This photo taken on May 24, 2021, by The Vatican Media shows Pope Francis in a studio of Radio Vatican during a visit to the Vatican's Communication Department in Rome. (Photo: AFP / VATICAN MEDIA)
Catholics might be surprised to learn that the word “propaganda,” which has a somewhat negative connotation today, was originally a respectable name for the papal office created specially to spread the faith (de propaganda fide).
It happened somewhat like this.
In medieval times, it was the king who paid for all the expenses of missionaries in foreign lands. But frequently this royal patronage (padroado) did not suffice, so in 1622, the Roman pontiff Gregory XV decided to set up another office of “missionary matters,” which ran parallel to the padroado system and was in frequent conflict with it.
Ever since “propaganda” has had a suspect meaning, which has only increased in modern times, particularly with media technology.
Today, propaganda is used by any government or corporation, which attempts to manipulate information in its favor or to create a false impression of an event, a group, or a socio-political reality.
How propaganda works
Most governments, even democracies, are prone to covert crime and wrongdoing because all governments increasingly lust for power and total control — and anyone obsessed with power turns soon enough to crime.
And all public crime begins with the lie, “the bigger, the better,” as Joseph Goebbels, an ardent follower of Adolf Hitler, would say. And it’s the lie that is the foundation of propaganda.
The state is a past master at concealing and distorting the truth, banning dissent and discussion, promoting only one ‘official version’ of an event, and using advertisements and half-truths to promote itself.
As the old saying has it, “Never believe that something is true, until it has been officially denied.”
The means of propaganda are several, but three are invariable: distortion, omission, and false impression.
Propaganda is very careful to use words and phrases which are neutral. Neither did Russia “invade” Ukraine, nor did the US “invade” Vietnam. These were only “special military operations.”
In the present West Asia conflict, only Hamas and other Muslim groups are “terrorists.” Other groups are “militants” or better still, “freedom fighters.”
Propaganda thrives on stereotypes and creates “echo chambers” for its users. An ‘echo chamber’ only magnifies the sound of one’s own voice, the very antithesis of dialogue.
Political theorists usually divide the electorate into an “active 20 percent” and a “passive 80 percent.”
The first group consists of those educated and politically alert, who take in media messages and critically review them. The second group, the majority, are the uncritical consumers, whose consent is necessary for governance.
The task of newspapers, radio, television, and film is to present the government’s plans and strategies in such an acceptable way that they are uncritically assented to.
This process is known as “manufacturing consent,” in the memorable phrase of Walter Lippmann, an American public intellectual of the 1930s-40s.
In totalitarian countries, the media have no choice but to present the “official viewpoint,” which the public knows is a lie. In democracies however information is doctored and distorted, so the lies are more subtle, for this is the way in which democracies work.
This is why the social critic Noam Chomsky notes, “The general public doesn’t know what is happening, and doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.”
In today’s media climate, however, it’s not just the mass media, but the social media as well connects immediately with the electorate, and “manufactures consent.”
Because of today’s enhanced technology the “leader” can reach out instantly to individuals without the need of an in-between representative.
In the 1930s, Hitler did this with radio, and so did Franklin Roosevelt in his “fireside chats.”
Today, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaches out to millions on his radio “Man ki Baat” (Heart-to-heart talk).
With everyone having a smartphone in their pocket, human contact has changed irretrievably today. In every instance, technology assists propaganda to capture the reader, the viewer, or the listener, and deliver them to the government or the corporation.
A final question — What of propaganda in the Church?
What has been seen is that the function of propaganda in civil society is largely about deceiving the public and controlling it in ways that the establishment/government sees desirable.
These goals are also those of the Catholic Church, which has always set great store by obedience.
Only a cursory glance at Church history reveals how this uniformity of thought, word and action was tightly enforced, through a rigid seminary formation, a closely monitored liturgy, and an iron-clad moral code. Obey — or else!
But times change. What was enforceable in the past often looks quaint and awkward in the present.
Sixty years ago, the Vatican Council II attempted to break out of the time warp in which the Church had been closeted for at least 200 years. It made courageous forays into liturgy, theology, ecumenism and world mission. Most welcomed these changes. Many were confused. Some resisted.
The present Pope Francis wishes to consolidate this aggiornamento (updating) with his call for synodality. Francis’s method is mercy and dialogue. He encourages speaking out and simply refuses to punish. A rich and powerful minority in the Church is fighting him every step of the way.
Perhaps the Church will stop practicing propaganda and dissimulation, and deal honestly with the truth. This could be the first step on a new and refreshing journey.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.