Marshall McLuhan’s Catholic Faith
Angela Sealana publishes a blog about media and Catholicism, which includes a page called Marshall McLuhan Monday every week. To be sure, Marshall McLuhan was a Catholic, having converted from the Baptist and Methodist faiths of his parents in 1937 at the age of 26. But is his body of work on media theory essentially Catholic in its scope and substance? I don’t think so. Though he was influenced by Thomist philosophy and Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, he was at least equally influenced by non-Catholic thinkers like I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce (who left the Catholic Church, “non serviam”), Harold Innis, E.T. Hall and many others. For a word cloud of influences on McLuhan see
. In my opinion an understanding of McLuhan’s Catholicism is essential for an understanding of the man, but not necessarily his media thought. My Catholic friends have yet to convince me of the latter, though I have an open mind and am always ready to listen. I expect I will be hearing from some of them…AlexK
Republished with permission:-
The greatest communications theorist ever’s Catholic faith [Marshall McLuhan Monday]
Consider this as introductory material to my presentation during Thursday’s Apostles in New Media Mini-Conference.
If you’ve never ‘met’ the greatest communications theorist ever, Marshall McLuhan, especially if you’re a Catholic in communications, then you’re missing out on a wonderful role model. Although I call him a theorist here, he was truly unclassifiable. He was in a class all his own and remains so.
McLuhan’s Catholic faith has been either ignored, perplexing, or downright enraging to many. I’d like to change that tradition by embracing his Catholicism, and I invite you Catholic media professionals and amateurs to join me.
As many of his biographers and former colleagues (and children) have said, his Catholicism was the very foundation of everything in his life. I’d like to illustrate his faith with several points, gathered from a variety of sources. More to follow in later MMMs.
I was reading [G.K.] Chesterton, and [Christopher] Dawson and [Jacques] Maritain and those people. That’s how I came in.
I had no instruction even from clergy at any time but there was a friend of mine who said, ‘Well, since you don’t believe in Christianity’ – I was an agnostic – he said ‘you could pray to God the Father. So you pray to God the Father and simply ask to be shown.’ And so I did.
And I didn’t know what I was going to be shown, all I said was, ‘Show me,’ and I didn’t ask to be relieved of any problems. I had no problems. I had no belief and no problems.
Well I was shown in a quite amazing way and quite unexpected: I was arguing about religion with a whole group of grad students one night at Wisconsin and one of them said to me suddenly, ‘Why aren’t you a Catholic?’ and I shut up because I didn’t know. Up to that moment, it had never occurred to me that I would ever become a Catholic. But I was suddenly caught. I became a Catholic at once within a few days.
His Faith Life
“It is difficult, actually, to identify him as either a conservative Catholic or as a liberal Catholic.” - Michael W. Higgins
“He was a real, true believer…” - Nina Sutton
“The Eucharist meant a lot to him…He was a daily communicant.” - Michael W. Higgins
“He read the New Testament daily in various languages [...] as a way of keeping in touch with a number of languages. [...] He would have been amazed and delighted by the books put out in recent years by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, particularly [...] the Theology of the Body…” - Eric McLuhan
“He was a lector at Mass at Holy Rosary Parish – he lived in Wychwood Park [...] this was his local parish. One of the things which struck me there was his remarkable and quite predictable ability at mispronouncing every name in the English language. This great communications guru would often get the name wrong, mispronounce it, if he was reading the first lesson, he would read the second lesson, thereby driving the priest crazy, or he would read the Gospel, thereby confounding the liturgy for the day. I was always quite struck by this.” - Michael W. Higgins
“He took part in Right to Life demonstrations constantly.” - Michael McLuhan
“We said the Rosary as a family before retiring to bed most nights.” - Eric McLuhan
“He had a direct connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary. He alluded to it very briefly once, almost fearfully, in a please-don’t-laugh-at-me tone. He didn’t say, ‘I knew because the Blessed Virgin Mary told me,’ but was clear from what he said that one of reasons he was sure about certain things was that the Virgin had certified his understanding of them. I have a feeling we have a saint in the wings.” – one of McLuhan’s associates, to biographer Philip Marchand
His Faith & His Work
One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.
One of his most prominent critics of McLuhan was a British intellectual named Jonathan Miller who wrote a little book about McLuhan where he basically said that all of McLuhan’s thoughts amounted to nothing more than a system of lies. A running theme of that book was that McLuhan was not really a serious social scientist – that he was in fact a kind of Catholic apologist and that Catholic social themes were a covert message of McLuhan’s writing and there were a lot of other people who felt the same way. An American intellectual named Thomas Edwards said that a lot of the critiques of McLuhan hearkened back to the anti-Catholicism of the Reformation [...] there was this widespread sense that McLuhan and his Catholic colleagues were covertly trying to smuggle in Catholic dogma into media studies. - Jeet Heer
McLuhan’s reflections on religion can be found in:-
The following quote is taken from a review of that book: “His rather pointed barbs launched at the Church regarding how it merely reacts to changes in culture without actually comprehending what is happening are as strikingly relevant as ever in the 21st century. When McLuhan talked about “electric man” and how intrinsically connected each of us are to everyone around the globe, he is speaking about a world that had yet to discover e-mail, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iPhones, Blackberries, and the incessant 24-hour news cycle. Yet, even in the mid-‘70s, he was wary of churches adopting and co-opting new technologies wholesale without figuring out exactly what they do”.
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