Does Pope John Paul II Bash Technology?

Guest blog: Dr. Jim Clarage, Univ St Thomas

Someone asked me whether John Paul II and the Catholic Church “bash technology.” From the writings I’m familiar with it appears the contrary: an open praise for technology. As an example, in John Paul II’s 1980 address to teachers and university students in Cologne, entitled “Connection Between Scientific Thought and the Power of Faith in the Search for Truth: On Principles for dialogue” the Holy Father wrote:

“There is no reason to consider technico-scientific culture as opposed to the world of God’s creation. It is clear beyond all doubt that technical knowledge can be used for good as well as for evil. Anyone who studies the effects of poisons can use this knowledge to cure as well as to kill. But there can be no doubt in what direction we must look to distinguish good from evil.”

“Technical science, aimed at the transformation of the world, is justified on the basis of the service it renders man and humanity.”

But has technology gone too far? Surely with nuclear energy, biological cloning (deep sea drilling?) we have gone too far, right? John Paul goes on to address this concern:

“It cannot be said that progress has gone too far as long as many people, in fact whole peoples, still live in distressing conditions, unworthy of man, which could be improved with the help of technico- scientific knowledge. Enormous tasks still lie before us, which we cannot shirk. To carry them out represents a brotherly service for our neighbor, to whom we owe this commitment, just as we owe the man in need the work of charity, which helps his necessity.”

So technology is a good, representing a form of service, one which has not even gone far enough in its duty to the good. Of course there are limits under which technology must act. Being the product of finite human reason and creativity it clearly has intrinsic limits. The Church recognizes also certain moral limits:

“We render our neighbor a brotherly service because we recognize in him that dignity characteristic of a moral being; we are speaking of personal dignity. Faith teaches us that man’s fundamental prerogative consists in being the image of God. Christian tradition adds that man is of value for his own sake, and is not a means for any other end. Therefore man’s personal dignity represents the criterion by which all cultural application of technico-scientific knowledge must be judged.”

That is the limit is that the end (telos, good) of any technology must be directed in accord with man’s personal dignity. Makes good sense (at least to good sensible people).

Digression/Appendix on truer meanings of word “Technology”:

To expound further– and this only became clear to me during the Summer JP2 Forum at the University of St. Thomas– it’s hard to imagine anyone properly using faith+reason to “bash” technology. For to say Technology is “bad” is like saying Art is bad. I mean this literally. In our culture many of us sloppily think of technology as the same as science, and so either praise or bash the two as one. E.g, if we feared the math in a science class we reflexively fear technology. This is horrible mistake. For technology is as much art as science. Apple computer employs as much art (graphical, industrial, visual) in building an iPod as it does science (semiconductor and magnetic physics). In fact Steve Jobs early on credits his graphical design course and calligraphy courses for how Apple came to be, and his early collaborators believed they were creating “modern art” not “science” or “technology”. In fact they were, and are, doing both.

The Greeks understood this. The word “technology” has its root in Greek “techne” (I don’t know how to get blog to do Greek characters, tau-epsilon-chi-nu-eta), which means craft or art. In fact the standard line “Jesus was a carpenter” is a poor translation of the Greek. The word in gospel for Christ’s secular vocation (according to UST’s art historian) is close to word “techne” (tau+epsilon+chi+tau+omega+nu) and is closer to “builder”, or “architect” (alpha+rho+chi+techne). Know Greek. Know thyself… Who is man? Man is imago dei. Our reason and science also inform us that Man is Homo Sapien (man rational). And besides rational we are “builder.” Homo Habilus (man tool maker) was our ancestral builder, walking on Earth 1-2 million years ago, the earliest know species of the genus Homo. Stone tools are found near these fossils. Man is builder and rational. Christ is savior and God– and also builder. Our technology is art+science; it is tools+rationality to become builder and creator (or “constructor” since only God “creates” in technical theological sense). Thus technology is part of our human+divine nature. And technology, like anything we wield, be it our words, our deeds, is used to Build the Kingdom if we use faith to guide these building hands..

3 Comments
  1. I could not agree more with your assessment but where the rubber meets the road is your final observation,

    “Thus technology is part of our human+divine nature. And technology, like anything we wield, be it our words, our deeds, is used to Build the Kingdom if we use faith to guide these building hands (emphasis mine).”

    This is really the crux of the matter because in toto faith is not being used to guide the development of technology. This may be the case because it seems that we are not addressing the essence of what technology is- that being power. A couple of summers ago I read a work by the theologian Romano Guardini entitled Power and Responsibility, in which he lays out quite cogently the relationship of power to responsibility. He says that power is something that belongs to rational agents to affect some sort of change in the world. This is opposed to mere energy, as when mechanical weathering takes place in erosion. When exercising power, rational agents qua rational agents, cannot avoid the responsibility involved. Hence:

    “Power awaits direction…This implies something more: when man’s spirit is brought to bear upon the forces given by nature, an element of free choice enters into the relationship. The spirit can direct them to whatever end it wills, and everything depends on whether this end is constructive or destructive, noble or base, good or evil.”

    Implicit in his assessment above is that the person exercising power is aware that he is doing so. I believe much of our problem with technology or the confusion over it is not the technology per se but a lack of awareness of it as a phenomenon of power. Maybe we should be frame this discussion more in terms of the exercise of power. When we speak in terms of technology the term itself may misdirect our attention way from what make technology possible, namely our power to do things. If we approach it this way it may be harder to lose or evade our sense of responsibility. For the temptation (primordially so) is to act as if technology is its own reality, that it must proceed via it’s own logic, and that at the end of the day “it is what it is”. Yet, such a attitude betrays a techno-determinism that ought to cause any reasonable person, not just persons of faith, to worry. It is not phenomenon of technology but we ourselves who are responsible.

  2. No to monopolize the discussion but if we abdicate that responsibility and follow the “logic” of necessity, economics, or efficiency the following reflection by Gauardini should cause us pause (permit me to quote at length):

    “When power is not determined by freedom- that is to say the human will- either nothing happens at all or there is a hodgepodge of habits, incoherent impulses, and blind herd instincts: chaos…A more immediate danger threatens when power is at the disposal of a will that is either morally misguided of a will that is either morally misguided or morally uncommitted. Or there may be no appealable will at all, no person answerable for power [cf. Hanah Arendt’s rule by no one], only an anonymous organization, each department of which transfers its authority to the next, thus leaving each-seemingly- exempt from responsibility. This type of power become particularly ominous when…respect for the human person, for his diginity and responsibility, for his personal value of freedom and honor, for his initiative and way of life grow visibly feebler. Then power acquires characteristics which ultimately only Revelation is in a position to interpret: it becomes demonic. Once action [or power] is no longer sustained by personal awareness, is no longer personally answerable, a peculiar vacancy appears in the actor. He no longer has the feeling that he, personally, is acting; instead the act seems to pass through him, and he is left feeling like one element in a chain of events…It appears to be necessary, so the individual submits to them…..This vacancy comes into being with the person…is ignored, denied or violated. But the emptiness does not remain, for that would mean that, the human being would somehow be reduced to a natural being, and his power to natural energy. This is impossible. What does happen is that the void is succeeded by a faithlessness which hardens into and attitude and into this no man’s land stalks another initiative, the demonic. The nineteenth century, self-confident in its unshaken faith in progress, ridiculed the figure of “the demon,” whom we shall name by his correct name, Satan. Those capable of insight do not laugh.”

  3. Mitchell,

    I agree that technology must not "proceed by its own logic" as you note. That would get disastrous. I also admit I don't usually associate techne so intimately with "power" and I should meditate on that.

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