Published May 6, 2020
In 1998 Charles Chaput, then the archbishop of Denver, hosted a meeting on “the new technologies and the human person,” co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I staffed it. That led to attending, in June 2001, a similar gathering on behalf of the Apostolic Nunciature. The theme was “supercomputing and the human endeavor.” The sponsoring agencies were the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Most attendees were scientists of various sorts. Others were tech executives and public policy scholars. Reading the conference papers nineteen years later, as I cleaned my files last month, was a curiously mixed experience. Many of the sessions were superb. Topics ranged from “learning from past scientific and social revolutions,” to using supercomputers to model the physical universe, social and economic outcomes, and the biological processes of life. Artificial intelligence and the prospect of independent, non-human computer consciousness shaped a number of good discussions.
What was most striking though, looking back, was the absence of any forceful religious contribution to the dialogue. The conference was heavy on supercomputing, light on the meaning of “human” – and what the identity and purpose of any “human endeavor” might be. Over dinner the first night – the devil made me do it – I asked some colleagues about their view of Karol Wojtyla’s Theology of the Body. I might as well have been wearing a Samoa shaman’s mask. One talk near the meeting’s end, equal parts articulate and inoffensive, focused on the impact of supercomputing on “cherished beliefs.” What the discussion needed was a Wendell Berry, a Georges Bernanos – “man’s spirit has never known how to control the products of his hands” – or even a Neil Postman. What it got was a retired cleric.
Why does any of this matter? Over the past two decades, technological progress and the boosterism that precedes it with a cloud of optimism have only increased their pace. It’s senseless to discount the many positives in this juggernaut. They’re obvious. And they’ve become more evident in today’s virus quarantine with communication apps like Zoom, computer-assisted vaccine development, and advanced medical tools. But a little scrupulous pessimism, like a cold shower after a long night of whiskey shooters, never hurts. And it has the happy effect of tethering us to reality.
In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Sí, Pope Francis noted that, “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” Francis is hardly alone in his concern. Thinkers as diverse as Yuval Noah Harari and Augusto Del Noce have said the same. As early as 1969, Del Noce warned that the “religious dimension is undermined and denied by the distinctive form of thought of the technological civilization.”
Technology instinctively reshapes a culture toward purely practical action and results. From technology’s premise that all real knowledge is limited to the senses, Del Noce argues “it follows that the only reality that counts for man is material reality.” Thus “the diffusion of the technological mentality has been accompanied by the disappearance of the words true and false, good and bad, even beautiful and ugly.” These are replaced by words like authentic, useful, efficient, and meaningful. The human horizon constricts to the here and now. The notion that man has a transcendent dignity or purpose gradually loses the vocabulary needed for its defense.
To the Church falls the task of forcing the questions that get people to think. Humans have a bottomless appetite for idols and marvelous skill at disguising them. We start by valuing our tools. We end up worshiping them. Modern technology is Promethean. We start with a desire to improve ourselves. We end with the illusion that we can redeem ourselves without interference from the outside.
And yet – inconveniently for our egos – the First Commandment is first for a reason. Only God is God. In placing no strange or fabricated gods before Him, we conform ourselves to reality and acknowledge our place in that reality. This is what sane creatures do. And until we do, we have no lasting peace. The foundational question is thus not whether technology, or this or that use of it, is neutral or good or bad. The real question is: Who is man? From the answer, everything else flows.
Later this month, we mark the centenary of Karol Wojtyla’s birth. The man who became St. John Paul II taught with a power and prodigious output few popes have ever matched. But the map of his whole pontificate can be seen in his first and perhaps greatest encyclical: Redemptor Hominis, “Redeemer of Man.”
In it, he writes: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This [is] why Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals man to himself’.” For Wojtyla, Jesus is the “center of the universe and of history,” and in sacrificing his life out of love for us he shows, by example, that only in love – the free gift of ourselves to the needs of others – do we discover our humanity, and the joy and new life that come with it.
Wojtyla wrote those words as the survivor of a savage world war and two murderous totalitarian regimes, grotesquely well served by technology. And yet he believed in man for the only reason that ultimately persuades, the only reason that survives man’s own failures and sins: He believed in God and in God’s Son. Amid the idols of the world, for the sake of our own humanity, we might want to do the same.
© 2020 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.