The Catholic Thing
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By David Warren   
Saturday, 29 December 2012

Editor’s Note: As David Warren cleverly argues today, the Internet is mostly a vast wasteland – yet the Church and true Catholicity cannot be absent from it without also being unfaithful to the universal mission. If you are a regular reader of this page, you know that this is one place where you will not only find an oasis of fidelity to Catholicism but a beachhead dedicated to bringing the Good News to every corner of the Web and everywhere else as well. That’s why we have taken the trouble not only to publish the best material we can produce but also to develop partnerships with publications in several foreign languages and cultivated readers in more than 130 countries. I mentioned before Christmas that we had more readers in the first three quarters of 2012 than we did in all of 2011. And we’re committed to growing even much faster in the coming year. We can’t do anything, however, without your help. We need several thousand dollars in the remaining days of the year to maintain and further this mission. Please, if you believe that the Faith is the answer to the world’s troubles, and that a reasoned presentation and defense of that faith is desperately needed, do your part by contributing to The Catholic Thing while there’s still time. – Robert Royal

Shakespeare has been luckier than the Bible or the prayer books, over the last few generations. No prim and earnest committees have been struck by the English Departments, to rewrite his text. The surviving professors have been content to continue fussing over the manuscripts.

I once toyed with, then abandoned, a little satirical production that would be presented as “the new ICEL version of Julius Caesar,” working on the same principles as the begetters of the Roman Missal of 1973. It would deliver that “less literal correspondence with the original as a dynamic equivalence” feeling. Needless to say, all the poetry would disappear, along with any meaning it happened to be carrying when last seen.

The task was too grim for me, and by now the result would seem as stale and dated as all the many productions of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy from that unheroic era. Forty years is a long time, as we discover when glancing through old Kodachrome snapshots that reveal, e.g., what an ass we were in long hair.

Yet the same mischievous impulse itches away, and today I find the notion of adapting Shakespeare to the conventions of the Internet not always suppressible: “Tweet havoc and let slip the dogs of war!”

Like most closet Luddites who sneak out to check for messages in email, my first response to Pope Benedicts new Twitter account was almost involuntarily derisive. One feels almost programmed that way – as if derision were the driving force in the Twitterverse, as mendacity its fuel. Anything short of vile sounds Pollyanna.

And it was only when I reflected upon the esteem in which I hold not only Pope Benedicts office, but his person, that I straightened up. For would the Church in past ages have hesitated a moment to embrace any new communications technology? On the contrary, her instinct was: take charge.

For there is nothing wrong with “technology,” per se, and as the NRA argues, it is not guns that kill people; just as it was never books and pamphlets, per se, that spread heresies and triggered wars. It was only the authors of them.

The selection of targets remains the human prerogative, and it is only in the mind of the criminally deranged that the gun selects its own. (How often, quoted in the media, I have read a street thug passively describing what his gun was doing, as if it were some deus ex machina, how it even found its own way to the scene of the crime.)

         The Holy Father tweets

The analogy of iPhones to Glocks is likewise one that may suggest itself, while reading “comments” posted at almost any mass website; or watching that Twitterverse choose its next victim. And as we now begin to realize, this technology has placed frightening new powers in the hands of schoolyard bullies, and networked schoolyard mobs.

The so-called “Internet apostate,” Jaron Lanier – among the pioneers of “digitized virtuality” – has more recently been campaigning against what he now calls “digital Maoism” and the “hive mind.” A piece about him in the Smithsonian magazine drew my attention to the sophistication of his critique.

For Lanier does not merely condemn declining standards of etiquette. Beyond, he reviews the actual achievements of a technology that promised to cut out the middleman, and has into the bargain cut away the middle class and middle of the economy, too. Little remains between gargantuan purveyors of Internet services, and the vast underclass of Internet consumers, whose every twitch may now be monitored and fed into the database of our Brave New World.

He, who with his colleagues a generation ago campaigned to “make information free,” succeeded beyond intentions. They were further able to make that information worthless, at least to the providers of it. He explains how Google and like enterprises now casually pillage everything their little customers can gather or create, and alone cash in on the result.

And all this while encouraging in the matrix that heady narcissism by which the little ants are persuaded that they have been somehow freed. They may “express themselves” (entirely without cost!) in aggregating waves of niceness, or nastiness, while Google inserts the advertising, “selling the people back to themselves” in Laniers telling phrase. And . . . .

“We are so full of ourselves that there is no room left for God.”

This phrase, embedded in the popes Christmas message, strikes me as perfectly fit for battle in the electronic realm. And having often elsewhere watched angelic agencies transform the most unlikely materials into the steel for Saint Michaels blade, Im prepared to believe that good could come of the exercise.

One might even argue that there is no choice. The electronic media have become established at the very “interface” between persons – even between monks in monasteries – and if the Church is not there she is entirely cut out.

This pope, in whom I place so much confidence, is not trying to be “trendy” or “get with the times.” He is a traditionalist of the first water, and quite obviously not attracted to strutting on the stage. Moreover, in who he is, and from his position, he has as good a view of the evangelical topography as anyone alive. In Gods sight, he makes his judgments accordingly.

As he also communicated, throughout his Christmas message, ringing in every word: our Church cannot be on the defensive. She is in a battle, openly with the world, for every human soul. Except in prayer, she does not have the luxury of retreating to some mountain fastness where the world cannot molest her. It is not her business to be absent from the battlefield.

And it is no longer the message we are trying to “revise.” Instead, our task is to put the unrevisable message of two thousand years on every channel.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and, until recently, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, December 29, 2012
One of the most important advances in information technology was the codex or hinged book, making the index and table of contents possible. Christians were among the first to exploit its potential
written by Grump, December 29, 2012
Well said, David, although it appears machines have taken charge of the modern world. In a touch of irony, Albert Einstein, who can be said to have launched the technological age, once wrote: "I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."

Look around at any gathering of younger folks and instead of actually conversing they are totally absorbed in their electronic gadgets oblivious to each other's presence.

It is all well and good the Pope now tweets to the world. After all, Jesus commanded his disciples to proclaim the Good News to all nations and in modern times the fastest and most effective way to convey messages is by electronic means. But the tradeoff is the lost of the personal touch; the act of looking at one another in the eye, the nuance of conversation, a wordless but meaningful expression, the shaking of a hand or an embrace that no machine can duplicate.

When younger relatives visit the first thing they do after a perfunctory greeting is break out their iPhones, laptops and earphones. My wife and I stare at each other in amazement. Whatever happened to the art of conversation? And yet here I am complaining by typing on a keyboard?

written by Dave, December 29, 2012
Lanier's argument stood out to me as well, Mr. Warren, and it reminded me of the "Walmart Effect," the collapse of rural and exurban economies w Then Walmart rolls in and slashes prices. Then the local stores fold up, and Tom's ability to get credit from Hank because his wife unemployed or his son is sick and Hank, having known Tom for years, knows that Tom is good for it -- well, that sort of dries up too. And then people stop speaking with each other, let alone do business together and then the town dries up. Bad news all around, except for the stockholders. We have been placed at war against each other in a classic sort of divide-and-conquer strategy.

Nice observations, Grump, on the decline of conversation and here we are typing away! Maybe the best thing is to ask people to turn off the cell phones while they are visiting -- just as at Mass we are now asked from coast to coast to turn off the cell phones and other electronic devices. Makes it a little difficulty to follow the readings through Magnificat's iPhone application; and then I recall the words of Holy Scripture, "faith comes through hearing" -- not through reading, important though reading be.

So maybe the underlying message is not so much "amass information" as it is "listen to one another." The Word became flesh, that we might the more readily hear him, even as we see him.
written by Other Joe, December 29, 2012
So many good thoughts. Free "information" is obviously not free. The cost is hidden like the cost of immorality, the cost of deficit spending, the cost of irresponsibility. The cost remains hidden until the bill comes due and our waiters (our servers who are paid to serve us) are fighting desperately with each other not to be the one who has to present it.
Meanwhile we don our digital Mao jackets and send violently framed blogs to anyone we disagree with - the wreckers and their running dogs who won't get with the utopia program. The camps are too good for them. We call that self-expression.
written by Graham Combs, December 29, 2012
Google's "holiday" graphic included a page of links explaining how "Happy Holidays" began way way back in the 1970s. Not even on Christmas Day itself could they bring themselves to acknowledge it. Meanwhile, Diwali and Ramadan etc are treated like, well, "holy days."

ICEL is certainly an example of the Vatican working at cross purposes. The incoming of Anglicans with their (our) Book of Common Prayer-inspired Book of Divine Worship seems an example. We could have had a perfectly functional and poetic English-language Mass whose costs had already been amortized over 350 years (2012 is the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Prayer Book). But let's be fair. The Church's liturgists were already draining beauty and meaning from the Mass long before the Internet discounted the value of individual thought and expression

And the gutting of American education began long before the Web was ubiquitous. One might say it laid the ground work and softened the beaches with its bombardment and devastation of Christianity and morality and standards.

Other writers have noted that the Internet has essentially reached the limit of its productive value. Yes more and more will use it for purchasing but that's about it.

I sat in a restaurant before Christmas and watched two young women having supper. One sat silent while the other bowed her head in devotion to her iPhone all through their meal. A friend thought it funny. I recalled the Ray Bradbury story from his foreword to a later edition of FAHRENHEIT 451. He was walking one evening and passed a couple. The husband guided his wife by her elbow as she walked zombie-like listening to her transistor radio through tiny headphones. That was the extent of the interaction with one another. And as Bradbury noted, you don't have to burn books, you only have to crush the desire and habit to read them. We've done that. And long before the iPad.

It doesn't have to be that way but almost everyone I know has given up. And whatever comfort I receive at Church doesn't seem to come from the Church Distracted.
written by Maggie-Louise, December 29, 2012
The funniest--and truest--commentary on the so called social media I have seen was a photo of a cat in front of a computer screen. The cat said, "I'm so glad I am on facebook. Now I don't have to write 319 letters telling my friends what I had for supper."

written by anon, December 30, 2012
The problem is not technology. The problem is us. Gadgets have not made us less social they simply are another tool. Before these instruments how "deep" and personal were the conversations? I laugh at the question because nothing has changed except the mode of communication.

People talk about nonsense like sports. They just do it through a smart phone now.
written by Patricia, January 01, 2013
This thought came in reading these comments. I really cannot understand the Mass as I hear it without reading my Missal. Has the art of understanding through hearing been long lost as a result even of reading itself? Any way to retrain our minds to understand the spoken word better?

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