As we enter the third year of the pandemic, there is an odd disconnect. Some are debating the when and how of moving out of the “emergency phase.” Others, irresponsibly, never entered the emergency phase at all. Most of us, of course, are somewhere in between, trying to make sense of a flurry of recommendations, variants and information.
In the process, we have reached a fascinating point in the way this pandemic has affected our relationship with technology. For the first year of the pandemic, science and technology represented all that was right with the world: nurses working past exhaustion to care for COVID patients; wise old figures explaining steps we could take to keep ourselves and others healthy; front-line heroes making sure masks, gloves and tests were properly manufactured and distributed.
It also represented major social change (Zoom means we can all work from home forever!), salvation from loneliness (Zoom happy hour!), a new way of fulfilling religious obligations (livestream Mass!), and then, finally, escape from the pandemic itself (mRNA vaccines!).
But something happened on the way to this bright, promising future promised by technology. It turns out that some jobs just cannot be done from our home offices, and it also turns out that many of those jobs are lower-wage jobs.
Suddenly, those wise old figures became “experts” we were either told were trying to rob our freedom or whom we had to follow with extreme scrupulosity. Some of the “front-line heroes” were fired from their jobs for not getting a vaccine. Others watched loved ones die because they didn’t get a vaccine.
Zoom lost its charm, Twitter became snarkier and angrier, and Facebook – already under fire – became Meta and tried to convince us that our lives would be lived online from now on.
This disenchantment must be behind the many articles – from very different kinds of publications – which have recently lamented various ways technology (and the corporations which sell it to us) has negatively affected our society.
Dear friends, we must live in the real. We are not avatars, and the internet is not a home, office, nation, or church. As we enter year three of the pandemic, we must recognize the inherent limits of science and technology. Acknowledging limits, of course, doesn’t mean denying reality. Indeed, the human mind has come to understand many aspects of reality precisely because reality is intelligible. And when that knowledge is applied in a way that helps to sustain and promote life, that is a great thing.
So yes, mRNA vaccines are a very good thing. The digitization of certain aspects of life and work can open up possibilities of interaction and collaboration heretofore impossible. Just as things we don’t even think of as technology – the printing press, advances in agriculture and animal husbandry – transformed previous eras but are considered “analog” today, so many aspects of life we consider revolutionary will probably be considered ancient in a few hundred years.
The essential criterion for any kind of technology – chemical, biological, electronic – is simply this: does this promote the flourishing of the human person and the human community or not? The answer for most forms of technology will be “well, it depends.”
Smartphones can help us listen to the “Bible in a Year” podcast, or they can be devices for the easy access and distribution of pornography. (In fact, they are both at the same time.) Social media can be a tool to share ideas and meet people, or it can be a fantasyland of arguments designed to make us addicted and depressed at the same time. From major research laboratories can come advances in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 and also experiments with human chimeras and cloning.
The choice about whether or not to adopt a certain technology cannot be left to those in board rooms or even, sadly, in many ethics committee meetings. It must be left to the actual real communities which make up our lives – families, legislatures, voluntary organizations and the church through the magisterium – to discern advances in technology and determine whether they truly respond to our needs or simply create new ones.
The truly bright, promising future is one which respects the world as created by God. In such a world, with God at the center, the human person is lifted up by scientific advances rather than brought down. The choice lies not in the atoms and semi-conductors; rather, it lies in the hearts of mothers and fathers, priests and politicians, doctors, nurses, lawyers and scientists.
Catholics have a unique opportunity to extol the wonders of science while also warning of its limitations. We can use the means of digital communication to proclaim the Gospel, while also directing people to real, live experiences of worship and communal life.
May we be guided by faith and reason in fulfilling Christ’s commission to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world for our day.
Father Eric J. Banecker is pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Philadelphia.
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