What Would the Pope and Mark Zuckerberg Even Talk About?

The bishop of Rome and the CEO of Facebook met at the Vatican on Monday.

Osservatore Romano / Reuters

Pope Francis hosted a special guest at the Vatican on Monday: Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, spoke with Francis about “how to use communications technology to alleviate poverty, encourage a culture of encounter, and to communicate a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged,” according to the Vatican.

It’s difficult to imagine two more different world leaders hanging out together. Zuckerberg was raised in a Jewish home, identifies as an atheist, and professes a profound respect for Buddhism. His social-media company claims to have a mission oriented toward creating social good, but in practice, it often leverages its immense influence over the way people use the internet for profit and political power. By his own description, the Facebook founder is interested in saving the world through technology: its use, its development, its spread.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, is aggressively anti-technology and anti-modern, in the sense that he actively warns against the belief that technological tools can be used to redeem or fix the world. The predominantly Catholic magazine First Things called his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, “the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.”

There’s a lot of evidence in that piece of writing, along with many of Francis’s homilies and speeches, to suggest that he sees technological progress as a dangerous goal. “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving ... problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others,” the pope wrote. Francis sees the development of technological tools as directly connected to the search for profit; and this, he says, always damages human relationships. And the orientation toward profit, rather than relationships, “has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers, and experts in technology.”

This indictment seems directed exactly at people like Zuckerberg, who drive and promote the total takeover of a socially networked world to extreme financial benefit. But Francis’s critique is not just about the moneymaking; he believes that “media,” including the digital networks that dominate communication in many parts of the world, “stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.” When this happens, he wrote in Laudato Si, “the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.” Ultimately, Francis—who was famous for spending time in the slums in Argentina during his time as a priest there, and who has called on the leaders of the Catholic Church to “smell like the sheep” they tend— has critiqued what he sees as the abstraction of digital culture. Media can “shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences,” he wrote in Laudato Si. “For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

Given this harsh critique, perhaps Zuckerberg is one of the people Francis would most like to get to know and persuade of his views—the Facebook CEO has real power to influence the culture of abstraction Francis so despises. The pope and Zuckerberg have both spoken about their commitment to helping the world’s poorest people. Even though they have different worldviews and approaches to that goal, perhaps both saw the meeting as a learning opportunity or a chance to join forces, in whatever limited way, to further their goals.

For his part, Zuckerberg would certainly love to get access to and influence over the quickly growing body of Catholics in many parts of Africa and Latin America. But barring the possibility that Francis will become a booster for the power of technology, which doesn’t seem likely, perhaps Zuckerberg could settle for persuading the pontiff to start a Facebook page: Francis is not yet on the social network, even though he has very popular Twitter and Instagram accounts. For all his skepticism about the nature of digital media and technology, Francis has a knack for the culture—see, for example, Francis wearing hats and Francis holding the tiny finger of a baby. If Zuckerberg is looking to hire someone who knows how to make posts and videos go viral, it’s not a bad choice for him to start in Rome.