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Encyclical's groundbreaking critique of technology


Cover of Guardini's 'The End of the Modern World' One of the most interesting sections of the encyclical Laudato Si’ are paragraphs 102-111 on the role of technology. ‘We have entered,’ Pope Francis says, ‘a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads.’

While he recognises the improvements to life that technology has achieved which he describes as ‘wonderful products of a God-given human creativity...in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications’, he nevertheless mounts a profound critique of technology and what it is doing to us.

While Francis has no time for technological solutions and ‘fixes’ for complex ecological problems, he is no techo-Luddite. What he does is link technological knowledge to power and says that those with this knowledge and the economic resources to use it, gain ‘an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world.’

Francis argues that technology cuts us off from our biological connectedness with nature and creates the illusion that the world simply exists for us to use. ‘Technology,’ he  says, ‘tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic’ that presupposes that ‘there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit’, an idea he says that ‘proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.’

Quoting theologian Romano Guardini, Francis says that ‘there is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of progress itself”...[yet] “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well” because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.’ We are besotted with technology, but don’t have the maturity to use it wisely.

Francis’ critique draws on the writings of Romano Guardini (1885-1968) who, despite being born in Verona, was German. Although present-day conservative Catholics have tried to harness Guardini to their critique of post-Vatican II Catholicism, he was a key theologian leading-up to the Council and his much of his thought is reflected by progressive Catholics.

The Guardini book that Francis quotes is The End of the Modern World (1956). Guardini argues that we have entered a post-modern world that is dominated by a technology that cuts us off from the natural world creating an artificial, abstract, one-dimensional, de-personalised reality. ‘The technological mind,’ he says, ‘sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere “given”, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos as a mere “space” into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference.’

Technology ‘is creating a radically different sociological type’ which Guardini calls ‘mass man’. This ‘simply designates the man who is absorbed by technology and rational abstraction.’ Mass man, according to Guardini is ‘fashioned according to the law of standardisation, a law dictated by the functional nature of the machine.’

Pope Francis says that ‘this paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, post-modern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.’

Lurking the background, perhaps unconsciously, of Guardini and Pope Francis is German philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s 1955 essay The Question Concerning Technology. Guardini and Heidegger knew each other and were colleagues in Munich and Freiburg.

The essence of Heidegger’s environmental thought is rooted in his profound ambiguity about technology. For him the ecological crisis is the direct result of our technological culture which, in turn, we have inherited from our philosophical tradition. He defined technology in the broadest sense: it meant human interference by mechanistic force in the natural dynamics of the world for some perceived ‘good’ for humankind.

It was everything from stem cell manipulation to the use of chain-saws and bulldozers, to irrigation and hydroelectricity. The modern world is dominated by an opportunistic, ‘can-do’ mentality; if something can be done, it should be done. It needs no further ethical justification. Technology has created a cultural and intellectual Ge-stell, an ‘en-framing’ of reality that determines the way we think. And how we think, says Heidegger, is much more important than what we think.

This is precisely what Francis is saying. ‘The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable...It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same.’

It is precisely this countercultural stance that Pope Francis is promoting.

Paul Collins headshot

Paul Collins has published further and more detailed articles on Laudato si’ and Heidegger’s philosophy on his blog.

Topic tags: Paul Collins, Pope Francis, ecology, social justice, encyclicals



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Existing comments

shades of Jacques Ellul and his critique of technique.

Doug | 15 July 2015  

We have inherited a long tradition of conflict between Science and Religion.(Technology is simply applied science). But they are 2 wings on which we rely to make progress. In the beginning they were united in mankind's great quest to find out what was 'out there'. Finding forces at work beyond their control,( what we still call 'Acts of God'), they simply said 'God did it.' In a sense this is sufficient, as what we cannot control we must accept as coming from God. However science began a long investigation into HOW God did it, which religion ignored, and sadly the 2 disciplines drifted apart. Religion then introduced a lot of suppositions and superstitions into its beliefs and teachings, and science restricted its thinking to the observable and repeatable, effectively making material progress ( money) their 'god'. But "You cannot serve God and be a slave to money." We desperately need to reconcile the 2 disciplines so we can achieve the peace, harmony and progress in both the spiritual and material spheres we all urgently need

Robert Liddy | 15 July 2015  

An interesting article. All technological advance based on fact and scientific truth must on this basis alone be part of God's creation, part of the continual revelation of the depth of this creation, a revelation which I suspect will go on until the consummation of this world. The problem as with all technological advance is a failure to understand or address the moral imperatives of how we use that advance. Pope Francis is simply applying the biblical requirement for man to exercise responsible stewardship over all that God has created. Such a stance will always clash with human self interest. I suspect that that God the Creator will one day be the ultimate judge and the chickens (if there are indeed any) will then come home to roost! Meanwhile, we all unfortunately but human despite being created in the Creator's image

john frawley | 15 July 2015  

I was in India in 2003 and it was evident then that two things would change the lot of the poor. One was mobile phones and the other was solar electricity. The reason was such technologies doubled or tripled personal productivity but were local - they required no major infrastructure. A phone tower or a few solar panels could service a village, but infrastructure beyond the village was not essential. Both technologies could be labour-saving and the solar panels could provide electricity for lighting at night, for example. Indeed, our parish has funded the purchase of many solar lights (See http://geelongcoast.starcommunity.com.au/2015/03/05/seeing-the-lights) However, today's technology is no longer labour enabling, but labour eliminating - self-checkout, automatic bank-machines operating 24/7, (that is, several ATMS, coin counters, change machines and deposit machines all in one, which latter actually reads the amount on the cheque you are depositing), automatic mining vehicles and so on, for example. It is evident that a balance must be sought between a society and its use of technology.

Peter Horan | 15 July 2015  

Jesus was counter-cultural! I am thankful that Pope Francis states the situation so clearly, and has shown suchl courage in speaking up.

Johanna Blows | 15 July 2015  

Thanks Paul,
An very challenging commentary .As my mum used to say of some doctors ( and my uncle was one) ;" they think they are god".
We run the risk of forgetting in the pursuit of "quick fixes" courtesy of technology, that the environment supports us. We stuff it up - it will stuff us up !
Pope Francis made this abundantly clear. In a way he is a great example of the Prophets of old.

Gavin O'Brien | 16 July 2015  

Unlike those Europeans brooding with existential angst under leaden skies, I really can’t get all that worked up about technology from an ethical point of view. As a branch of praxeology, it’s simply the science which seeks to determine best means to achieve a given end. It seems to me that it’s the choice of ends that is the crucial criterion and the only other question is: is the technology or technique being examined compatible with that end? Thus it’s right for the Church to object to IVF on the one hand and all artificial technologies of contraception on the other, since they violate the unitive and/or procreative ends of marital intercourse. But then so does the “non-techy” technique of coitus interruptus. On the other hand, naprotechnology is a highly sophisticated means of achieving conception through natural intercourse which is perfectly compatible with its unitive and procreative ends. What does get me worked up is that last remark of Pope Francis that Dr Collins approvingly quotes. It reeks of a highly imprudent technophobia. An attempt by many people to take the Pope seriously here and live independently of technology would cause endless misery and destruction. As Matt Ridley observes, “Seven billion hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers would devastate the planet. Seven billion people living mostly in cities and using plastic, glass, metal and farmed chicken instead of wood, skins, fur and bushmeat, could actually afford to set aside vast nature reserves. … Humanity must embrace technology and growth so as to shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature.” As far as I can tell, nowhere in Laudato Si does Pope Francis even hint at this vital point. To be sure, in paras 102 and 103 he makes positive comments on technology. (“Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?”) But he never asks, for example “Who can deny that GM crop technology has reduced our human footprint so that even now farmland is being returned to nature – for example, in many areas of the state of Pennsylvania?” The encyclical is much the poorer for this omitted perspective.

HH | 17 July 2015  

into insignificance compared to the huge scale of illegal logging of the Amazon - despite laws to protect it, up to 80% of all logging there is illegal. With that in mind, I think the encyclical rightfully points out the shocking reality rather than trying to paint a rosy picture to lull government environment departments into a false sense of optimism. And how about the obvious elephant in the room at the moment in Australian fed politics? - the positive use of technology to develop renewable energy sources as alternatives to fossil fuels.

AURELIUS | 18 July 2015  

I am so interested in Pope Francis' critique of modern technology as it puts the spotlight on the Descartes-Bacon project. This project sought to focus all our intellectual effort on the efficient cause of reality. All that mattered was the functional use of an object. Furthermore they emphasised man's power over the material world and this included nature and the human body itself. This thinking removed the idea from our culture that nature is a gift from God. Moreover the human body is also reduced to being a meaningless and the object of manipulation. Hence the male and female human body are rendered meaningless and marriage can be reconstructed. The gift of procreation is also seen as a something that can be manipulated either in the form of contraception or IVF.
How many who have lauded this encyclical will also laud Humanae Vitae as they are both using the same argument against modern technology intervening in the natural order to distort the beauty and purpose for which God created them for?

Ben | 22 July 2015  

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