The Catholic Church Used to be Like Silicon Valley. Can it be Again?

Published December 13, 2017

America Magazine

The entire world will know that the Catholic Church eliminated malaria. When Pope Benedict XVI called for the elimination of the disease in 2007 and announced a global program to end it, he was ridiculed by experts and the international development and health community. Ten years later, malaria is down by 50 percent, and a large majority of those same experts agree the goal will be reached soon.

As “the entire world” probably knows by now, the “news” above is false. The promising statistics about malaria are true. But we have Bill Gates, not the Catholic Church or Pope Benedict XVI, to thank for such progress. Yet the opportunity was there for the church to be in the vanguard of eliminating malaria. Instead, it has been mostly a bystander. So why didn’t it lead? And most importantly, why isn’t anybody asking this question?

The Gates Foundation is an example of success not so much because it has a great deal of money—plenty of foundations have billion-dollar endowments and comparatively little impact—but because it combines money with the mind-set of the technological entrepreneur. It combines faith in a vision so ambitious as to border on the delusional with a healthy disregard for conventional thinking—and particularly, a relentless focus on trying new things, measuring their impact carefully, tweaking them and then scaling them up once they work. This mind-set, more than any specific technology or even concentrations of capital, is why Silicon Valley is a unique phenomenon. As innovation scholars have pointed out, plenty of places outside the Bay Area have world-class scientists or access to capital, but what is unique is the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley. To say that the Catholic Church as an institution lacks that sort of culture seems like the understatement of the century. We are the dinosaurs that Silicon Valley nerds laugh about.

For anyone who follows the intersection of social change and innovation, the church’s lack of involvement is a grim spectacle. None of the most innovative endeavors in any field where the Catholic Church competes—for we do compete, whether we are aware or not—come from us, whether that is in education (Khan Academy, Udacity, alt:school, One Laptop Per Child, Minerva Project, Harlem Children’s Zone), health care (Mayo Clinic, Sherpaa, Practice Fusion, Breakthrough), media (YouVersion, Wikipedia, social networking), development (International Justice Mission, the microfinance revolution, social venture firms like Acumen) or scientific research (Human Dx, M.I.T., Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab); the list goes on and on. There certainly are many worthy and innovative endeavors in the church, like L’Arche, the Cristo Rey educational program or Homeboy Industries, but any honest evaluation would have to reckon with the fact that, overall, the picture is dismal. Can anyone argue with a straight face that the Catholic Church is the undisputed leader of innovation in, well, any field?

A spiritual malaise

There is an obvious reason to be alarmed, which is that the church is called to serve its neighbors, and an innovative mentality would allow us to be more effective at it. But there is a less obvious, much more profound reason, which is that this reveals a deep spiritual sickness in the church.

It is also less appreciated that the era that dawned on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire was an era of enormous technological innovation, incubated and entirely powered by the Silicon Valley of the day: monasteries. The historian Lynn White Jr. has shown that monastic innovations in agricultural technology—like the wheeled plow, the horse harness, the nailed horseshoe and three-field crop rotation—caused an agricultural revolution that broke Western Europe out of the Malthusian trap in which the Roman Empire had been stuck for centuries and that made it vulnerable to the forces that brought about its downfall. In the process, they almost certainly saved “the West” from a similar fate from later would-be invaders, Saracen, Viking or Eurasian. (Meanwhile, the last century’s green revolution, which saved a billion lives by conservative estimates, was driven by secular institutions.) The agricultural revolution fueled a population boom, which in turn fueled a centuries-long economic, cultural, artistic and technological boom, including the invention of the university, described by Jean Gimpel, the French historian of technology, as an “industrial revolution.”

It is easy to miss from this already impressive picture that this new dispensation was probably both the cause and effect of the general disappearance of slavery across Western Europe during the early Medieval era, from the ninth through the 13th centuries. The standard economic literature tells us that higher labor costs push more investment in productivity-enhancing technology, which in turn causes wages to rise as the economic pie grows. We very rightly focus on the moral wickedness of slavery, but should also remember that it is economically destructive, since it removes incentives from both workers and capital owners to invest in productivity-enhancing skills.

The point is this: Historically speaking, the church has produced countless innovations, both social and technological. It did so prolifically, unabashedly, naturally, relentlessly. More than any particular invention—social welfare, the hospital, the university, the post-slavery economy—what stands out is the mind-set that made all of it possible, a mind-set whose closest contemporary equivalent is much more to be found in the Bay Area of California than in the Vatican or the vast majority of Catholic dioceses, parishes or ministries. Moreover, that Silicon Valley mind-set was crucial, central to performing the church’s work of feeding the hungry, instructing the ignorant and effecting broad-based social change.

Now and not yet

And how else should it be? The Bible screams it at us. The Bible is bookended by a narrative of creation and redemption, the creation of a good universe later wrecked by sin, and its redemption, not by the special privilege of a select few, to escape a fallen world through a disembodied place called heaven. This is not a return to the Garden of Eden, but through new creation, the “world to come,” which is this world, albeit made divine again, just as Christ’s body was made glorious in the resurrection. The Book of Revelation calls this the New Jerusalem, which is described as descending to earth, not as a place to which believers ascend.

This eschatological vision is the running thread of the New Testament. Throughout his ministry, Jesus proclaims not a set of beliefs, not a code of moral behavior, not a spiritual message, but rather the kingdom of God, a reality that implies all these things but only because they are entailed by the greater reality that God has broken through the barriers that sin has thrown up between God and his good creation and is returning to establish his reign, to transform all things. This is why, in N. T. Wright’s phrase, the Gospel is “news, not advice.” It is not a handbook of spirituality or morality but the trumpeting of the brute fact that God is back and that the plan he had always said he would set in motion has been set in motion. The same eschatological vision shines all through Paul’s letters, a vision of “now and not yet,” that the world to come will be consummated at the end of time, but that it has truly begun on Easter morning and is happening now.

And what is the link between the now and the not yet? The church, whose mission is to make the new creation concrete in the here and now: in other words, not merely to make things slightly better, but to effect transformational change at every level. The church is the body of the risen Messiah, who now reigns over the universe as king. In other words, the church is simply a human word for the miraculous work of Jesus Christ—a work that continues only to the extent that we, members of this body, cooperate with the grace by which he means to do it.

It is this Jesus, indeed, who intends to work through us. And this Jesus, we know, is king, but also logos, that is, the rational principle through which everything was made and which dwells at the heart of all creation, the father’s own infinite divine wisdom and the one from whom the Spirit proceeds to dwell in the church. We should expect God’s grace to lead not only to holiness, but also to greater intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness in getting the work of the church done. And through the Spirit we should expect, if we follow Jesus, to accomplish absolutely novel and startling things.

The God described by the Bible is one of boundless creativity, who wishes to communicate this creativity to his beloved creatures, who, being made in his image, are called to be co-creators. We should expect a church that listens to the Spirit to be an unprecedented wellspring of creativity and inventiveness in getting the work of the church done, particularly in the area of science and technology, of logos and wisdom, a creativity that leads to transformative change of the kind that seems possible only in retrospect.

By the same token, if we should find that this is no longer the case, we should view it not merely as an inconvenience, but as a wholesale catastrophe, as evidence not only of the incalculable human good that we would certainly have done by trusting the Spirit, but also of a moral and spiritual disaster, a new Babylonian captivity brought about by some dreadful sacrilege on our part.

That the Catholic Church should put Silicon Valley—or any other institution or culture—to shame when it comes to world-changing innovation is not some tantalizing yet naïve prospect. It should be the baseline expectation for any educated Catholic.

What went wrong?

Theologically, the suspects line up. There is Christian individualism; in the wake of the Black Death, the question “How do I get to Heaven?” became an obsession of Western Christianity, leading to forgetfulness of the eschatological vision of a new creation. The church correctly pointed out that Luther’s answer to that question was incorrect, but in its obsession to rebut Luther forgot that the question of how one gets to heaven is merely one, rather incidental component of the good news of the kingdom. Then there is the dualism that, in some form, has stalked Christian thought and piety from the start.

There is also (there is no nice way to put it) moral laziness and cowardice at play. I will make a sweeping generalization, but one that anybody who has been involved in almost any Catholic ministry will identify with: There is a quite powerful and omnipresent assumption that the most significant requirement for performing Christian works of mercy is to mean well.

Competence in ministry is a demand of Christian faith, but in too many precincts of the Catholic Church, competence is instead a dirty word. The phrase “works of mercy” includes the word work, and the way work is judged is by quality and result. And if we don’t judge our own works, someone else will, and we will not be able to say we were not warned. This mind-set of putting good intentions over competence is a sort of applied fideism, exalting sentimentality and shunting reason to the side—the opposite of the logos.

But the biggest culprit is the dogged inferiority complex many Christians have vis-à-vis the modern world. We forget to compete because we do not want to try, and we do not want to try because we think we will lose.

Catholics debate endlessly about how the church should “respond” to modernity. Some think we should change or adapt doctrines; others think we should just change the way we present them. Nobody gives a thought to the idea of beating the moderns at their own game. As Rodney Stark points out, pagans converted to Christianity en masse because it offered meaningful, tangible change to their quality of life and circumstances. This is not cheating; it is the church’s job. If we are beaten in the battle for world-healing, we should not be the least bit surprised we are being beaten in the battle for souls.

The Catholic Church today is profoundly anti-scientific, not in the sense that Catholic theology opposes the scientific method in any way, but in the more profound sense of a refusal to take reality—creation—as a teacher, and to address problems through trial and error rather than abstract speculation. We have become practical Cartesians, who prefer to live inside their own heads rather than receive the gift of creation and respond to it as image-bearers of God—with creativity in the service of world-healing and powered by the logos.

We can scarcely imagine the countless, insidious ramifications of our inferiority complex. One example is the church’s wholesale copying of the 19th-century German model of the research university (which was probably never useful, but is now more harmful than ever), and in its wake the transformation of Catholic theology into an academic discipline modeled on the social sciences. This is cargo cult superstition, aping the external attributes of secular scientific disciplines and hoping to achieve thereby a similar level of respectability. But theology is spiritual and practical as well as theoretical. The church fathers were almost all pastors; the Scholastics were bound by monastic rules to spend as much time in prayer as in study. In an unspoken way, theology has come to be identified with the academy, and in the process has become a sort of gnosticism, radically disconnecting the mind from the world, making theology the province of an elect few who are able to memorize and recite arcane formulas. The intellectual and spiritual damage that this particular instance of our inferiority complex has wrought is massive.

A world-conquering ethos

Aux Captifs la Libération (“Freedom to the Captives”) is a Catholic ministry founded in 1981 by the Rev. Patrick Giros, a diocesan priest in Paris, with the goal of reinventing social work. The concept is both simple and earth-shaking. When Captifs train volunteers or workers roam the Paris streets at night to help the homeless, they do so “with empty hands.” They do not offer coffee or blankets. Only when there is a genuine bond and trust with a homeless person—something which might take days, weeks, months or even years to establish—do they propose specific interventions, which can range from free housing in a community apartment to training and rehabilitation programs. These interventions have a much higher rate of success in helping people off the street. Homeless people, who suffer greatly from social isolation and sometimes suffer from mental illness, need this recovery of social trust before they can begin to take charge of their lives.

This is genuine Catholic innovation, as well as incarnate theology in action. While the modern, mechanistic worldview sees people as machines who need correct inputs to function properly, Captifs sees people as made in the image of the Trinitarian God, whose most pressing, ontological need is relationship. This theology produces specific, novel techniques that bear actual fruit. Captifs is a good case study, because it shows that Catholic innovation need not involve whiz-bang technology; but it should involve techniques. Abstract ideas and doctrine, good intentions and even enthusiasm are not enough. Captifs is incarnate theology, while the church more often produces Gnostic theology and applied fideism.

But Captifs is a mustard seed. Silicon Valley’s dominance is not due to the quality of the ideas produced there; it is due to the highly effective, relentless, ambitious and hungry way in which it scales up those ideas to achieve global dominance. Facebook went from an online directory for students at one college to a global platform that offers countless communications services around its basic original insight of using the internet to enhance people’s real-world social lives. Of course Silicon Valley’s access to tremendous capital plays a role, but money just follows success; the capital is there because of the world-conquering ethos. The point of the parable of the mustard seed is not that the kingdom is a very small thing; it is that it is a positively enormous thing that grows from a very small thing. The “tree” that can grow from Captifs’ miraculous seed is the wholesale reinvention of social work, all over the planet. The Spirit is generous in seeds, but (to mix parables) Catholic complacency and moral cowardice is rocky soil indeed.

The stakes are high, not just for the church but for the world as well. Pope Francis’ teachings are laudable for his emphasis on the “seamless garment” of Catholic social doctrine, whose every point is dependent on every other one, and his timely, urgent emphasis on the Catholic imperative of creation care through “Laudato Si’.” But there is an apparent contradiction. Sagacious minds will not fail to notice that the seamless garment of Catholic doctrine includes care for creation, but also includes the condemnation of artificial family planning. How does one reconcile environmental conservationism with a moral vision that, if applied consistently, would lead to explosive population growth? The only way to square this particular circle is to affirm that Catholic social doctrine necessarily presupposes that any just society will also produce significant technological and societal innovations, so that it can “be fruitful and multiply” without depleting resources, and therefore that this duty should be a central concern of the church.

We should be alarmed that it is mostly secular scientists who are taking on the project of creation-repair, for there is no good reason to believe that they, working from a deficient materialistic metaphysics, or profit-seeking businessmen and investors are up to that challenge, or that their cure will not be worse than the disease. It is still up to us in the church to fix the planet, as it always was.

St. Ignatius Loyola changed the world not because of his great spiritual and philosophical insights but because he cashed out those insights as techniques, methods and processes—the Spiritual Exercises, the Jesuit Constitutions—which he refined through trial and error even as he was moved by a Spirit-driven boundless ambition to see these techniques applied over the world and passed on to future generations. As a Renaissance humanist, he had that scientific mind-set in spades. Without that we might still remember Ignatius as a saint, but nobody would know of a Society of Jesus. Where is our new, doubtless very different Ignatius?

The seeds are there. The Spirit lives. The Catholic Church has the means to be the engine of another renewal of civilization.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today