|January, 1954 cover of Information|
A reporter once asked Bishop Fulton Sheen if he thought Christ would use Television were He on earth today. The bishop said: "yes, for television is just a means of transportation. Christ used the most modern means of transportation in His day when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey."
The project I researched at the Notre Dame archives and Hesburgh Library is part of a wider research I have been carrying out on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the different media (cinema, radio, and especially television). The research revolves around the idea that the audiovisual documents are an important and essential tool for analyzing the Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th centuries. They can be compared to the official and traditional documents since these sources are as eloquent as the other more traditional ones, to understand some specific aspects of the life of the Church. It is then necessary to reflect on the role of cinema and television, which has largely been ignored by the historians of the Church. As a matter of fact, the so-called field of «media and religion» (and its fruitful branch of «Film and religion studies», for example) has been a prerogative of sociologists, semiologists, and of historians of cinema and television.
Of course, the works of the anthropologist and the semiologists are important, but I aim at understanding the effects of the religious programs on the Catholic Church. I have worked on the audiovisual documents and on the reviews and journals from 1935 to 1960 (such as «Information», «The Priest», «Pastoral Life», «Catholic Historical Review», «Illinois Catholic Historical Review», «Worship», «Sign», «TV Guide», «The Christian Century», «Commonweal», «America», «The Catholic World», «New York Times») in order to understand the reactions of the American Catholic Church (sensu latu) to the new medium. Actually, I see them as the gauge of the debates inside the US Catholic world.
Given these premises, the aim of this research is to study the origins and the first decades of the US television (the Forties and the Fifties, the decades in which the US TV appeared and established itself as a leading medium) and, in particular, US religious broadcasting. It is focused on the debates that arose among bishops and priests, as well as in the press, and the effects that the arrival of the TV and the first religious television shows had on US Catholicism. Television also affected US relationship with Rome, and it could be compared with what was simultaneously happening in Europe and in Italy. I will try to contextualize the papal/episcopal teachings, taking the practical problems arising from television into account.
As a matter of fact, the praxis is always more interesting and complicated than the teachings, especially in this field: if we limit our analysis to the official documents of the Pastoral Letters of the United States Catholic Bishops, we find some specific interventions (A Statement on Censorship, issued by the Catholic Bishops of the US, in November 17, 1957, and the Resolution on the Secular Press, Radio, and TV passed by the Administrative Board of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, in November 1958).
These are typical expressions of the Catholic Church’s approach towards the media. Actually, the praxis of the bishops, of the catholic movement, of the catholic reviews, and of the laymen was more interesting as it was more varied and complex, going beyond mere religious control. For instance, a good example was represented by cinema: even if the encyclical Vigilanti cura by pope Pius XI was issued in 1936, the Catholic Church had been exploiting the possibilities of the cinema since its very beginning by producing religious movies or by organizing parish cinemas and so forth and so on. The first pope to be filmed was, for example, Pope Leo XIII in 1896.
By the same token, for example, from the pages of the «New York Times», of the «Daily Boston Globe», we know that Card. Francis Joseph Spellman and Richard Cushing were willing to understand and use television. Indeed, differently from the majority of the Italian bishops, who, for years, looked passively at the television, Cushing officiated the first TV nuptial Mass in august 1952; he then decided to build the Nation’s 1st TV Chapel in April 1953; he gave TV fans a “guided Tour” of his Residence in April 1954; and he inaugurated the Catholic Commentary Sunday in January 1957 as card. Lercaro would do five years later, in 1962 in Italy. Furthermore, Spellman in 1953 defended TV against critics. «The New York Times» started the article with the comment: Critics of television got an antagonist yesterday in Cardinal Spellman. He said: «It is true that television has been criticized, but everything is criticized; […] It is my belief that those responsible for TV are doing their utmost to bring into homes of America programs that are constructive, instructive and stimulating […]. The Apostle Paul, on his journeys, endured suffering and privation in bringing the Gospel to different parts of the known world yet “his personality was projected to a very few! With the establishment of printing, the anniversary of which we are observing this year, we had the Bible available to increasing numbers of people. Then radio. Now television».
As reported also by «The Sign», July 1953, «Catholic communities throughout the United States might do very well, to follow the lead of the Archdiocese of New York, which has established a radio and television office for the production of religious programs and script reading».
Why is the study of the first decade of US TV so important?
Not only is the case of US TV, in my opinion, particularly interesting for the history of American Catholicism but it is also intimately connected to Italian TV and Italian Catholicism. Indeed, radio experiments in the religious colleges of the 1910s had a huge impact on a similar initiative of the Catholic movement in Italy. Again, the Legion of Decency of the United States Episcopal conference influenced the establishment of a number of organizations as well as the creations of methods to control the moral content of films in Italy and for television as well. As far as television is concerned, it can be said that the American Catholic influence on the Italian attitude towards this medium is more evident. Italian television (RAI, officially started on January, 3rd 1954) was controlled by the Christian Democracy Party and the general RAI director Ettore Bernabei (a member of Opus Dei) was called «the cardinal» in the diary of the Italian ambassador to the Holy See. In general RAI managers paid a lot of attention to the North America television system. This is shown by the fact that they sent their Channel directors in US to better understand the logic of this medium, or, for example, to copy some of their religious formats: La posta di Padre Mariano [The mailbox of Father Mariano] is the Italian equivalent of the US Life is Worth Living and during 1962 Fulton Sheen was a guest of the program.
In conclusion, I think that an in-depth analysis of the arrival of television in US and in Italy is an innovative point of view to understand better a piece of history of the Catholic Church in the XX century. Actually, the audiovisual documents are often more “eloquent” than the official and traditional ones.