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


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."

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."

Religious concern over technology stems not from some reactionary conservatism or blind Luddism, according to van Pelt, but from this potentially dangerous outcome of rapid technological innovation. And while technology in and of itself is morally neutral -- it can be used for good or evil, just as a hammer can be used to kill or build -- religious concern is driven by the underlying danger that, if mankind is not not aware of this danger, man will willfully allow himself to be overtaken and absorbed by his own desire for material power. "We're developing an entire virtual world, we're putting our data into it, we're interacting, we're being entertained, and it has nothing to do with nature or human contact," said van Pelt. "It's not bad because it's new. It's not necessarily bad, it's bad in how its directed. If its directed by our rationality and moral concern, or if it's directed by our natural human cravings."

Van Pelt thinks that the Church's instinctual role with technology is to do what it has done for centuries: to provide constraints on those insatiable human cravings. "Only religion has the power to constrain the marketplace of human desire," he argued. For those who have some level of faith, whether explicitly spiritual or now, the moral and ethical principles associated with even the faintest religious dogma can often serve as a priori side constraints on human behavior, beyond any social contract or evolutionary impulse. "When it comes down to it, nothing can stand against collective human desire unless it has an absolute claim to authority, and only religion has that," van Pelt said. "You can provide scientific studies that point to global warming, but human industry continues on regardless of this because logic and rationality are not strong enough to stand against the human desire for power, for consumption."

So rather than denounce tech as the end of human civilization, van Pelt suggests, the Vatican wants to insert itself into the ongoing conversation on innovation with the hopes of couching technology within religious dogma. Declaring that hackers are doing God's work and blessing social networks like Facebook and Twitter is a necessary concession in order for the Pope to caution against alienation, dehumanization and the other side effects of tech overload without being widely perceived as merely anti-progress.

"There's a word in religious jargon: 'being prophetic,'" van Pelt explained. "It doesnt mean fortelling the future; it means critiquing what's currently developing. Progress happens so fast that we can't always track it, we can't always take the time to sit back and think about it. Most of the clergy is probably in the dark about the latest devices or gadgets. There's a bright line between people who can comprehend Facebook and Twitter, and people who cannot: the 'digital immigrants' and 'digital natives.' The Church doesn't quite realize what's coming about. The Church needs to take a prophetic stance."

By adopting what the most devout believer might regard as frivolous earthly indulgences, van Pelt believes, the Vatican is inserting itself into the conversation about technology in order to take a prophetic stance. But while one of religion's key focuses is on constraining human desire, van Pelt points out, technology's is on freeing it, serving it, satisfying it. "If human desire is not constrained, it leads to disaster," said van Pelt, summarizing the Church's view on technology.

Image: In an unprecedented event for the Church, Pope John Paul II used the Internet to send an official pontifical document around the world, Nov. 22, 2001 (AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti/Pool).