Note: This post is the fifth in a series of posts on Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate”. Also see posts on the Intro and Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, and Chapter Five.
For those of you who have made it through this series of posts, pat yourself on the back. This will be the final close-reading of the text post, as tomorrow I will deal with external commentary. Reading encyclicals takes patience, I’ve learned, so thanks for staying with all the excerpting.
Chapter Six of Caritas in Veritate focuses on the relationship between technology and human development. Setting it up, Benedict sounds a little like Karl Marx:
A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes. By analogy, the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the “wonders” of technology
So how does the Pope think of technology?
Technology — it is worth emphasizing — is a profoundly human reality…[it] enables us to exercise dominion over matter, to reduce risks, to save labour, to improve our conditions of life. It touches the heart of the vocation of human labour: in technology, seen as the product of his genius, man recognizes himself and forges his own humanity. Technology is the objective side of human action whose origin and raison d’etre is found in the subjective element: the worker himself. For this reason, technology is never merely technology. It reveals man and his aspirations towards development, it expresses the inner tension that impels him gradually to overcome material limitations.
Benedict thus attempts to put technology in a larger concept of man, blurring the distinction between subject and object. I think it’s actually a nice way of thinking about technology, because it does have distinctly human origins, and is simply another form of actualization.
With this concept in mind, Benedict cautions, as he has in previous sections, against placing technology ahead of or above man:
The “technical” worldview that follows from this vision is now so dominant that truth has come to be seen as coinciding with the possible. But when the sole criterion of truth is efficiency and utility, development is automatically denied. True development does not consist primarily in “doing”. The key to development is a mind capable of thinking in technological terms and grasping the fully human meaning of human activities, within the context of the holistic meaning of the individual’s being.
It follows that Benedict doesn’t want any distinctly human result, like successful development or even piece, to merely be understood in terms of this “techinical worldview.”
Development will never be fully guaranteed through automatic or impersonal forces, whether they derive from the market or from international politics…When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research. Often, underneath the intricacies of economic, financial and political interconnections, there remain misunderstandings, hardships and injustice…Even peace can run the risk of being considered a technical product, merely the outcome of agreements between governments or of initiatives aimed at ensuring effective economic aid…the voice of the peoples affected must be heard and their situation must be taken into consideration.
This section has underlying themes of potential social injustices from focusing merely on efficiency (think of our past discussions of GDP, etc.) and also of subsidiarity- technology can make the technocrats feel above or distant from the supposed benefactors of their plans.
Benedict now addresses a couple technological developments that need to be appropriately placed. First, the media:
Linked to technological development is the increasingly pervasive presence of the means of social communications. It is almost impossible today to imagine the life of the human family without them. For better or for worse, they are so integral a part of life today that it seems quite absurd to maintain that they are neutral…Given the media’s fundamental importance in engineering changes in attitude towards reality and the human person, we must reflect carefully on their influence, especially in regard to the ethical-cultural dimension of globalization and the development of peoples in solidarity…Just because social communications increase the possibilities of interconnection and the dissemination of ideas, it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalize development and democracy for all. To achieve goals of this kind, they need to focus on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples.
It’s not clear how he wants the media to be adapted this way, but I would think that Benedict would embraces more recent grassroot forms of social media like Twitter that allow us to connect with people on the ground.
And on bioethics:
In vitro fertilization, embryo research, the possibility of manufacturing clones and human hybrids: all this is now emerging and being promoted in today’s highly disillusioned culture, which believes it has mastered every mystery, because the origin of life is now within our grasp. Here we see the clearest expression of technology’s supremacy. In this type of culture, the conscience is simply invited to take note of technological possibilities. Yet we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the “culture of death” has at its disposal.
And back to the “technical worldview” in general:
The supremacy of technology tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone. Yet everyone experiences the many immaterial and spiritual dimensions of life.
Benedict essentially has laid out of vision of technology that is very Catholic, in that he demands a recognition of its proper place in relation to humans. I think he also has done a nice job of relating technical reductionism to the same kind of reductionism found in economic thought about development. You could say that he even would value more explicitly normative research and thought, belying the notion that it can ever be purely positive.
Benedict concludes with two paragraphs that bring the discussion back to the spiritual realm:
Paul VI recalled in Populorum Progressio that man cannot bring about his own progress unaided, because by himself he cannot establish an authentic humanism. Only if we are aware of our calling, as individuals and as a community, to be part of God’s family as his sons and daughters, will we be able to generate a new vision and muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism. The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God…Development requires attention to the spiritual life, a serious consideration of the experiences of trust in God, spiritual fellowship in Christ, reliance upon God’s providence and mercy, love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace. All this is essential if “hearts of stone” are to be transformed into “hearts of flesh”
Not a surprising way for the Holy Father to conclude. I’m sure agnostics and atheists may blanche at some aspects of this conclusion, especially the transformation of hearts line, as well as similar references that are myriad in the document. However, Benedict does a good job staying away from “religious crusader” themes in his discussion. He is not saying that Christians must attempt to convert all others, but that they themselves must not ignore the spiritual aspects that may motivate their works.
Development needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer, Christians moved by the knowledge that truth-filled love, caritas in veritate, from which authentic development proceeds, is not produced by us, but given to us. For this reason, even in the most difficult and complex times, besides recognizing what is happening, we must above all else turn to God’s love.
Christian or not, I think there’s a lot to be taken away from this encyclical. It certainly has some weaknesses, especially in Chapter Five, where Benedict seems overly reliant on institutions like the UN. He also walks a fine line when calling for an ethical economy. He seems to embrace capitalists who transcend profit for social motives, but he does not make it clear how they will accomplish this in the current economic structure.
At the end, these issues are rooted in the aversion to anything that looks like Communism. One might imagine that a communitarian economy would best accomplish the twin goals of subsidiarity and ethics. However, this is apparently still too radical for the Pope. This encyclical certainly leaves me inspired and hoping that others will accept its message, but I’m uncertain what I or anyone else is supposed to do about it.
Note: Tomorrow, I will round up some other commentary on this encyclical.