress, dearest sons, and the gravity of the problems proposed to your study have led us to forfeit, to receive you, the rule We had imposed, to Our heartfelt regret, to limit and even often suspend Our speeches and addresses during the Holy Year. This time, however, We could not fail to say Our word about the great subject of your meeting. It is as vast as suggestive: the Catholic Press at the service of truth, justice, and peace.
In view of the most important aspects of this service, We deem it opportune to give to your meditations some fundamental principles concerning the role of the Catholic Press vis-à-vis public opinion. In fact, the former is at the forefront of those who contribute to the formation and dissemination of the latter.
Indeed, public opinion is the prerogative of every normal society composed of men who, conscious of their personal and social conduct, are intimately involved in the community of which they are members. Ultimately, it is everywhere the natural echo and more or less spontaneous common resonance, in their minds and judgments, of unfolding events and the current situation.
It is necessary to ascertain the nonexistence of public opinion, especially where you see no manifestation of it: no matter how one can explain its silence or absence, it should be seen as a vice, infirmity or sickness of the social life.
Obviously, We are leaving aside the case where public opinion remains silent in a world where even legitimate freedom is banned, and only the parties, leaders or dictators in power are allowed to opine and make their voice heard. In the eyes of every Christian, stifling the voice of citizens or reducing it to forced silence is attacking the natural right of man and a violating the world order as God established it.
Who cannot guess the anxieties and moral disarray into which such a state of affairs casts the conscience of pressmen? In truth, We had hoped that the overly harsh experiences of the past would at least have served as a lesson to definitively free society from so scandalous a tyranny and put an end to such humiliating outrage for journalists and their readers. Yes, We had hoped no less strongly than you, and Our disappointment is no less bitter than yours.
What a lamentable situation! It is just as deplorable, and perhaps even more ominous for its consequences, as the situation of peoples in which public opinion remains silent, not because it is gagged by an external force but because its internal premises, which must be found among men living in community, are absent.
We recognize in public opinion a natural echo, a more or less spontaneous common resonance of facts and circumstances in the minds and judgments of people who feel responsible and closely related to the fate of their community. Our words indicate almost as many reasons why public opinion is formed and expresses itself with such difficulty. Today, what they call public opinion is often only a name void of sense, something like a vague rumor, a fictitious and superficial impression that has nothing of an echo spontaneously awakened in the consciousness of society and emanating from it.
But where can we look for such men deeply imbued with a sense of their responsibility and close solidarity with the environment in which they live? There are no more traditions, stable families, the security of livelihood, nothing that could have stopped the work of disintegration, and all too often destruction. Add to that the forceful abuse by gigantic mass organizations which, seizing modern man in their complicated gear, easily suffocate all spontaneity of public opinion and reduce it to blind and docile conformity of thoughts and judgments.
Would there not be men worthy of the name in those unfortunate nations? Men marked with the seal of true personality capable of making possible the interior life of society? Men who, in the light of the central principles of life, in the light of their strong convictions, know how to contemplate God, the world and all events great or small that succeed each other? Such men, it seems, thanks to the rectitude of their judgment and feelings should be able to build stone by stone the solid wall on which the voice of events would reverberate and be reflected in a spontaneous echo. Undoubtedly there are still some such men – too few alas! And they become rarer every day, replaced with skeptical, jaded, carefree subjects without substance or character and easily manipulated by some masters of the game!
The modern man gladly displays independent and flippant attitudes. In most cases the latter are only a facade hiding poor, empty, flabby creatures without the strength of mind to unmask the lie, or fortitude to resist the violence of those who cleverly set in motion all the resources of modern technology, and all the refined art of persuasion to deprive them of their freedom of thought and to render them as frail as a ‘reed shaken with the wind’ (Mt 11:7).
Would one dare to say with confidence that the majority of men are capable of judging and appreciating facts and currents at their true weight so that opinion is guided by reason? Yet this is a condition sine qua non of its value and health. Instead, do we not see this way - the only legitimate one to judge men and things according to clear rules and just principles - repudiated as an impediment to spontaneity, and, on the other hand, do we not see impulsiveness and sensitive reactions of instinct and passion honored as the only ‘values of life’? Under the action of this prejudice, little remains of human reason and its force to penetrate the deep maze of reality.
Sensible men are no longer found; the visual field of those who remain does not extend beyond their narrow specialty or purely technical acumen. These men can hardly be expected ordinarily to educate public opinion or stand firm against clever propagandists who claim the privilege of fashioning it at will. In this area, Christian-minded men who are simple, upright but clear – though most of the time without much education – are by far superior to them. Therefore, men who should play the role of enlightening and guiding public opinion, some out of ill will or insufficiency, others by impossibility or constraint, are often seen in bad position to do this job freely and successfully. This unfavorable situation affects particularly the Catholic Press and its action at the service of public opinion. All failures and incapacities of which we have just spoken are owned to the violation of the natural organization of human society as God intended it, to the mutilation of man who, formed in the image of his Creator and endowed by him with intelligence, was born into the world to be its master, wholly imbued with truth, docile to the precepts of the moral law, to the natural law, and to the supernatural doctrine contained in the revelation of Christ.
In such situation the most terrible evils for the Catholic publicist would be pusillanimity and despondency. Look at the Church: for nearly two millennia, through all difficulties, contradictions, misunderstandings, open or devious persecutions, she has never been discouraged, she has never allowed herself to be depressed. Take her as model. See, in the lamentable flaws we have just pointed out, the twofold picture of how the Catholic Press must and must not be.
In its whole way of being and acting, the Press must counter the gradual decline and disappearance of the fundamental conditions for a sound public opinion with an impassable obstacle, consolidating and strengthening what remains thereof. Let the press gladly renounce the vain advantages of vulgar interest or bad popularity; let it know how to maintain itself with energetic and proud dignity, inaccessible to all direct or indirect attempts at corruption. Let it have the courage even at the price of pecuniary sacrifice to mercilessly proscribe from its columns any announcement or advertisement outrageous to faith or honesty. In so doing it will gain intrinsic value and eventually earn esteem and confidence, justifying the oft-repeated motto, ‘Let a Catholic newspaper be in every Catholic home.’
But even in the best external and internal conditions for its development and propagation, public opinion is neither infallible nor always absolutely spontaneous. The complexity or novelty of events and situations can have a marked influence on its formation and besides it is not easy for public opinion to free itself from preconceived judgments or mainstream ideas even when a reaction would be objectively justified and impose itself. It is here that the Press has a prominent role to play in educating public opinion, not to dictate or regulate it, but to effectively serve it.
This delicate task presupposes that members of the Catholic Press have competence, a general culture especially philosophical and theological, the gift of style, and psychological tact. But character is first and foremost what is essential to them. Character simply means deep love and unalterable respect for the divine order, which encompasses and animates all areas of life; love and respect which a Catholic journalist must not be content with feeling and nourishing in the secret of his heart but must cultivate in the hearts of his readers. In some cases his spurting flame will suffice to rekindle or revive in them the almost dead spark of convictions and feelings, dormant in the depths of their consciences. In other cases, his breadth of vision and judgment may open their eyes, too timidly fixed on traditional prejudices. With both, he will always be careful not to “make” opinion but to do better: aspire to serve it.
We believe that this Catholic conception of public opinion, of how it functions, and the services the Press renders to it is entirely right and that you need, according to your ideal [as journalists] open up to men the path of truth, justice, peace.
Thus, by its attitude towards public opinion, the Press arises as a barrier in the face of totalitarianism, which by its very nature necessarily is an enemy of the true and free opinion of citizens. Indeed, it denies by its very nature this divine order and the relative autonomy it gives in all areas of life insofar as they all derive from God, their origin.
We clearly reaffirmed this opposition in two recent speeches highlighting a judge's position in the face of the law. We were speaking about the objective norms of law and the natural divine right which guarantees the juridical life of men, the autonomy required by a living and certain adaptation to the conditions of each time. We certainly expected that totalitarians would not understand us since for them both the law and the juridical framework are only instruments in the hands of dominant circles.
However, We are really surprised to find the same misunderstandings in certain circles which for a long time have posed as champions of the liberal conception of life and condemned men for the sole fault of being attached to laws and precepts contrary to morality. Finally, for a judge to issue his sentence feeling bound by positive law and beholden to interpret it faithfully is not at all incompatible with the recognition of the natural law, but rather one of its requirements. But this bond cannot legitimately be tied exclusively to the act of the human legislator from whom the law emanates. That would be tantamount to recognizing positive legislation as having a pseudo-majesty that would in no way differ from that which racism or nationalism attributed to the production of totalitarian legislation, trampling underfoot the natural rights of physical and legal persons. Again, it is incumbent on the Catholic Press to express in clear formulas the thought of the people, who are often confused, hesitant and embarrassed by the modern mechanism of positive legislation, which becomes dangerous as soon as it is no longer seen as derived from the natural divine right.
This Catholic conception of public opinion and the service that the Press renders to it is also a solid guarantee of peace. It takes up the cause for proper freedom of thought and the right of men to their own judgment, but in light of the divine law. That means that whoever wants to be loyally at the service of opinion, whether it is the social authority or the press itself, must absolutely refrain from any lie or excitement. Is it not obvious that such a disposition of mind and will is an effective reaction against the bellicose climate? Hence a heavy, unhealthy, and factitious atmosphere is created as soon as they dictate or impose their will on the so-called public opinion with lies, partial prejudices, artifices of style, effects of voice and gestures, exploiting peoples’ feelings. Just as fatal as odious chemical processes too well-known today, that turns the right of men to their own judgment and convictions into an illusion and eventually suffocates and stupefies the same men, compelling them to give up their goods and blood to defend and make triumph a false and unjust cause. In truth, peace is in danger where public opinion ceases to function freely.
Finally, we would like to add a word about public opinion within the Church (naturally, in matters left open for discussion). Only those who do not know the Church or know her badly could be surprised at this. For, finally, it is a living body, and her life would be missing something if public opinion were absent. Blame for that defect would fall on the Pastors and faithful. Here again, the Catholic Press can be very instrumental. However, the journalist must bring to this service, more than any other, that character of which we have spoken, made of unchanging respect and profound love for the divine order. In the present case, that means towards the Church as she exists not only in the eternal designs but as she lives concretely here below, in space and time; yes, she is divine but composed of human members and organizations.
If he possesses this character, the Catholic publicist will be able to avoid both silent servility and uncontrolled criticism. With firm clarity, he will help the formation of Catholic opinion in the Church precisely when, as today, this opinion oscillates between two equally dangerous poles: illusory and unreal spiritualism, and defeatist and materialistic realism. Far from these two extremes, the Catholic Press will have to exercise its influence on public opinion in the Church among the faithful. Only in this way can one elude nowadays all misconceptions about the role and possibilities of the Church in the temporal sphere by excess or default, and especially regarding the social question and the problem of peace.
We will not close without turning Our thought towards so many truly great men who are the honor and glory of Catholic journalism and the press of modern times. For over a century they have stood before us as models of spiritual activity; even better, from their ranks have now risen true martyrs of the good cause, valiant confessors amid the spiritual and temporal difficulties of existence. Blessed be their memory! May their remembrance be of comfort and encouragement in the fulfillment of your arduous but important duty.
Confident that, by their example, you will fulfill yours faithfully and fruitfully, We give you wholeheartedly, dearest sons, Our Apostolic Blessing.
* Discours et messages-radio de S.S. Pie XII, XI, Onzième année de Pontificat, 2 mars 1949 - 1er mars 1950, pp. 365 – 372, Typographie Polyglotte Vaticane