Marshall McLuhan’s Catholic Faith


St Basil’s Church, St Michael’s College, University of Toronto

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.

His Conversion

“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”.

12 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan’s Catholic Faith”

  1. 1 kathleen maguire

    I only heard about McLuhan 3 hours ago on a BBC radio program about him. It stopped me in my tracks. His catholicism was not mentioned. While hearing about his writings and thoughts I kept thinking only a devout catholic could have these insights. I. Felt his thinking operated on a metaphorical level, even like an oracle in the sense he came from within the centre of. Paradox, quite like a mystic. To this end he is in no sense a divided or ideological thinker. That’s why he can’t be catoragized. Incidenyly I personally do not have home access to the internet. Like myself I know others who do the same through choice. Funnily enough I said to one only last week ‘we are a growing tribe’. And that, as it turns out, is mcluhans word.


  2. 2 D Selnag

    I’ve only seen a handful of his talks and interviews, which are most intriguing. None of them had any mention of Catholicism or religious belief.

    It seems that his religious beliefs are irrelevant to his visions, since one could make the same observations and draw the same conclusions without any religious belief at all.

    Religious belief typically is not an intellectual pursuit, since it holds the requirement of childhood indoctrination in order for these beliefs to take hold. As a person who bypassed childhood indoctrination completely, I have studied religious texts, and see no reason why anyone should take them literally. There is no morality or intelligence delivered in these texts. This is true of all superstitious mythologies.

    2+2=4 regardless of what one believes or does not believe.

    To be clear, I’m not declaring Atheists to be smarter. As a non-believer who avoids political labels, I have no choice in the matter when it comes to whether or not I could believe in something like Catholicism. I cannot believe it, because I did not go through childhood indoctrination, and am therefore lacking in the fear that is delivered with this process.

    That fear, interestingly enough, prohibits anyone from questioning the ideas that are sold in Christian religions. Questioning any aspect of the faith is a sin and is not allowed. Therefore, they avoid questioning it, out of fear.

    This type of fear does not lend itself to freedom of thought, and instead leads one into a controlled restriction of thought. The only way to avoid this is to set one’s religious beliefs aside, where one can then think freely.

    I have yet to see or hear anything that leads me to conclude that McLuhan’s Catholicism had a hand in anything he had to say. Believing that a cracker literally turns into the flesh of Christ, and that wine literally turns into the blood of Christ [Transubstantiation] is not a logical thing, and is not something on which a wise human being would spend their time.

    McLuhan may very well have compartmentalized his beliefs, sequestering them from his intellect. But even if he did not, it doesn’t really mean anything. He did not use his intelligence to become religious, so he could not use intelligence to get out of it. Religious belief and intelligence are two separate things.


    • I am not religious myself and more or less agree with you. Nevertheless, many Catholics interested in McLuhan’s work insist that Catholic thought, especially Thomism, infuses his ideas on culture, media and technology. Some of them insist on this vehemently and passionately. Nevertheless, McLuhan did not promote his faith or religion, especially not to non-Catholics. Scholars interested in matters of influence and the evolution of thought delve into these matters and do detect the influence of Aquinas and more recent Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton. So, I think it is necessary to reflect their views in the selection of my blog posts.


    • 4 Kent

      “ Religious belief typically is not an intellectual pursuit…” With all due respect, this is a fairly absurd comment. The entire Western university system was built and created by monasteries.


    • 5 Kent

      “McLuhan may very well have compartmentalized his beliefs, sequestering them from his intellect. But even if he did not, it doesn’t really mean anything. He did not use his intelligence to become religious, so he could not use intelligence to get out of it. Religious belief and intelligence are two separate things.“

      This statement is completely erroneous. Marshall McLuhan converted to Catholicism when he was like 26. He was not brought up with, nor did he identify with, any religion prior to his conversion. He described himself as agnostic. Therefore his conversion was absolutely based on his intellectual interrogation of Catholicism. Sorry, but those are the facts and to suggest otherwise is to spread false information.


    • 6 Kent

      “I have yet to see or hear anything that leads me to conclude that McLuhan’s Catholicism had a hand in anything he had to say.”

      Well, now you have:

      McLuhan had written the former America editor Clement McNaspy, S.J., of his intellectual plan: “We must confront the secular in its most confident manifestations, and, with its own terms and postulates, to shock it into awareness of its confusion, its illiteracy, and the terrifying drift of its logic. There is no need to mention Christianity. It is enough that it be known that the operator is a Christian.”


      • I have no problem with that. He very much was religious and Thomist Catholicism underlies some of his thought.
        But, he respected others of other faith religions and traditions and even those with no religion.
        And he didn’t press his own beliefs on others. I didn’t know him personally, but several of my friends at the University did. That is what they have told me……..Alex


  3. 8 Kent

    By the way— great site!


  4. I sympathize with your point of view, Kent. But I have found that ad hominem comments never lead to any kind of resolution but only counter-ad hominems.


  5. 10 Kent

    T.S. Eliot was a Catholic thinker. He stated this explicitly when he said he was
    “”Anglo-Catholic.” He intentionally capitalized Catholic. Four Quartets is one of the great religious poems of the 20th century. It is steeped in Catholic mysticism, especially St. John of the Cross.

    PS— I don’t recall leaving an ad-hominem comment before, but if I did I apologize.


    • 11 Kent

      And by the way— I’m not religious and am not arguing on behalf of religion, but the truth matters. Historical accuracy matters. Surely McLuhan would agree.


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