Much Ado About Nothing: On the Inconvertibility of Medium and Message

As I have mentioned, I am currently working on a PhD in Communication. It so happens that the most recent article I have written in the program has to do with the Second Vatican Council. I thought it would make for good reading here on the CE Log, especially since I have been so remiss in publishing anything of any substance in a long while. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please leave a comment. If you don’t enjoy it, because you think it is wrong in some way, I really want you to comment!

Robert Robbins

Department of Communication, Liberty University Online

Author Note

I may have a conflict of interest. I am a devout Catholic. Further, I am not a fan of the Second Vatican Council which I believe was illegally convoked by an antipope and was subsequently ratified by another antipope. I have very strong views about the Second Vatican Council, yet these convictions do not necessarily conflict with my thesis that McLuhen mistakes material causality of communication with formal causality. Still, to be forthright, the reader should know I am Catholic and have strong ideas about the Second Vatican Council and the purported Catholic hierarchy in power at the time.  

I may be reached at


Formal causality is not material causality and medium is not reducible to or convertible with message, whatever McLuhen labors to theorize to the contrary.     

Keywords: McLuhen, Second Vatican Council, Medium is the Message, formal cause, material cause 

Much Ado About Nothing: On the Inconvertibility of Medium and Message

There is a continual refrain heard within the lines of McLuhen’s (1999) meditation on technological communication media and the Catholic Church, and that is, the hierarchy of the Church doesn’t get it. No one seems to care about media the way McLuhen cares, and what is more, no one seems to understand media the way McLuhen does. This is an idea that is expressed about every three pages or so, with the singular effect that the reader is left believing that only McLuhen really understands the fundamental nature of reality. At any rate, the most venerable institution the world has ever known—the Catholic Church—doesn’t understand the fundamental nature of reality. The institution which has been “Thinking about thinking for over 2000 years,” to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton—McLuhen’s intellectual boyhood hero—doesn’t understand communication quite so well as McLuhen. That strains credulity just a bit. 

There is much to say for McLuhen and his intellectual legacy. The man was a giant in the field of communication theory and has left his impression of his style and ideas in such memorable phrases as “The medium is the message” on the minds of entire generations. He rubbed elbows and wrote letters with the leading intellectuals of the last century. He was, in short, a scholar of the highest class, which is why it is rather difficult for me—a mere nobody in the sphere of scholarship—to point out that McLuhen’s ideas about the reforms of the Second Vatican Council are wrong to the point of being ridiculous, and that his views on the metaphysics of communication are false as well.  

Mcluhen goes so wrong because he mistakes accidental things for substantial things. More precisely, he mistakes the material cause for the formal cause. “The medium is the message,” McLuhen says, but that is false on so many levels, it is hard to see how to see any meaning and sense in it at all. It is true that the message is constrained by the matter through which it expresses its form, such as the spoken word must be reshaped on a harmonic level when uttered through a telephone or microphone, and, moreover, the spoken word is spoken in the environment of a body present, whereas telephone voices are just that, voices, without a body. But such modifications as these are mostly accidental to the formal elements of the thing being spoken, such as “I love you” or “I hate you” or “God is dead” or “God is risen.”  

McLuhen’s great mistake is to make much ado about the medium itself, when the content, the form of the communication—the message itself—is either not dealt with at all or is only minimally analyzed. This tendency of McLuhen to mistake the material cause of the communication for the formal cause of the communication will be shown by quoting examples in what follows. Doing so will provide a neat summary of how McLuhen understands strategic communication changes through different media use in the context of Catholic religious practice, while also providing solid evidence for the claim that McLuhen’s theory that the medium is the message misses the mark.               

Microphone as the Abomination of Desolation  

For the typical Catholic today, things are relatively normal in the Church. But to traditional Catholics or extreme and fringe group Catholics like Sedevacantists—those who believe the Chair of Peter is vacant–the Catholic Church is in a doctrinal and liturgical and hierarchical crisis. 

The better word would be schism. After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the ancient liturgy of Catholic Church was substantially changed, with the very words of Christ, “This my Body…This is my Blood,” being tampered with. Orientation of the priest during the mass was changed, from facing the altar and tabernacle to facing the people. The liturgy was celebrated in the vernacular, and Latin was done away with. Vestments were changed. Church architecture was changed. Icons and images of saints were demolished. Altars were demolished. Even entire churches were demolished. A new canon law was created. A new catechism was created. In short, nothing that was Catholic before the Second Vatican Council was left untouched by the reformers. There was a universal revolution in the Universal Church. There was a mass exodus of priests and nuns from their religious state, many casting off their life-long vows of chastity to marry each other. Laity, too, flocked in massive numbers into the world and out of the Sheepfold of the Church. After the updates, the Catholic Church trembled to find that it had apostatized from the Faith. The Catholic Church was no longer Catholic, in worship, faith or morals. By all reasonable accounts, the Great Apostasy, the turning away from the Faith by a great number of the faithful which Saint Paul prophesied about, had taken place. And McLuhen wants us seriously to believe that this all took place because some microphones were set up in some churches.

“Without reconstructing the history of the decision to shelve the Latin Mass, one can see the matter in parallel form in the discovery by the preacher that the microphone is incompatible with vehement exhortation or stern admonition,” says McLuhen (1999, p. 114). He goes on, “To a public that is electrically participant in a completely acoustic situation, loudspeakers bring the sounds of the preacher from several directions at once.” McLuhen argues that, because speakers and microphones make the priest present to everyone, the old architectural designs become obsolesced. This is “a factor which also turns the celebrant around to face the congregation” because the audience is in an immediate relation with the speaker. McLuhen concludes, “These major aspects of liturgical change were unforeseen and unplanned and remain unacknowledged by the users of the microphone system in our churches.”  

There are three claims here being made. First, microphones cannot be used to exhort. Second, microphones make acoustical architectural design obsolete. And thirdly, microphones make the priest face the people. The supposition is that the microphone exercises some kind of magical spell on priest and congregation, directing their actions quite apart from any legal or moral or cultural forces—let alone religious—which may be acting on them at any point in time. But that is not how things work in the Catholic Church nor in reality. 

Claim One: Exhortation and Admonition Incompatible with Microphones 

This claim is perhaps the least convincing, in part because McLuhen just makes it without any evidence to back it up. Who says that the amplified voice cannot exhort or admonish, or arouse an audience to any kind of emotional state towards virtue or vice for that matter? This is an instance—and there are many in the formal writings and letters of McLuhen—where he just makes things up. I could list any number of counterexamples which call into question the claim, but I will name one: The “I have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. That was one of the most heard, quoted, and exhorting and admonishing speeches given in the electric age of communication, and I should add the most effective. It eventually led to an entire country’s repentance for racial oppression and paved the way to equal rights. Is it altogether believable that a priest could not so admonish and exhort his congregation to repentance for sins committed against God from the pulpit because he was speaking into a microphone?     

Claim Two: Architecturally Obsolesced Churches

McLuhen makes the astounding claim that microphones obsolesced the acoustical churches of the pre-Second Vatican Council era, because multi-directional media speaker systems eliminate the space between the speaker and the audience. 

But do acoustics even have relevance to how churches were to be redesigned? A new cathedral was erected in Taranto which was considered a masterpiece of architecture, yet directly contradicts Catholic doctrine in many respects, (Amerio, 1996). First, the altar at Taranto occupies the lowest place in the sanctuary. God is in the lowest place, and the people are placed above God. Next, the vaulted ceiling is open, letting in light from the sky, with the expressed purpose of the architect to symbolize that the outside is sacred, too. But Catholic worship is centered on the sanctity of the Eucharist, not on all that is sacred. If everything is sacred, nothing is sacred. Further, the Blessed Sacrement altar is set aside, thereby signifying that it does not occupy a central place in the worship life of the Church. 

Examples like Taranto could be multiplied to near infinity. There is a symbolic meaning behind the redesigning of Catholic churches, and it has nothing to do with acoustics. Even granted that it may have something to do with acoustics and nothing to do with doctrinal changes, McLuhen’s idea that speakers make the speaker present to the audience is clumsy and unconvincing. 

Consider the fact that sound travels at over a 1,000 feet per second, and since churches prior to the Second Vatican Council were constructed to be acoustically perfect echo chambers, the sound emanating from a priest during a sermon would not only be instantaneously heard by the congregation, but it would have also been heard in surround-sound as it were, bouncing off the archways and high walls of the church building. This would at least be comparable in effect to any multi-dimensional speaker system. True, clarity would be improved with reverberation distortions decreased as buildings were constructed to be less echoing, but it seems to stretch credulity to say Church leaders decided to demolish and redesign churches because of the advent of microphones and speakers. The idea is intellectually offensive.                

Claim Three: Ad Populum 

In the Catholic Church, the priest who celebrates mass follows rubrics which direct his actions. These are written by Church leaders. After the Second Vatican Council, Church leaders instituted and decreed liturgical reforms, which changed the way priest and people worshiped God in the mass. 

“As Mass was usually celebrated in the pre-conciliar period, priest and people were all of them turned towards a God who is symbolically before and above them all. These positions reflect a hierarchical arrangement and a theocentric orientation; they look God-ward. In the new ‘back to front’ Mass…both people and priest are turned toward man, in an anthropogenic arrangement,” (Amerio, 1996, p. 647). 

Further, Amerio writes, “The Church is reduced to a closed community of human beings, when by nature it is really a community directed outwards beyond itself, towards a single transcendent point,” (1996, p. 647). In other words, after the reforms, the priest faced the people in the pews and turned his back on God. In other words, the people apostatized—turned away—from God. Microphones and multi-dimensional speaker systems had nothing to do with that. Sin did.  

The Form and Matter of Communication

I do not bring up the examples listed above to embarrass McLuhen. I think it is peculiar that a man with such vast learning could go so wrong in explaining a handful of relatively simple religious phenomena. But then I remembered that McLuhen is a theorist, and his theories are everything. That is not to say an individual theorist could not be objective about even his own theories applied to the real world, but the theoretical framework, the structuring of the theory tends, in whatever domain of the specialist, to limit the perspective and confine the intellect to a few select set of principles, which are then used to explain everything even at the risk of appearing inane or insane.  

For McLuhen, a fundamental principle he developed early on was the idea that media are formal. McLuhen says that he often would be upbraided by his intellectual peers for lacking Thomistic precision and terminology, and he also says that he thought philosophy a useless truncation, and preferred literary investigations, (1996). And it shows in his theorizing. 

In explaining what is meant by “The medium is the message,” McLuhen says, “It might be illustrated by saying that the English language is an enormous medium that is very much more potent and effective than anything ever said in English,” (1993, p. 79). McLuhen is saying that our language forms the way we perceive, the way we taste, touch, smell, see, and hear, as do other media like “printing, radio, movies, and TV.” Media have a formal relationship to ourselves, in other words. 

“My own approach to the media has been entirely from formal causes. Since formal causes are hidden and environmental, they exert their structural pressures by interval and interface with whatever is in their environmental territory. Formal cause is always hidden, whereas the things upon which they act are visible. The TV generation has been shaped [formed] not by TV programs, but by the pervasive and penetrating character of the TV image, or service, itself,” (McLuhen, 1993, p. 74.)

Here in a nutshell is how McLuhen (1993) can claim that the microphone caused the Catholic Church to destroy its own churches and altars. The idea is simply asinine. The reason is simple enough, really. McLuhen thinks that different media are substantial forms—that which orders things to be what they are in reality–when in fact they are merely accidentals, or the quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, disposition, or equipment of a thing. McLuhen often speaks of the increased frequency of media messages, as if this were a formalizing component in reality; or he speaks of the disposition of the message coming through the multi-dimensional speakers, as if this had a formalizing effect on an audience. He speaks this way because he does not understand Aristotelian metaphysics, because he has never studied it. He may have picked up terms here and there, but he abuses those terms and uses them against their original meaning.

The form or substance of communication is the word. This is clear from Thomistic theology which says that the form of the sacrament of the Eucharist, for instance, is the words of consecration which give meaning and effect to what they signify. Here the bread itself is matter upon which the words act and transubstantiate into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a fitting example, because the Eucharist is also called Holy Communion, or the way man communicates with God. He does so through words which are the formal components in the act of communication, giving structure and meaning to the matter, or the bread and wine which are changed into the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, which man then consumes and subsumes into his body and soul. 

By analogy, then with Holy Communion, Holy Communication, if you will, words in media of different kinds are also the form of the act of communication, whereas the pixels, the wavelengths, radio frequencies, the sound and light that is, the material makeup of the medium itself, be it radio, speaker, or video projection, are the matter of communication. McLuhen’s analysis is incomplete and incoherent because he lacks the basic Aristotelian Form-Matter structure to give an account of the communication phenomena. Consequently, his conclusions lack credibility and sense, to say the least.

Medium and Message are Inconvertible 

The fact that the medium is not convertible with the message stems from the analysis of the structure of reality of form-matter. The message, that is, the meaning, the whatness, the thrust or point of a communication, is itself the structuring form of the communication itself. The medium is nothing more than the material through which the message passes to be heard or seen. If the medium were the message, then the message, the meaning of the communication, would be reduced to how it is seen or heard, that is, the quality, which is repugnant to reason. Even a crackling disembodied voice of a long-distance phone call of a fiancé saying, “I’ll wait for you,” to a deployed sailor overseas invokes all the heavy reality of the heart which words fail to express to any adequacy. There is formal power even in those four little words, so hampered as they are by the medium they must use to communicate through. Such power moves the heart to hope and to love and to tears. And the only explanation of the communication’s power is not in the so-called “formal” or structuring or environmental factor of the medium but in the simple, soft-spoken words themselves, because words are the message, and the message is inconvertible with the medium.            


Amerio, R. (1996). Iota Unum. Kansas City, MO: Sarto House. ISBN: 978-0-9639032-1-1. 

McLuhan, M. (1999). The Medium and the Light : Reflections on Religion and Media. Eugene, OR: Stoddart. ISBN: 9780415027960.