He is well known as one of the great media theorists of all time. Far less known, however, is the fact that he was also a devout Catholic and pro-life.

One of his most famous sayings was, “The medium is the message.” But almost unknown is the fact that he also said, “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It’s the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”

We’re speaking of Marshall McLuhan, of course. To address a state of affairs in which McLuhan’s Catholicism – and its influence on his work – has remained generally obscured, Toronto director Deiren Masterson, in co-operation with Salt and Light Television, has released a 42-minute video, McLuhan Way: In Search of Truth, through his production company, Master Works. It takes a close look at McLuhan the man and the Catholic through archival video and audio footage, an examination of some of his statements and interviews with a number of people close to him.

McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton. While studying at the University of Cambridge in England, he took the first steps toward a conversion to Roman Catholicism, which was motivated by his readings of the works of G. K. Chesterton. He entered the Catholic church in March 1937 and for the rest of his career, taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education.

In 1939, McLuhan married teacher and aspiring actress Corinne Lewis of Fort Worth, Tx. (also a convert to Catholicism) and the couple had six children: Eric, twins Mary and Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth and Michael. In September 1979, McLuhan suffered a stroke that severely affected his ability to speak. He died in his sleep on the last day of 1980.

Wikipedia notes that McLuhan became perhaps the most publicized English teacher of the 20th century and arguably the most controversial. His work continues to be viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media ecology. Along with “the medium is the message,” another term he made famous was the “global village” – his way of describing the process by which humankind, because of new media, was moving from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a “tribal base.”

In the McLuhan Way documentary, we learn that his quest for knowledge was inspired by the words of Christ as ultimately engraved on McLuhan’s headstone: “The truth shall make you free.”

According to biographer Philip Marchand, faith was the number one priority in McLuhan’s life, despite the private nature of it. “His faith … provided the foundations for his work,” he says.

A 1967 profile by Richard Kostelanetz noted the major “incongruity” in his life – the egocentric and passionately prophetic qualities of his books contrasted with the personal modesty and pervasive confidence of a secure Catholic. “What explains the paradox is that ‘Marshall McLuhan the thinker’ is different from ‘H.M. McLuhan the man,’” Kostelanetz concluded.

Son Eric McLuhan concurs that both his father and mother had a very strong faith. He recalls how the entire family was bundled off to Mass every Sunday and how the Rosary was prayed in the household every night.

Another son, Michael, remembers his father normally waking up at 4:30-5:00 a.m. to read passages from the New Testament. “His work and his faith blended quietly, indirectly, but clearly,” he said. “We would stumble on him in the privacy of his room, praying privately. He was a very devout man. But he certainly didn’t flaunt it.”

McLuhan also kept a crucifix hanging on his office wall. Biographer W. Terrence Gordon reports that McLuhan planned to deliver a lecture on the Eucharist and contemporary media, but died before he could do so.

Also not well known are some of McLuhan’s statements on media as they relate to matters of faith. In the documentary, we learn that he observed: “I don’t think Christ would have suffered under Genghis Khan with the same meaning as under Pontius Pilate … Christianity was introduced into a matrix of culture in which the individual had enormous significance.” Among his other notable statements on faith: “The (Catholic) church’s massive, centralized bureaucracy is simply passé” and, “The Pope is obsolete as a bureaucratic figure. But the Pope as a role player is more important than ever.”

Another interviewee in the documentary, Father Robert Madden, a former student of McLuhan’s, says McLuhan saw the Vatican II council, which was an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic church held between 1962 and 1965, as already being behind the times, because it dealt with “problems from the 19th century.” The new media, McLuhan believed, demanded another kind of church.

Despite what may, at times, have been somewhat sharp words toward the hierarchy of the Catholic church, McLuhan also applauded Pope Pius XII for being “deeply concerned that there be serious study of the media today.” He then received a Vatican appointment in 1973, being named a consultor of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications. He later foresaw the versatile pontificate of John Paul II with his observation: “The chair of St. Peter can jet around the world. It doesn’t have to stay in Rome.”

On the pro-life side, Masterson told The Interim McLuhan wrote to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, urging his fellow Catholic to change course on liberalized abortion. And according to Bole in the Sunday Visitor, he also took part in a pro-life demonstration in Ottawa.

Writing to the Toronto Star in 1974, McLuhan observed that society’s thinking about abortion was taking place “in the smogged-over world of TV. It is becoming monstrous to even mention the individual rights of the born or the unborn. Only huge categories will serve, such as the ‘rights of pregnant teenagers.’”

A common misconception arose that McLuhan actually endorsed new technologies and media. Although Gary Wolfe has observed that McLuhan hoped electronic civilization would provide a spiritual leap forward and put humankind in closer contact with God, McLuhan later called the electronic universe “an unholy imposter … a blatant manifestation of the anti-Christ.” According to Derrick DeKerkhove, current director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, McLuhan privately let it be known that “the devil was in the media.”

“This could be the time of the anti-Christ,” McLuhan said in 1977, alluding to media’s potential to reach every human being on earth at the same time. “It is Lucifer’s moment … The age in which we live is certainly favourable to an anti-Christ.”

The last night of 1980, the McLuhan family appropriately had a priest over at their residence for Mass. That was followed by some champagne and a cigar to mark the new year for McLuhan, before he went to sleep. He never awoke.

More than two decades later, McLuhan continues to have a strong influence, both inside and outside the Catholic church. A Catholic high school in north Toronto has been named after him. William Bole, writing in the Sunday Visitor newspaper in 2001, noted that a document released by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications that year bore McLuhan’s imprint – it called for media literacy, paid tribute to the unifying pull of communications and acknowledged that the medium is as morally weighted as the message.

In 1992, the church’s pastoral instruction Aetatis Noca (A New Era) used a direct McLuhan inference in welcoming a world of communications that was turning the world into “a global village.”

More recently, Marchand, writing in the Toronto Star, remarked that, though thinkers such as Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff once concluded that “Marshall McLuhan’s intellectual reputation is dead … disturbance has been noticed in the graveyard where this reputation has been interred.” Indeed, Marchand added, had Ignatieff paid some attention to McLuhan’s pronouncements, he may well have become leader of the opposition. As it was, Ignatieff’s defeat may be seen as McLuhan’s revenge from the grave.

Along with the epitaph on his headstone, another fitting postmortem on McLuhan is provided by the words of the quarterly review of Catholic theology and culture, Communio: “What the Catholic public needs to know is that McLuhan remained morally serious and finally untrendy.”

The McLuhan Way: In Search of Truth video is available through Masterson’s website at www.deiren.com or by calling (416) 431-0447. A related supplement to the video is the book, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, featuring the writings of McLuhan as edited by son Eric along with Jacek Szlarek.