The Catholic Thing
Reflections in August Print E-mail
By Joseph R. Wood   
Saturday, 04 August 2012

It’s August, a slow month if any months are slow these days, and minds are on recreations recently enjoyed or eagerly anticipated. So, herewith, a few more idle and rambling observations for consideration during highway traffic delays, airport waits, or quiet moments in the mountains or at the beach. 

The Cities of Man Expand:  According to London’s Financial Times, more than half of the world’s 7 billion people today live in cities.  By 2030, over 5 billion of us will live in cities. The business consulting firm McKinsey estimates that by 2025, the world’s cities will need to construct new or replacement floorspace for residences and offices equivalent to 85 percent of all current urban floorspace. That means that cities will have to add to their building stock the equivalent of the square footage of the continent of Australia.

Urbanization is not a new phenomenon, but the scale of this wave is unprecedented. It will put substantial pressure on all forms of services, including water and electricity, health care and law enforcement, entertainment and food supply.

It will also put extraordinary pressure on the Church. On the one hand, urbanization tends to go along with economic growth, and recent years of urbanization have also seen a worldwide decline in poverty. That might reduce the need for the Church’s services to the poorest of the poor if more of them are able to join the economic progress. 

More likely, of course, the absolute number of needy in cities will rise, and the Church’s relief agencies will be busier than ever – where they are allowed to operate.

The need and opportunity for evangelization will also skyrocket. The pressures of urban life, bearing down on a population that moved to the city to seek economic advantage, will be severe. But collecting so many people in densely occupied spaces will create opportunities for the Church to reach more people in fewer square miles.

In some cities, the Church may make the difference between a dystopic future and a relatively benign one. Amidst the urban explosion and its dislocations, small personal communities sharing the faith will be more attractive, and essential, than ever.

And if you thought the highways out of the city were crowded this holiday season. . .

 Urban expansion: Mexico City

Technophile, Technophobe: Urbanization is associated with increasing levels of technology. Cities are usually thought of as centers of innovation, for good and ill. 

Since the earliest innovations of wood, bronze and iron, we have had an ambivalent relationship to the technology we create. “The machine” promises to liberate us and threatens to oppress or destroy us. Wheaton College Professor Alan Jacobs has noted that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis saw a close connection between technology and dark magic, with shared pretensions to human power over nature. The difference was that science succeeded where magic failed.

The industrial age was shocking in what it wrought in the name of progress, and amazing in the real material progress it did bring. The advent of nuclear weapons in the last century raised angst about technology to new levels. The race between prudent and Promethean approaches to technology seemed less and less likely to end well.

Like urbanization, technological change is proceeding at an unprecedented pace. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote recently of a visit to Silicon Valley, where the happy wizards of innovation were forecasting a bright future with even more rapid change in the next twenty-five years than in the last. Ferguson, who spends more professional time looking into the actual past than the undetermined future, emerged more depressed than buoyed.

For Christians, the question of which technology to adopt and which to avoid has been there from the start. Christ sent forth his disciples with the simplest of equipment, a staff and sandals. One wonders these days whether the disciples would have taken along a smart phone for maps and directions, and to report back on any especially stubborn evil spirits.

One item that has been in many ways a test of one’s view of technology, or even of the entire scientific-technological revolution brought on after the Enlightenment, is the railroad. Like the airplane that came later, trains had the effect of easing mass travel and connecting previously disconnected places. 

Pope Gregory XVI in the nineteenth century banned railways in the papal states, calling them chemins d’enfer, or ways of hell, playing on the French expression for railroad, chemin de fer, or way of iron. In his early twentieth-century (and still timely) novel Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson fictionally recreated a city under papal domain where only modest technology was permitted.

Yet in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, establishing the terms of coexistence between the Holy See and Italy, the Vatican requested the establishment of a Vatican City State Railway to connect to the Italian train network. It opened in 1932, but the first pope to use it was John XXIII in 1962. 

Nowadays, railways are a major form of transport in Europe and some parts of Asia, and still important on the east coast of the United States. But they also call forth nostalgia for less hurried times past, when hobos traveled by freight car and soldiers moved on troop trains to new camps, or off to war. The trains to German concentration camps call forth a different memory. 

All good reminders of the two sides of every machine.

Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Othe Joe, August 04, 2012
Technology is the science of tools and the techniques of their use. Any tool is nothing more than an amplifier of human nature and its reach. It can increase the effect of human will. A hammer may be used to make a new house or to crush the skull of a neighbor. Most tools are value neutral, but not all. Some tools are evil by design because the purpose for which they are created is immoral. The point is that human nature is fallen and when it extends its reach, much of the result will be degenerative. Those who put their faith in the idol of technology may be treated to flashing lights, smoke and noise as a distraction, but miss the point of living. The Lord of the World illustrates this brilliantly. Mr. Benson's projections regarding technology are quaint, but the man-as-god rhetoric is perfectly contemporary (frightfully so). When technology is used as a substitute for God, the spirit of the anti-Christ is present.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 04, 2012
One effect of urbanisation little remarked on is that there has never been a time in history when so many grandparents and grandchildren no longer share a common language. This is happening all over Africa and Asia

A more complete deracination it would be difficult to conceive.
written by Manfred, August 04, 2012
In the 19th century Cdl. Newman wrote a brief piece titled My Purpose in Life, and promised we would learn it in this world or the next. You cannot have a government whose sine qua non is to wipe as many people off the earth as this one which demands that every employee be provided free abortifacients and sterilization with serious financial penalties for failure of the employer to do so. Many serious people I speak with are asking: What is the POINT to being alive in this massive, anonymous, polarized world. I recall reading interviews with men who had trained to be suicide bombers-they realized there was no hope for their circumstances exept endless poverty and strife. At a recent businessmens' meeting the speaker told all the people in the audience aged fifty to sixty that they should stay in peak health as they would be working until they became incapable or they died. The economics could not support full retirement. I see it with my clientele. Those who were young at the time of WW II enjoy great retirements while "Baby Boomers" are losing jobs with no relief and are submitting "claims" which to a large degree (the zero interest returns are no help) are beginning to bankrupt the Long Term Care insurance industry.
written by anon, August 04, 2012
So, Manfred, your leaning is to bring even MORE millions into a world of diminishing resources, poverty, and strife, so even MORE people can stew in the toxic air of a declining planet.

Your thinking is pure evil.

People Breeding like rabbits with no proper hutches to house them in is cruel and evil. The point of living in this world is not only to squat in hot squalor praying to Da Lord, I don't think hordes of have-nots in the future are going to meekly suffer and die because The Pope urges them to keep breeding. Is the church going to do anything to actually help the poor other than thumping the bible and giving them a treat watching the Pope parade around in his chariot? Lesser may be better.
written by Paolo, August 04, 2012
The last thing C.S.Lewis ever wrote was an article for the Saturday Evening Post on the sexual revolution and pop psychology (which are allies), titled "We Have No 'Right to Happiness.'" Like Chesterton, affirms Peter Kreeft, he saw that this was the most radical revolution of all because it touched the very sources of life. It was a matter of practice ( the 'technologisation' of the beginnig of life, with ART, test tube babies, genetic screening and so on, my add) and not just theory, and it would destroy both the first and most fundamental institution of society, the family, and the first and most fundamental precondition of all virtue, namely the principle of honesty, or truth, or light—that reason must control the passions rather than vice versa.
written by Mack Hall, August 04, 2012
This morning's news reports a new app / application for handheld devices that reports and maps the name, age, address, and political affiliation of each American.

"...the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science."

- Winston Churchill
written by Jon S., August 04, 2012
Anything, e.g. urbanization or technology, that is not intrinsically evil can be either a sacrament (small-s) that brings us closer to God or an idol that takes us further from God. This principle of sacramentality, expressed by Saint Ignatius Loyola as finding God in all things, is at the heart of the Catholic thing. Without the Magisterium, the principle of sacramentality easily degenerates into relativism or pantheism.
written by jsmitty, August 04, 2012
Nice piece. As Christianity began in the world as and almost wholly urban phenomenon, perhaps this is where we are heading again.

An interesting consideration would be the effect of the automobile on parish life. I tend to think this has been mostly negative since it has lead to the creation of numerous suburban parishes that operate more like shopping malls than truly neighborhood parishes that people in more tightly knit communities used to walk to. But if the trend toward urban/suburban walkability continues in the US maybe parish life will experience its own renaissance in the decades ahead
written by G.K. Thursday, August 04, 2012
Most of this urbanization is occurring in Asia, specifically China. The Church continues to struggle with the PRC government over when and how to build parish buildings, and even more critically, how to lead new parishes. Will it be the PRC or the Holy Spirit acting through the apostolic leadership of the Holy Father who decides what the response is to be to this new urbanization? Underground protestant sects have the jump on Roman Catholicism in this regard. We need to pray for the Church especially in those lands where it is opposed or persecuted.
written by Jack,CT, August 10, 2012
I look at all the "Tech" that my children have and myself for that matter. When i decided 20 years ago to become a nurse i
did it to take care of people. I will tell you that the "tech"
world was just starting to "BOOM",but even as the rest of the
world has "Advanced","NURSING" has remained the same, helping
one in pain holding the hand of the dying, washing of the body,
ETC... is timeless and like a circle no matter how much "TECH"
changes and evolves, the care of the sick will never change and
one can 'HOPE" it continues to be done with love and respect for all human life, God Bless all the advances, and God Bless the fact that "human care, personal care,,,,Nursing care has stayed the SAME!

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