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Marshall McLuhan in 1963 (Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)
Marshall McLuhan in 1963 (Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)

Michael Higgins

A Catholic Cassandra's faith Add to ...

When Marshall McLuhan was asked by Edward Wakin in an interview published three years before his death in 1980 about the state of literacy in the Catholic Church, the quixotic communications genius observed that "the levels of culture in the Catholic Church are on the Reader's Digest level. But that doesn't signal great danger. It is just a bit of a disgrace, like having one's fly open in public." Not an altogether flattering assessment, but his coreligionists could take comfort in the fact that McLuhan - variously described as devout and ardent - remained firmly in the Catholic camp.

McLuhan biographer and novelist Douglas Coupland gets it right when he notes that "Catholicism offered Rome! History! Art! Beauty! Ritual! But most of all, it allowed Marshall a spot to park his overpowering need for a viewpoint that could explain, or perhaps heal, the stress and disjointedness he saw in the world."

But it would be wrong to reduce his faith to a kinky amalgam of bio-neurological and metaphysical components, an alchemy both wondrous and perverse. McLuhan's Catholic faith was constitutive of his life and thought in ways that confound both the apologist and the detractor.

McLuhan's original research opened up the complex canvas of word and technology for modern scrutiny, and he drew not only on his expertise in Renaissance rhetoric but on the work of a stunning array of Catholic writers - converts, cradle Catholics, and the lapsed (a list that included G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, Walter Ong, James Joyce and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) - to articulate an understanding of media that was grounded in an organic tradition, at the same time that that very tradition was being disassembled, rejigged and newly packaged.

For McLuhan, Catholicism's hegemonic control of the acoustic culture of Europe was shattered by the Gutenberg revolution and the ascendancy of Protestantism - a direct historic consequence of the introduction of print and the new religious populism - but Rome's capacity to survive - to adapt to the new visual culture - proved a mixed blessing. "Improved written communication made possible the development of a huge Roman bureaucracy, transforming the Roman pontiff into a chief executive. … When things speed up hierarchy disappears and global theatre sets in."

At first blush, it might look as if McLuhan - Rome's intellectual ally - had just managed to unseat Peter. But, on closer inspection, he had uncoupled the Petrine Primacy from its centuries-encrusted apparatus and liberated the pope from being an obsolete bureaucratic figure to become an international role player. The Bishop of Rome, then, in the electric world, a world where the role and not the goal is supreme, is ideally positioned to flourish. As McLuhan argues: "At the speed of light you cannot have executives, you cannot have hierarchy."

Admittedly, a church as highly structured as the Catholic one is not likely to dispense with its magisterium, its international diplomatic corps and its multitiered organizational network. But the reinvigoration of its premier authority figure - the pope - and his virtual appearance everywhere by electrification have resulted in the de-Romanization of the Roman Church.

For bishops around the world who have to deal with Rome on a daily basis, for progressive Catholics who find that the work of the Second Vatican Council is being methodically undermined, and for self-styled Orthodox Catholics who welcome the waves of restoration and triumphalism coursing down the Tiber, the very idea that the Internet, YouTube, tweeting and texting are dismantling an ecclesiastical empire seems preposterous.

And that would be McLuhan.

He was neither anti-doctrine nor anti-devotion; he was a daily communicant, partial to the old liturgy, and respectful of the clergy. But he was ever the observer of our changing technological environment, conscious of the permutations both subtle and overt that effect society, a Catholic Cassandra admonishing his church on its incapacity to see, yet firm in his conviction that hell shall not prevail against it.

Writer Jeet Heer is correct when he says that McLuhan's "faith made him a more ambitious and far-reaching thinker." His church shaped and stretched his thinking. Time now - on the 100th anniversary of his birth - for his thinking to shape and stretch his church.

Michael Higgins is the past president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

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