Kevin White started a conversation in a recent article at First Things regarding what is perhaps the most consequential yet least discussed liturgical innovation of the last century: the use of microphones.
Though his piece is entitled ‘Drop the Mic’, White doesn’t actually recommend we stop using microphones at Mass, but concludes with a request for further thought on the matter:
What is the spiritual significance of these powerful, artificial modifications of the saying and hearing of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? The question would seem to call for the consideration of thoughtful Catholics.
Media ecologist Neil Postman expressed a similar sentiment in his book Technopoly: “A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?” And about a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI preached at the 45th World Communications Day that there was an “urgent demand [for] serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age.”
Leroy Huizenga responded to White’s invitation, actually suggesting the Church drop the mic at Mass, at least as a norm. He bases his argument primarily on how the microphone effects preaching, but he makes another point in passing that deserves further consideration: “In evading the role of the body, the microphone subtly supports a soft sort of Gnosticism, like most modern technologies.” It is on this line of thought this essay will expand.
The Church has long recognized the principle ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’, that how we pray informs what we believe. The form of our worship does not simply contain a message, the form itself also conveys a message. Marshall McLuhan, who studied the Church Fathers at Cambridge and later joined the Catholic Church, applied the same principle to his analysis of electronic media, which he summarized with the phrase, “the medium is the message”. Media do not merely transmit content but contain an implicit message in themselves.
This means the decision to use a microphone in the Mass is not simply a practical one – how do we best help people hear – but must take into account the message of the microphone itself. What is the “message” of the microphone? And how does it relate to the content and purpose of the Mass? Does it further reinforce and strengthen the Mass, or does it tend to contradict or undercut it?
Sound systems are often called ‘amplification’; but they’re not. The microphone picks up the speaker’s voice and translates it into a digital signal which is sent to a loudspeaker which then produces a similar sound. The listener is not hearing the original speaker’s voice, only louder; the listener is hearing a copy of the speaker’s voice produced by a machine.
And where is the person who is speaking? If one tries to look for the source of the voice, it is coming from multiple directions and from multiple sources all throughout the room. If she is by a loudspeaker, it matters not if the listener is at the front of the church, in the back, or even in the church’s foyer: the sound is exactly the same, in both quality and volume (or at least could be). The person speaking seems to be everywhere and yet nowhere. The “voice” has become disembodied.
In Laws of Media, McLuhan makes a similar observation about electronic media in general:
When people are on the telephone or on the air, they have no physical bodies but are translated into abstract images. Their old physical bodies are entirely irrelevant to the new situations. The discarnate user of electronic media bypasses all former spatial restrictions and is present in many places simultaneously as a disembodied intelligence. This puts him one step above angels, who can only be in one place at a time.
Of course, one’s voice isn’t really transcending anything. But the experiential difference between you actually having the power to send your voice everywhere instantaneously and a machine producing something that sounds like your voice is negligible. In other words, a sound system certainly can make you feel like your voice is transcending the normal limits of space and time. And it certainly can give your listeners the impression that your voice is somewhere that it is not.
Both facts can subtly communicate that “place” is not important. Indeed, practically speaking, place is no longer important in the transmission of a vocal message when microphones are used. The voice has been “freed” from the speaker’s natural limitations. The message of the microphone is that embodiedness is not that important, or least that the restrictions that come with it are just technical problems that can be fixed.
And that our embodiedness is not important is a fatal doctrine the Church has been fighting against from the beginning. Authentic Catholic faith and worship is centered on the Incarnation: the historical fact that God the Son assumed a human nature in the person Jesus. The Church has the mission to extend and perpetuate the Incarnation in time and space.
The Church accomplishes this primarily in her Sacraments, in which the grace won by Christ on the cross is applied to us in ways appropriate to our nature as body-and-soul human beings. St Thomas Aquinas explains:
[T]he condition of human nature…is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible. Now it belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments. (ST III.61.1)
We’re creatures with both bodies and souls, so it is fitting for God to extend his spiritual grace to us in a way that also engages are bodies.
With the Sacrament of Holy Orders, priests continue the ministry of Christ as it was passed on through the Apostles. They stand in persona Christi, representing Christ to the laity, and thus should effectively signify the full embodied nature of Christ. The sign of the priest should not be limited to the visual but should include all of the senses. The use of a microphone changes the congregation’s experience of the audible aspect of the sign: the congregation is no longer hearing the priest’s voice directly, but indirectly and from multiple sources as an apparently disembodied copy. The priest is supposed to represent the Word made flesh; the microphone makes him seem more like a booming voice from the sky.
Microphones are not intrinsically evil in general or even for Mass; there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking into a device that reproduces a copy of one’s voice technologically somewhere else. Instead, microphones tend to subtly communicate the false message that ‘place’ doesn’t matter. A person can be aware of this fact and use microphones or other electronic media with discretion.
But the Church must be particularly careful about what messages are communicated at Mass. Lex orandi, lex credendi applies not just to the text of our prayers, but the manner of our praying. We kneel during the consecration of the Eucharistic elements, stand for the Gospel reading, and the priest is dressed differently than the laity. None are absolutely essential to the celebration of Mass, but all still matter because they help to communicate to us the importance of what is occurring at Mass. In the same way, the use of a microphone is not entirely neutral. “The medium is the message” – the use of the microphone at Mass carries with it an implicit message, namely, that the place of the priest is unimportant enough to be circumnavigated by technology. The liturgy is better served without such a message.
What of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s entreaty that the faithful “be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”? (14) If the laity are to participate, they need to be able to hear what’s going on. But microphones aren’t necessary for that. One should recall that the Church successfully celebrated Mass without microphones, even in large cathedrals, for centuries. So long as priests are given proper training on projecting their voices at those times when the laity need to hear what they are saying, and natural amplification is maximized with church architecture, people should still be able to hear well enough to participate.
The best case for an exception is that microphones should be used to aid those who are hearing impaired. In such a case, the intention of the use of the technology would not be to improve upon the natural situation which needed no improving, but to help compensate for the defect of hearing loss. This is a proper and welcome use of the microphone. The priest would still wear a mic, but instead of playing the sound out to the whole congregation, some sort of wearable or holdable hearing aid devices could be made available to those who want them.
At Mass, embodied beings engage in embodied worship of an embodied God. Electronic media, on the other hand, tend to communicate that embodiedness is not that important. Since the Mass is the heart of Catholic worship, it should be kept as free as possible from anything that communicates the contrary. And so, at least as a norm, the use of microphones at Mass should be as limited as possible.