Pope Francis, the cool, hip Pope—he of selfies, Google hangouts, and papal Twitterstorms—said this week that people have become too dependent on computers. The Pope himself has not watched television or used a computer in years and has to get updates on the success of his favorite soccer team from members of the Swiss Guard. Which, to be fair, is more than they usually get to do.
Arguably, Francis is right to be wary of the distorting effects of modern technology. It’s not as if the Internet brings out the best in people (looking at you, Twitter trolls). It may have the capacity to unite people, bridge cultures, and impart information at the (variable) speed of your Internet connection, but as a society we mostly use it for pornography—of the food, cute animal, and traditional kinds.
The Catholic Church, in particular, has reason to be concerned. Technological discoveries have rarely been its friend. The Reformation—a financial, human resources, and public relations disaster for the Catholic Church—was propelled forward by the invention of the printing press. In fact it was the printing press that made the Church’s corruption and disorder so very public.
In the same way, the controversies over contraception in the Supreme Court and broader society that we have experienced for the past 60 years would be largely academic without the introduction of “the Pill.” People had used ineffective or, frankly, uncomfortable contraception since the ancient world, but it was this medical development that changed the conversation. And Galileo knows that the telescope put paid to the whole the “sun around the earth” thing. And all of this is before we even start to talk about fossils (not technically technology, I know, but isn’t there always time for Darwin?).
It would be easy to cast religious resistance to technology as evidence that the constant progress of science and technology renders religion increasingly irrelevant and obsolete. The argument goes that as human beings know more, as science rounds out its knowledge of the natural order, and as technology endows us with seemingly God-like powers, we no longer need a supernatural crutch to navigate the world around us. But this somewhat self-satisfied account misunderstands why it is that technology and religion sometimes find themselves at odds with one another.
Some technological developments have a deleterious effect because they erode the church’s power and social position. The printing press, for example, allowed for the dissemination of anti-papal tracts denouncing the powers of the church and publicizing the ill-treatment of Protestants by Catholics (and, later, vice versa). The rise of the newspaper in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed for the formal dissemination of news in places other than town squares and church meetings and created communities whose knowledge came not from the pulpit but the printed page. Communities were bonded not by congregations but by mass media, a situation that only intensified with the advent of radio, television, and the Internet.
But the seemingly antagonistic relationship of scientific advancement and religious authority is much more about innovation ethics than it is about direct challenges to power. Religious communities are among the few places in the public realm where medical advances receive ethical cross-examination. Whether you agree with the religious arguments or not, you’re more likely to hear discussions about the ethics of end-of-life care, stem cell research, contraception, abortion, surrogacy, and organ donation among religious groups than among others (although this isn’t cut and dried—secular feminist pro-life groups are a thing, to say nothing of humanist philosophers, ethicists, and policy makers. Atheists are ethical subjects too)
In truth, the only other area in public society to take the ethical perils of technology as seriously is the unofficial guild of science fiction and horror writers. I’m truly not trying to be trite. Of course doctors think about the ethics of various procedures constantly, but religious groups are more self-conscious and vocal about the need to police the morality of progress.
Francis’s objections to computers seem largely to be about the ways in which the Internet promotes easy access to pornography and erodes human relationships and engagement. As he himself knows, however, the Internet can bring people together as well as wedge binary code between them. As a means of expediting and eradicating unnecessary tasks, technology has always done this. The newspaper brought news of other people without the need for conversation with other people. The Internet allows for proclamations—including those coming from Vatican—to reach more people faster than ever before.