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Catholics & Digital Technology Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Benedict XVI speaks about the new digital technologies with an almost boundless optimism. Last year on World Communications Day, for instance, he claimed that: “they respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other. This desire for communication and friendship is rooted in our very nature as human beings and cannot be adequately understood as a response to technical innovations.” But he approaches these new elements of the culture with the categories of traditional Catholic anthropology because they are still timely and true.

Despite obvious problems, the new technologies offer great possibilities of communication and friendship. Listen to Benedict as he explains: “The concept of friendship has enjoyed a renewed prominence in the vocabulary of the new digital social networks that have emerged in the last few years. The concept is one of the noblest achievements of human culture. It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience.” At the same time, he recognizes the limitations as he cautions us not to let these technologies cut into our face time with our families and friends. He highlights the importance of valuing the more complete, global experience of our fellow human beings through direct contact. His analysis shifts from the glitter of the technologies to the human beings who are using them.

Nicholas Carr has raised another voice of caution in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains. On the one hand, Carr is very aware of the values of data mining and the helpfulness of some of the data that we get from the Internet. On the other hand, he recognizes that he “is not thinking the way that [he] used to think” before the digital media were available. The missing factor is the global experience that used to be a more common accompaniment to human thought.

Now we face mountains of data, selected and processed by ever more sophisticated algorithms through Google or Bing. Information organized according to a letter of the alphabet (just look at an encyclopedia) does not show us the larger context into which it fits. The pope too warns us about the crucial value of this context. As in the passage above, he reminds us of the external context in which we actually live and from which we can be abstracted by our reliance on search engines. Carr points us to the loss of the interior context in which our thoughts find their relationships and their values with the other things on our minds. He is touching on the great richness of human knowing and how it is that we come to know ourselves as we learn about things. We come also to know – in Karl Rahner’s words – “that we are open to something ineffable,” at the same time.

Now, of course, there is real value in some of the data that can be gathered, but evidently a deep human factor is at stake too. As Carr put is: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.” Note that word “promotes” – the technology encourages this lesser kind of functioning. He says that we can operate differently but the technology makes us tend not to operate this way. A human being needs to mull things over, to think through the steps of an argument and to be in awe of the infinite horizon that opens before our search. Mary “pondering these things in her heart” is just one such example of a deeply functioning human being. She pondered to see the good in her son’s mission.

In a speech that he was to have given at Rome’s La Sapienza University, Benedict XVI wrote: “the purpose of knowing the truth is to know the good” But the wash of facts on the Internet does not necessarily give us the faculty of reaching the good of things or the Divine Goodness.  This is just another way of describing the context that we mentioned above. Another word on the context, from Benedict himself, Catholicism offers “a way of thinking and acting grounded in the Gospel and enriched by the Church’s living tradition.”

This context will not be found on the Internet, especially via the search engines. This is not surprising. The New York Times does not offer a context for most of its news, especially since it almost never does any serious reporting on religion and its connection to business or politics. Modern technologies usually do not convey facts within context, or as Carr complains of the effects: “I cannot read War and Peace anymore.”

The human context is all important and yet it is already damaged: “man is weakened by an intense influence, which wounds his capacity to enter into communion with the other. By nature, he is open to sharing freely, but he finds in his being a strange force of gravity that makes him turn in and affirm himself above and against others: this is egoism, the result of original sin.” (Benedict)  It doesn’t have to be this way, but if we are not careful the Internet will only aggravate this age-old situation.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Marc Cardaronella, September 01, 2010
The interesting thing about this article is that while affirming the good of the internet and social media, there is an undercurrent of doom warning against the looming danger of these an online article. The tone seems to be that we have to deal with this situation because people are spending a lot of time online, but we hope it goes away soon.

I don't think it's going away soon...or ever. Rather than condemning how things are turning out and hoping for an alternate future, I think we need to embrace and shape these technologies to work to our advantage. Online social media is most definitely not the equivalent of deep friendships and conversation, nor can it take the place of these. Most people don't expect it to. But it does have the effect of extending friendships and bringing about new ones where they were not possible in the past, such as over long distances.

There is less depth to online relationships but lets face it, most of our relationships are like that. We only have a few very deep friendships in our lives...if we're lucky. There is also the possibility of a valid exchange of ideas and the real possibility of evangelization on the internet. There are people being tuned in to real Catholic doctrine in the internet for the first time and they have the ability to ask questions and interact. Those people my have never had exposure to these ideas in any other way. If these people can be moved into person to person contact within a local parish then more can take place.
written by Achilles, September 02, 2010
Dear Marc, so the endd justifies the means? And a fantasy end at that. It seems to me that you reduced the article to a "wait till it goes away" fatalism, while encouraging a permissiveness, or an even "hope and change" for a better future at the hands of man. The subtlety of this article and in particular the Holy Father's quote seems to have been lost in your comments. Reflect on this:

"man is weakened by an intense influence, which wounds his capacity to enter into communion with the other. By nature, he is open to sharing freely, but he finds in his being a strange force of gravity that makes him turn in and affirm himself above and against others: this is egoism, the result of original sin.”

Embracing a technology because of some possible benefites, both real and selfserving is a poor strategy. It belies the growing wave of a perverted tolerance that has damaged so many souls. Best wishes to you, please pray for me, Achilles
written by Adam Solove, September 07, 2010
I appreciate this article's balance. The Pope strongly believes in the power of human beings to shape the world around them for the good, and Fr. Bramwell deftly explains the results when they fail to do so.

Many early universities became places of controversy and heresy because they formed proud and intelligent communities unto themselves. Faced with this pride, St. Dominic did not choose to stay away and preserve his own holiness. He saw the good that universities could provide, sent his mendicants to sanctify them, and reformed the universities' rhetoric and philosophy to give glory to God.

Many early presses were run by Protestants or revolutionaries. They used cheap printing to distribute their ideas with passion, rather than inspiring readers to contemplation and reflection. But the Council of Trent did not condemn printing. Seeing the potential value of printed books, it encouraged the education of the laity, the printing of traditional texts, and the spread of a Catholic aesthetic of printing.

We are facing the same situation today. Because Catholics already had thriving institutions of learning and community, we weren't the first to adopt online communication and we did not help establish online social norms in line with our faith. But now that we can see the promise of online communication and the peril of leaving it in the hands of unbelievers, the Pope is calling for thinkers and designers to go out and sanctify the medium. We will be the ones who establish the new norms that allow online reading to be reflective and holy. We will be the ones responsible for preserving, commenting on, and enriching traditional texts in the digital medium.

written by jason taylor, December 10, 2011
Some people(like me) are social cripples who need the internet as medicine for loneliness and consider it a great blessing. Why condemn wheelchairs because they are not the same as walking?

My best friends are on the internet and they are often the first ones I would go to to talk about a personal problem. I am not the only one. I remember being present when a man was saved from suicide by the encouragement of his friends on a sci-fi website.

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