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Catholicism and the Perils of Technology Print E-mail
By Fr. C. John McCloskey   
Sunday, 20 July 2014

A confession: I am writing this column on my MacBook Air computer with my iPhone at my side. And I regularly enlist the help of a cellphone App to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. And after all, I live in the heart of Silicon Valley and have lectured to 300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe.

In addition, the Church has actually pronounced itself in favor of modern technology, inasmuch as it enables people to communicate directly throughout the world, in directly personal ways (e-mail, texting, Twitter, Skype, etc.) as well as in more formal or purely informational forms of group collaboration and instruction. Through this assortment of techniques for “distance learning” of all kinds, the hope is that technology can help different countries and races to understand one another better and thus contribute to world peace and prosperity.

And technology, properly utilized, helps the Church evangelize globally by using the means of communication to preach the Good News to all. Just think about St. John Paul II and his use of the media, and Mother Angelica and her founding of EWTN, with its worldwide audience and dozens of Catholic radio stations throughout the United States. Now we have the charismatic Pope Francis energizing the largest Twitter account in the Universe.

Nonetheless. . .

I just went on vacation with some very close friends and was troubled by their inability to go almost anywhere, inside or outside, without their smartphones. I believe this could be called an addiction, and as Catholics striving for holiness we should only be “addicted” to the one thing needful: God alone.


             Dean Koontz

A few years, ago while I was resting from my pastoral duties, I picked up a paperback novel (not pulp fiction!) by the most popular and best-selling Catholic author in America. His name is Dean Koontz – you have probably head of him – but you are not likely to know that he is also a great defender of life.

Midway through the novel, I was stunned to come across this passage:

New technology – like the computer – freed men and women from all kinds of drudgery, saved them vast amounts of time. . . .And yet the time saved did not seem to mean additional leisure or greater opportunities for meditation and reflection. Instead, with each new wave of technology, the pace of life increased; there was more to do, more choices to make, more things to experience, and people eagerly seized upon those experiences and filled the hours that had only moments ago become empty. Each year life seemed to be flitting past with far greater speed than the year before, as if God had cranked up the control knob on the flow of time. But that wasn't right, either, because to many people, even the concept of God seemed dated in an age in which the universe was being forced to let go of its mysteries on a daily basis. Science, technology, and change were the only gods now, the new Trinity; and while they were not consciously cruel and judgmental, as some of the old gods had been, they were too coldly indifferent to offer any comfort to the sick, the lonely, and the lost.

I might add to Koontz’s masterly description of the dangers of technology the practices of euthanasia, abortion, and pornography – all spilling out from the so-called developed countries in a floodtide of sin and death.

Well then, how do we combat an addition to technology?

Some suggestions:

1. Time. On average, how much time you spend online and watching television? (I shudder at the thought that you might play video games.)

2. How much time daily do you spend with your family? Is it more or less than the time you spend online?

3. Do you spend more online or on entertainment on a given day than you do on Mass or spiritual reading, such as reading the life of Christ so you can imitate him better in your friendships, family, and work life?

4. How much time do you spend on the spiritual and corporal works of mercy?  Or do you spend more time on YouTube?

5. What is better for you and your family? Each member of the family online or a joint excursion to a shrine of Our Lady with another family or two and an ice cream treat afterwards?

6. How about once in a while having an evening when the family stays at home and each family member reads a book for an hour or so?

7. Serious Catholics should make a retreat every year to grow in their relationship with the Lord. Well, why not make it a silent retreat? That’s right, no talking and no cellphone or computer usage.

Try any of these simple suggestions, or other like them: then you will start to see how addicted you may be to technology.

           
Fr. C. John McCloskey is Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC.
 
 
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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by debby, July 20, 2014
Excellent points - Excellent list for examination of conscience.
Isn't it always the case that each new "discovery", whatever that discovery may be, lends us the opportunity to use it for the Greater Glory of God to the best of our ability given the age we live in, or to abuse it for the detriment of our souls in the false worship of self and pursuit of a "better life"? I dare say that even the preamble in the Declaration - "right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness..." can be to the detriment and lends itself to addiction if not first grounded in Love of God with All Heart-Soul-Mind-Strength and Neighbor As Self....after all, what am I declaring independence from or from Whom? and if from "duty of LOVE" then addiction is my new cruel master....but this audience not only knows this but loves Truth so i am blabbing.
Thank you for this reminder.
A parting comment - Addiction is insidious and can happen to anyone at anytime and trumps all other sins once it takes root. (I say that as a facilitator for a non-traditional 12-Steps Catholic Women's group) I have found it a good practice to include examining my bent toward addiction in my regular examination of conscience. JP2's TOB has been helpful in uncovering this: "Have I used people and loved things (anything!) rather than loved people and used things" today?
i am turning off my computer as it is SUNDAY NOW.....;)
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written by schm0e, July 20, 2014
Divide and conquer.

As obnoxious as people behave when playing with their “devices”, this isn't, to me, the most troubling result of "technology", even if it is the one most talked about, especially by Pastors.

The most troubling feature is foretold in Marshall McLuhan's 1950's book "Understanding Media”, which I recommend as the essential guide for understanding the information age. Long before handheld calculators and digital clocks, McLuhan foresaw a big picture of society shaped by technology. It was he, incidentally, who coined the term "Global Village" which yielded so much popular mileage to Hillary Clinton, who lived in the White House when the Internet as we know it was unleashed.

McLuhan wasn't necessarily enthusiastic about this "Global Village”, but he was matter-of-fact. He saw that the rise of global, post-literate mass media to ubiquity would be the end of "individualism" (and therefore the decline of the West) and force a retribalization of the entire, connected planet.

Sounds quaint to some, especially to those of you who still own your tie-dyes. But if you think of a "tribe" as a community, the dominant organizer of this community is whoever owns and controls the media. And I gather that readers understand that it won't be the Pope who does that.

McLuhan speculated about a "new Pentecost" -- the one where a technologically enabled "spirit" or "global consciousness" (later another favorite term of certain types) -- which arises from the connectedness of everyone -- manifests itself. It's not so mysterious really. Anyone who has heard of a "flash mob" has seen its manifestation.

I have read and heard much disdain about "American individualism" by Catholics who present themselves, by delving into the subject, as expert. But I would remind them that God Almighty calls each of us by name. Each is an individual to him. Individualism is essential to Liberty, and a truly healthy community is made up of individuals – voluntary ones, not inevitable ones

Few things militate against the Individual with the relentless focus of global information technology. Everywhere it has been employed it has demolished hierarchies of authority, eradicated "subsidiarity" by consolidating control of anything that depends on information into fewer and larger hands. Is there anything in the material economy that doesn't depend on information? As McLuhan points out, instant, global communication renders sovereign national borders as quaint formalities, leading ultimately and inevitably to some form of virtual de facto superstate. Such an entity has the means to control people's perceptions of, permissions to, and uses of information, rendering them effective wards of its power, relieved on anything that can truly be called "individuality." So will be the Digital Pentecost, where a person ultimately is a source of tax revenue - a "number", if you will, to a superstate.
This is the real problem with technology. Selfies are only a distraction, proof that people's eyes are really off the ball.

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written by Rick W., July 20, 2014
I promise not to become a technology addict, but please don't take my internet away. Having daily access to TCT is the only thing that keeps me sane!
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written by Jack,CT, July 20, 2014
Father,
I wanted to say 'Thanks', I have as many

of a generation prior to all the "Gains" we speak

of.I was very happy when pope Frances eased my guilt

and spoke of the good all this technology offers.

I worry for those millenials many who do not have

the control with the "ENTER" button.

Librarians still have jobs and I am very shocked!

I Love the instant gratification of finding my way

around the web and world but my children seem to "Hide"

in these machines for good amounts of time daily and I

must admit I fear we are Numbing them or allowing a way

out,a way to remove yourself from ones "Own" Reality.

I agree 100% with the Piece but I just wanted to offer

this and perhaps you have Advice for a ole father about

new realism-
Thanks for a fantastic Article!



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written by Lee McKenna, July 20, 2014
When I was a young mother at home with 7 children, I was profoundly grateful for my dishwasher, my washing machine and particularly my dryer. In my spare moments I used to contemplate these machines and worry that they did not so much as save me labor as raise the standards. I still believe that today as I am now 81 and although I like the internet sometimes, all the other tech things are like a foreign language to me. But I still think I am right in that the standards have been raised to take up the free time the so-called labor saving devices were supposed to give us. None the less, I still like my clothes dryer (even more than the washer).
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written by Myshkin, July 20, 2014
Anyone who knows anything about the history of technology and its popular culture adjuncts also knows that most of the time pastor-types have always bad-mouthed them. From the printing press on down, every advance in communication technology has been accompanied by pastors moaning about how it will corrupt humanity. As schm0e notes you can find documentation of this in McCluhan's work (and he was writing 40+ years ago!).

But the truth is that the human will has been corrupted by sin for millenia. New technology doesn't corrupt it more. It may provide new ways for the expression of that corruption, but only that. We need to unrelentingly focus on the core issues of defending human dignity (opposing contraception, abortion, euthanasia, Islamism, etc.) and supporting the moral behaviors needed for human flourishing. If all Fr. McCloskey intended with this post was to advise his readers to spend more time devoted to the practice of the Roman Catholic faith, then well and good. But bemoaning the iPhone (or the printed book, as many clerics did in the past) amounts to useless hand-wringing!

Fr. McCloskey's post is just so much fluff.
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written by Beth, July 20, 2014
Read again, Myshkin. Fr. McCloskey puts in writing what I see everyday: Parents not tending to their children because they are engrossed in checking facebook, pintrest,and sports scores while their kids are doing the same. I've sat at dinners out when adults pick up their devices to 'check a text' and completely ignore the people present to them. Going for a walk on a beautiful day means having things plugged into your ears to hear lord knows what.
I think Fr.'s checklist is spot on.
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written by Jack,CT, July 20, 2014
@Beth,Givem Hell!, I Agree!
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written by Myshkin, July 20, 2014
@Beth

As Chesterton would put it, it's not that you don't know what you're talking about, it's that you ONLY know what you're talking about. You have no sense of the historical background of communications technology when it comes to your observations. I don't deny that iPhones distract people -- far from it! But what is indubitably true, which you would know if you would do some reading in the history of technology, is that every technology has done this. For example, printed books were decried as distracting the faithful from the truth and inevitably leading to their damnation, since they would no longer be guided solely by the preaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The replacing of the profoundly oral culture of the medieval world by the textual culture of modernity was widely condemned by the pastors of the Roman Catholic Church (and perhaps rightly so). But this condemnation turned out to be useless and worse. And soon after this initial condemnation, Roman Catholics realized the potential of the technology and were using it effectively.

Again, it's a very good thing if Fr. McCloskey wants to encourage the faithful to spend more time practicing the faith, but bashing mobile communications technology recalls the loopy efforts to stymie printed books. It is but useless hand-wringing.

I recommend reading _Orality and Literacy_ by Fr. Walter Ong, as well as McCluhan's works to get a deeper sense of the nature of communication technologies and how they interact with mankind's spiritual destiny. Who knows, perhaps Fr. McCloskey could benefit from some advanced scholarship in this area as well?
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written by Allan Cheung, July 20, 2014
Is it Myshkin or Mieskeit? (Look it up.) Rarely have I seen at TCT such a mean-spirited, arrogant, self-regarding commenter as he. I think of the scene in "Annie Hall" in which some guy in line to see a movie is going on about McLuhan, and Woody calls him out. The guy wonders what Woody knows about the subject, and Woody goes behind a lobby card and brings out Marshall McLuhan himself, who tells the other guy he doesn't know a darn thing about his theories.
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written by Alecto, July 21, 2014
Smartphones and the people who use them are annoying, undisciplined and thoughtless. Children should never, ever possess them, since they lack any ability to restrain themselves. But, I take exception with this statement:

"Through this assortment of techniques for “distance learning” of all kinds, the hope is that technology can help different countries and races to understand one another better and thus contribute to world peace and prosperity."

Well, Kumbaya! This confuses knowledge with respect. Too many believe exalt the capabilities of technology to turn us into superhumanoids and fill us with the ability to discern good from bad. It does not. I do not believe that this technology is on the whole, good for society. It hasn't fostered respect, patience, or insight. On the contrary it has and is destroying what remains of privacy, and that is too important to let go. Those Masters of the Universe" are enabling governments to strip us of our rights, our most intimate thoughts, even to the point of developing predictive models for behavior, voting, etc.... creepy. In the case of radical Islam, and oppressive governments, it rightly exposes their atrocities and crimes in gory detail. However, it doesn't confer the ability to act on the information, only to be perpetually outraged by it.

Silicon Valley may be Ground Zero in in the advancement of technology. Where is the Ground Zero for instilling honesty, integrity, character? I'm sorry to write this, but it seems societal institutions have thrown their lots in with these "masters" instead of attempting to restrain or counter their ill effects.
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written by Richard A, July 21, 2014
Well, Allan, I'd say there is at least one more mean-spirited commentator than Mr. Myshkin, although he hasn't weighed in yet on this topic.

I'd advise Mr. Myshkin, though, that he take to heart the advice of one the commentators above, and get to know more than just what he's talking about. Specifically, he should get to know the article to which he's responding. A cursory glance at the text of the article, rather than just extrapolating from the title, would reveal that Fr. McCloskey spent no words at all " ... bemoaning the iPhone" or any other recent technology. Lumping him in with those who bemoaned "... the printed book, as many clerics did in the past" is just so much piling onto a not-present straw man.

Father was offering advice to "combat an addition[sic] to technology". Pretty sure he meant "addiction." Myshkin might have conceded him that much.
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written by Sue, July 21, 2014
A small point Father, I would love to go on retreat, but there is no retreat center in the NE that is truly catholic without being new age-ey.
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written by debby, July 22, 2014
@ sue - if you email me, i have one for you.
havmercy@optimum.net
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written by Pete DeLisi, August 01, 2014
Perhaps the dangers of technology are even greater than voiced by Father McCloskey. Books written by prominent social scientists and others, highlight the deleterious effects of electronic media on the brain and on psychosocial development. Our own research at Santa Clara University further underscores the loneliness anxiety that drives people to be addictively stimulated by electronic media. We also look at the erosion of the brain's ability to be in alpha wave mode --- a condition associated with peacesful, reflective, meditative states. This latter effect bears directly on Father McCloskey's concerns and the comments made by others.

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