Our Gadgets, Our Pope: The Church Embraces the Cult of Technology

To combat the moral hazards posed by humanity's deep affection for gadgetry, the Vatican is joining the conversation

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Pope Benedict XVI doesn't tweet. He doesn't blog. You can become a fan of the Vatican on one of many Facebook pages, but you can't friend him in the proper sense of the term. "Poking" is certainly out of the question.

Despite the Pope's personal absence from the social web, the Vatican has been especially vocal about the evolving media ecosystem, inserting the Church and Christian doctrine into the conversations around the latest technologies.

The year has brought a major tech push from the Vatican. In January, the Pope encouraged Catholics to join Facebook and Twitter, declaring social networks to be important tools for "exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations," while simultaneously cautioning against online alienation in the digital age. In February, the Vatican released a Confession app on iTunes. Gradually, the papacy has found outlets on Facebook and Youtube in order to encourage "a culture of dialogue:" at Easter the Church broadcast the Pope's message on YouTube with subtitles in 27 languages, a Youtube record. As major media companies staff up with teach savvy social media specialists, even the Vatican has Pontifical Council for Social Communications, headed by Archbishop Claudio Celli. The Church's embrace of the Internet is nothing new; starting with John Paul II, who famously transmitted a special message to Bishops through the Internet in 2001 (pictured above), the Vatican has always considered the World Wide Web to be an essential tool for evangelization, "a new forum for preaching the gospel."

The Church's technological zeal may be rooted in a deeper, doctrinal suspicion of the power of human material progress.

At times, the Vatican's interest in tech seems to have gone far beyond its usefulness for spreading religious Dogma and keeping the Church relevant in a highly digital era. In 2003, the Church sought out a patron saint of the Internet, choosing Saint Isidore, Bishop of Seville, the last of the Latin Fathers and author of the 20-book Etymologia. The Vatican has even gone so far as to embrace Internet hackers as servants of God, despite their reputation for piracy, sabotage and the spilling of sensitive secrets. In a recent article for the authoritative Vatican magazine Civilta Cattolica, Jesuit priest Father Antonia Spadaro drew parallels between hacker philosophy -- "playful but committed, encourages creativity and sharing, and opposes models of control, competition and private property" -- and the teachings of Christianity. The Church is not just making use of technology; according to the Vatican, it encompasses it.

The Church's technological zeal may be rooted in a deeper, doctrinal suspicion of the power of human material progress. "At the core of the Abrahamic religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam -- is a focus on idolotry, on getting away from idolotry," said James Clement van Pelt, a program coordinator at Yale Divinity School's Initiative in Religion, Science & Technology who specializes in theologies of technology and spiritual anthropology. "Technology, as it grows in power, becomes an idolatrous involvement. The best example is in Genesis. When faced with the temptation of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam has the choice of being with God, or being as God by eating the fruit from tree. The rapid adaptation takes us in the direction to become as Gods, and to be focused on that sort of power."

The spiritual concern with technology comes not from its artificial nature, van Pelt suggests, but from its evolutionary growth. Think of Moore's Law, which describes long-term trends in computing software: Because technology can be used to create better technology, the power of computers increases at an exponentially faster rate. The end result is singularity like that described by Ray Kurzweil, where technological advancement occurs almost instantly, beyond human control. The logical extreme is an "omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent human being," said van Pelt, as technology "gives you the power to essentially do anything."

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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