Marshall McLuhan and the Jesuits

Marshall McLuhan 1910 - 1980. Source: America Media-

Marshall McLuhan, the pop culture sage of the electronic world and a Catholic convert, spent the final days of his life with Frank Stroud, S.J. During those last days of 1980, they read, laughed, drank wine, smoked cigars and prayed together—a fitting end to a life shaped by faith and anchored in the Ignatian tradition.

During the height of his influence, McLuhan was the most public of intellectuals. He toured the United States and Canada, appeared on television and radio shows, chatted with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and was the subject of feature articles in magazines as varied as Esquire, Vogue and Harper’s. The New York Times ran 27 articles about him in 1967 alone.

The entertainment, media and academic worlds of his heyday had good reason to miss the Christian foundations of his theories, for there is evidence that McLuhan, sly rhetorician that he was, made subtle his religious sensibility. Yet it is telling that some of his earliest and most vocal defenders and explicators were Jesuit priests, intellectuals equally comfortable wading through esoteric theology as they were moving among the secular masses.

McLuhan’s Christian belief and worldview are no mere biographical footnote. They offered him pliable metaphors for the intersection of the material and the spiritual, engendered in him the confidence and determination of a religious adherent and compelled him to react to the rapidly changing electronic world around him. Any honest and thorough analysis of McLuhan’s paradigm-changing views must not merely begin with these religious considerations; it must also examine how his belief sustained the development and dissemination of these theories. McLuhan’s vocation was to understand how the environments created by media shape our perception of the world.

Bearing Witness

In 1967, John M. Culkin, then a Jesuit teaching at Fordham University, wrote an essay for the Saturday Review magazine that sought to make McLuhan’s ideas understandable to a mainstream audience. “McLuhan’s writings abound with aphorisms, insights, for-instances, and irrelevancies which float loosely around recurring themes,” the priest wrote. McLuhan, he noted, was an observer of current trends, not a creator of them: “[H]e is merely trying to describe what’s happening out there so that it can be dealt with intelligently.” After all, when “someone warns you of an oncoming truck, it’s frightfully impolite to accuse him of driving the thing.” McLuhan was bearing witness.

Culkin recruited McLuhan to Fordham. “Oracle? Genius? Carnival Pitchman?”—the front page headline of the Fordham Ram debated whether McLuhan, the school’s new $100,000 visiting professor, was worth his salary. The Jesuit university in the Bronx bet that McLuhan’s short tenure would be both prestigious and provocative. On Sept. 18, 1967, in front of the 178 students enrolled in Communication Arts 141, Father Culkin said it was “the age of McLuhan.” His students cradled copies of his books. Press at the event pined for interviews. The student writer of the article quipped that McLuhan was the “public relations coup of the year.”

McLuhan was an observer of current trends, not a creator of them.

Embarrassed by the fawning, McLuhan ambled through a 25-minute free associative debut lecture about television, attention spans and how “we do everything we can to hide from the present.” His mind traveled whatever routes it desired, and the audience—captive and captivated—followed. A year earlier, he had offered a pithy explanation of his rhetoric and pedagogy to The New York Times: “I don’t want them to believe what I say. I just want them to think.”

He could afford to be evasive. By that point, McLuhan was an international media star with a healthy sense of humor. During his opening lecture, he joked that the most Canadian thing about himself was how he mispronounced “either” and “process.” Afterward, one student concluded, “It was a good show. All the students were perplexed to some extent, but they’ll catch on.” Sadly, McLuhan’s health declined during that year, and Culkin himself compelled his friend to seek medical attention—leading to surgery to remove a brain tumor.

A Final Visitor

Roughly a decade later, a stroke would render McLuhan unable to read and write, and largely unable to speak. His mind and soul stirred, though, with the arrival of a past acquaintance—Frank Stroud, S.J. The two originally met in 1974, but had been out of touch until December 1980, when Stroud was invited by John Culkin to a film seminar in New York City. Also present was McLuhan’s daughter Teri, a filmmaker who told Stroud that he should “visit her father.” Stroud originally was going to wait until the semester break in January. Instead, “a God-given push” compelled him to travel to Canada in late December. He would be McLuhan’s final visitor.

“A God-given push” compelled Father Stroud to travel to Canada. He would be McLuhan’s final visitor.

Stroud would later note of their time together that “God literally lifted me up from Jersey City and planted me down in Wychwood Park Toronto to complete the Jesuit connection.” Stroud said Mass at the McLuhan home, and “from that moment on Marshall seemed not to want me to leave his side.” They walked together around Wychwood Park. They talked about the many letters and miscellaneous gifts that McLuhan received, including a cartoon sketched by Tom Wolfe. McLuhan listened as Stroud read him selections from articles and books. The last book McLuhan read in his life, or rather listened to, was Ignatius of Loyola, by Karl Rahner, S.J., an illustrated biography of the Jesuit founder.

On Dec. 30, Stroud again celebrated Mass—this time “using a bottle of fine Burgundy a colleague of McLuhan’s had brought back from France.” McLuhan and the priest had cigars and then went down to the basement, where McLuhan kept his television set. He had moved it there a few years earlier: “I did not want it invading my home.” The two watched the 11 o’clock news, then went back upstairs. Before Stroud left they hugged. McLuhan went to bed and was found dead the next morning.


wriitn by by Rick Ripatzone in America Media magazine on January 28, 2022

The pilgrim writes of the way his faith sustains him.

  • Dodzi Amemado
    Posted at 06:40h, 18 March Reply

    “The last book McLuhan read in his life, or rather listened to, was Ignatius of Loyola, by Karl Rahner, S.J., an illustrated biography of the Jesuit founder.” It says it all.

  • Margaret McLaughlin
    Posted at 09:21h, 18 March Reply

    I had the privilege of calling Professor McLuhan my friend. We attended daily Mass at St. Basil’s church at St. Michael’s College (University of Toronto). He invited me home for lunch where he opened a can of tomato soup. When I asked if he had a television, he took me down to the basement where a TV was in the corner with a blanket over it. He explained his right/left brain theory, which I never forgot. It stayed with me throughout my career as a commutations strategist.

  • Margaret McLaughlin
    Posted at 09:26h, 18 March Reply

    “The medium is the message “. I maintain to this day that McLuhan’ s famous statement was and is a not so subtle confession of his faith: Jesus is the primary example; He IS the medium. He IS the message.

  • Peter LeBlanc
    Posted at 10:13h, 18 March Reply

    Fascinating. Also fascinating is a collection of correspondencenbetween McLuhan and Pierre Trudeau, “Been Hoping We Might Meet Again”. Trudeau was Jesuit-educated and, like McLuhan, enigmatic and outside the mold of a “typical” Canadian. Both emerged during the time of heightened pride and nationalistic fervor sweeping the country as it celebrated its 100th birthday.
    Peter LeBlanc

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 15:00h, 18 March Reply

    Thank you so much Rick!

  • Brian Tansey
    Posted at 15:03h, 18 March Reply

    as I read more about Bernard Lonergan over the last 10 years … (and I find that I need to read a lot about him to begin to understand what he was trying to get across) and then reflect on what A Pilgrim has written here about McLuhan … I detect quite a similarity between these two ‘SJ’ stars / … kindred spirits and minds

  • Catherine von Zuben
    Posted at 17:22h, 18 March Reply

    Thanks be to God for Fathers. Frank Stoud and John Culkin SJ. who recognized and appreciated the genius of Marshal McCluhan. This is beautifully written and I thank you for sharing it with your readers.

  • Howard R. Engel
    Posted at 01:54h, 24 March Reply

    I capitalize both “Medium” and “Message” in what is perhaps McLuhan’s most famous quote in my signature line as a subtle nod to what commentator Margaret McLaughlin pointed out, that Christ is the one case where the Medium and the Message are one in the same. To quote McLuhan himself on this point:

    “In Jesus Christ,, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It is the one case where we can say that the Medium and the Message are fully one and the same.” — Marshall McLuhan in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999, p. 103)

    Howard R. Engel,
    Founding Director & C.E.O.
    The Marshall McLuhan Initiative
    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    “The Medium is the Message.” — Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

  • Howard R. Engel
    Posted at 01:26h, 25 March Reply

    This article points out an intriguing and important connection between Marshall McLuhan and the Jesuits. I believe this connection is not a coincidence given McLuhan’s devout Catholic faith and penchant for the realistic, dispassionate probing of his surroundings and engagement with the world without being of the world. It is reminiscent of the Jesuits’ insatiable curiosity and wonder at Creation as contemplatives in action. It is no wonder the two entities, which I’d call forces of nature, crossed paths and collaborated on a number of significant occasions.

    That said, there is a surprising omission in the article among the Jesuits that crossed paths with McLuhan. That would be Fr. Walter Ong, SJ (1912-2003). Fr. Ong was a graduate student of Marshall McLuhan who was his MA thesis adviser on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), himself a Jesuit, at St. Louis University in 1941, before McLuhan recommended Ong study Pierre de la Ramé for his doctoral dissertation. (For a fuller treatment on this important connection between Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan, see the online article:

    It is noteworthy that one of my own teachers at St. Paul’s High School (I attended from 1975-1979), Fr. Eric Jensen, SJ whose own musings often grace IgNation blog, both in terms of blog posts and comments, was himself a student of Ong. Eric writes “He was the most published Jesuit in the U.S. I’d say his best book is ‘Orality and Literacy’, if you want a treat. We called his courses Onglish rather than English because they were so unique.” (McLuhan, pun-master extraordinaire would have loved this play on Ong’s name). Eric goes on to say, “Ong has written on ‘Hopkins, the Self, and God’ (U of Toronto Press). He suggested where I might publish my MA essay, ‘The Play Element in Faulkner’s The Bear’ (Texas Studies in Literature and Language).” What a small world we live in after all!

    Howard R. Engel,
    Founding Director & C.E.O.
    The Marshall McLuhan Initiative
    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    “The Medium is the Message.” — Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

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