Once upon a time, when I had my own “little magazine,” I was confronted with Apples. This was thirty years ago, when the current computer revolution was gathering speed.
I knew nothing about computers, except that I did not like them. But several younger contemporaries were able to convince me that I must have Apples in the office, instead of typewriters. This would save my tiny staff all kinds of time. We would be “networked” together. We would save money. Verily, the future of print depended on Apples.
As luck would have it, the future of print would soon be erased by the same technology, but it is amazing what we did not know in 1988.
We had little Aristotelian glimpses, but they passed. For instance, I recall telling a technophile interlocutor that, “If we can have paper-free offices, we can have a paper-free everything else.”
But that aside, the immediate task for my generation (the dusk end of the Baby Boom) was to come to terms with these Apples.
Those were the days when there were two sexes, only three genders (if you counted “neuter”), and as I recall, only Apples and IBMs. We (including the girls) joked that these last were “feminine” and “masculine,” respectively.
Ask a question to an IBM, and the answer would be a cold “yes” or “no.” It was usually “no,” which made life simpler. But sometimes one might think of a better question, more precise and technical, to which a “yes” might be obtained. In which case one was subtly turning into a computer oneself.
Ask a question to an Apple, however, and one was in a different, “user-friendly” space. The answer would not be yes/no. It would be more like, “getting warmer,” or “getting colder.” The user would be led down a cybernetic garden path to the right cybernetic place. In which case, one was also being subtly turned into a computer, or worse, a computer algorithm.
Said one of the young wags: “An IBM is more like a souped-up adding machine; an Apple is more like your girlfriend.”
This was the recent graduate of electronic engineering who installed our computers. I’d given him the task of making our new system idiot-proof. My fear was that things, such as carefully edited manuscripts, would be lost in electronic space. He assured me that my fear was reasonable.
And so it came to be, that when one tried to delete a file, a little placard would pop up with the question: “Are you sure you want to delete this?”
If you chose “yes” another would pop up: “Are you really, really sure you want to delete this?”
Then if one was quite determined, a third placard would appear. It read: “Well, you can’t.”
Gentle reader will imagine the dystopic vision that followed from this. I began to imagine a world from which nothing could ever be deleted. It could be lost, of course, in the bottomless ocean of undeletable files, but one would never again have the satisfaction of knowing that it was. . .gone.
Indeed, things we earnestly wanted to be gone would frequently return to haunt us. The most embarrassing mistakes would persistently resurface, needing correction again.
Even before the Internet and its notorious “cloud,” the denizens of that little magazine office became acquainted with the “brave new world” made possible with computers – a world in which human stupidity and malice could be easily magnified, and virtue could go undetected. All the fixities of art would be obviated, and every sharp “either/or” would be dissolved in mindless complexity.
Or, so it seemed to me, at the time. And still seems to me.
Why am I mentioning all this? Because I’m trying to understand that new world of Rome, in which the former clarity of Catholic teaching is being almost wantonly broken down.
Foundational questions that once had the sort of straight answers on which anyone might build – a question as simple as, “Are you married?” – disappear in a dense fog of “mercy” and “accompaniment.” Moral questions that were irresistibly steady now wobble and spin through multiple dimensions of “getting warmer” and “getting colder” – to sudden, unpredictable, and incomprehensible conclusions.
We are no longer in that particular world – where one was in Kansas, or one was not. We are instead entered into a world where we are neither here nor there, but in a cloud like the Internet one, from which any sort of answer can be retrieved, and we are consistently “elsewhere.”
And in a place where there are no hard answers, only soft ones – a place where even a princeling of the Church tells us that there are times when two and two make five, then demonstrates this with other batty declarations; who demands a cloudland theology in which “A” and “not-A” casually co-exist.
It is a place where Catholic dogma that has withstood twenty centuries can be flicked away in a footnote to a long and meandering papal encyclical, in which innumerable new sins are enunciated over which no confessing Catholic could possibly have control. (If I continue breathing I contribute to “global warming,” so how can I ever be absolved?)
That our pastoral masters “mean well” I’m not entitled to doubt. Certainly, I cannot blame men who are symptoms rather than causes of our comprehensive intellectual and spiritual squalor.
Yet even though we be drowning in this polluted sea, Christ continues to be the answer. Our duty is to ignore the blather and fix our attention on Him. For only He can save us. Prattling clerics are not and will never be in a position to do that.
Father Schall gave a good account of this ground position on Tuesday. He affirmed the Socratic principle, that it is never right to do wrong – the very rock of Calvary on which Our Lord stood; and our wall against all sophistries.
*Image: Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves by Peter Paul Rubens, 1620 [Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp]