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On Communication and the Media: Reflections of a Theological Ethicist

Sr. Solange Ngah (Translated by Andrea Vicini)

Mgr. Victor Tonye Bakot, 67, Archbishop of Yaoundé renounced the pastoral governance of the Archdiocese on July 29, 2013, in accordance with canon 401 § 2 of the Code of Canon Law which states: “A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” He was replaced by Bishop Jean Mbarga, Bishop of Ebolowa, as apostolic administrator. The media widely commented on this renunciation. In this Forum, as a woman theological ethicist, I join this conversation in reflecting on the media.

Communication is a contemporary apostolic field. “Anything related to social communication can not be ignored by the theologian. Social communication has its place among the theological disciplines” (Vatican II, Pastoral Instruction Communio et Progressio, No. 108). We will present two reflections and then integrate them. In particular, first we define the contours of freedom of the press and, second, we outline the criteria that indicate when an intervention of the media is authentically free.

In democratic regimes, the press is actually the fourth power. It largely influences public opinion. At times, the impact on the masses of the means of social communications can have dramatic consequences that will go well beyond our imagination. The role of social networks has been rightly highlighted including the case of the Radio “Mille Collines (One Thousand Hills)” in Rwanda, which propagated hate with the known consequences: millions of deaths! Because of this, we have legitimate reasons to be wary of the role of the media.

In Cameroon, the press has constantly committed abuses and even reveling. Rarely the press aims at seeking and telling the truth. Since a long time ago, the press has preferred to slander, at the point of losing its credibility. Yet, it is with this press that we need to interact if we want to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Mk 16:15). The press is an ideal medium, but, at the same time, it needs to be evangelized. The means of social communication are the new Areopagus (Acts 17). Hence, we identify a double duty: first, to evangelize the defenders of a free press and, second, to use the mass media to reach out the masses. Note that the purpose of the means of social communication is to improve the conditions of life and the harmony between individuals. “It is within this vision that the means of social communication fall into their proper place. They help men share their knowledge and unify their creative work. … And so man is summoned to cooperate with his fellow men in building the earthly city” (Communio et Progressio, No. 7, § 2). It logically follows that everything that contributes to this objective interests the theologian. In contrast, all that does not contribute to promote this goal does not interest the theologian.

However, socially the tendency is to oppose the purpose of creating harmony between individuals in favor of a misunderstood exercise of one’s freedom that is claimed to be absolute. This is an abuse that should be defeat. Moreover, we need to reconsider what we define as an absolute. Freedom is not an absolute. Free will isn’t either. The confusion between these two types of freedom is well known, as it appears in many instances. Only the dignity of persons is an absolute! The experience of what is permitted and forbidden, without undermining the freedom of others, is shared by every person. Moreover, the only absolute is God and human beings are made in God’s image. It is therefore necessary to redefine the human freedom. Hence:

“Freedom is the power given by God to act or not to act, to do this or to do that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. Freedom characterizes properly human acts. The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. Freedom attains its proper perfection when it is directed toward God, the highest good and our beatitude. Freedom implies also the possibility of choosing between good and evil. The choice of evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin.” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 363)

By addressing issues of freedom, ethics emphasizes that there is absolutely nothing free in a suicide or in a speech or in a conduct contrary to reason.[1]Today, we notice repeated abuses committed by the press. As rightly noted by Pope Benedict XVI, we must recognize that, “Humanity today is at a crossroads. … [This crossroads is] the ambiguity of progress, which offers new possibilities for good, but at the same time opens up appalling possibilities for evil that formerly did not exist” (Message for the World Day of Social Communications, 2008, no. 3). The Pope asks whether it is necessary and wise to allow the instruments of social communication to be exploited for an indiscriminate use that manipulates the consciences. Hence, in the same Message, the question that he addresses, and that is still timely, is, “Should it not be a priority to ensure that they [the instruments of social communication] remain at the service of the person and of the common good, and that they foster ‘man’s ethical formation … man’s inner growth’ (Spe salvi, No. 22)?”

The “communicators,” that is the various producers and directors who use these means of communication, must acquire competence and real training and understand both of them as part of their moral obligation. Those who are responsible for influencing the judgment and choices of the communicators, especially if the service of the media is intended for people whose maturity or culture are inadequate, have a duty of conscience that is even more demanding. This responsibility includes everything that, in one way or another, can contribute to the enrichment or impoverishment of people (see Communio et Progressio, No. 15, § 2). We urge all those involved in organizing training seminars for journalists to address the binomial freedom–responsibility as well as the broader issues of dignity and respect for people. The risk of ethical slippages is too high.

When communication loses its ethical underpinning and eludes social control, it no longer takes into account the centrality and the inviolability of human dignity. This might adversely affect one’s conscience and choices; it also ends up conditioning the freedom and even the lives of many people. Hence, it is essential that the media assiduously defend all human beings and fully respect human dignity (see Message, No. 3). Moreover, we highlight the objective limits of the exercise of freedom of communication that might threaten the good of the person. We also affirm that everything that is technically possible is not ethically advisable.

Therefore, the impact of the media on the lives of today’s people raises questions that cannot be avoided and that require choices and responses we should not be put off for later. Many people believe that an informed “info-ethics” is now needed (see Message, No. 3). Cameroon has a regulatory body (i.e., the National Council of Communication), which acts more or less in strict compliance with its powers. But what we call the “repression of the violations of human dignity” despite being well known is not yet addressed. Hence, we affirm that the people have right to accurate information. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council proclaims that the primacy of the objective moral order is absolutely necessary for everyone. Only this order should transcend and harmonize all the various forms of human activity including the arts–independently of how they are noble in themselves. Moreover, human beings reach their perfection and happiness by fully and faithfully respecting this objective moral order (see Vatican II, Inter mirifica, No. 6).

The freedom of the press requires the development of a conceptual framework that would lead to an “applied ethics” more foundational than a “deontological code,” because it would depend on a “transcendental ethics.” Such an applied ethics necessarily demands courses in ethics taught in specialized institutions and probably it requires even more.

To communicate is more than to express one’s ideas or feelings. It is the giving of oneself in love and it expresses the intimate reality of one’s being. I offer this theoretical reflection as a suggestion aimed at addressing a troubling reality that affects all of us and for which we must find cures.


[1] Encyclopédie Philosophique Universelle – Les Notions Philosophiques (Dictionnaire), Tome 1, Paris, PUF, 1992, 1475.


Solange Ngah is a member of the Diocesan Congregation of the Sisters of Emmanuel Witnesses, Yaoundé, Cameroon. She is a recipient of a scholarship from CTEWC to earn her PHD. Currently, she is studying moral theology at the University African Catholic Central Catholic Institute of Yaoundé-Cameroon. Her dissertation project is on “Charity as the root of Christian virtues for a just society: a good read works and alms of St. Cyprian of Carthage.”