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Prelates Examine Church’s Approach To Cyber Age

At international meeting, talk of opportunities and words of caution

BY Maryjo Anderson

April 05-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/5/98 at 1:00 PM

 

DENVER—Technology gurus dazzled more than 50 bishops and cardinals with displays of digital wizardry at a first ever international conference on cyber communication given for Catholic leaders, held in Denver, Colo., March 26-28.

Hosted by Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap of Denver and Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, New Tech '98 took as its theme “ The New Technologies and the Human Person: Communicating the Faith in the New Millennium.”

The forum, a crash course in the digital revolution, explored new means of evangelization for the third millennium.

Key Latin American and North American bishops examined those opportunities and discussed how the Church ought to relate to a secularized, post-modern world.

Adobe, Microsoft, and Echo Star executives were on hand to explain to the prelates the capabilities and applications of “next generation” communication. Pectoral crosses clacked against keyboards as the prelates leaned over powerful computers linked to the Internet. In the hallways, bishops chatted together about Direct to Home (DTH) and Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), which would deliver diocesan catechetics to their parishes and schools. Several orders of nuns put heads together to discuss computers in classrooms and school intranets. A survey indicated that 90% of the attendees were computer literate, but were eager to find applications for catechesis, education of seminarians, and missionary outreach along the information super highway.

Despite their excitement, however, participants and presenters were cautious about an unrestrained acceptance of “life on the net.” Several of the sessions questioned the wisdom of “virtual communities.”

Internet & the Church

Former Wall Street analyst Ester Dyson, a celebrated theorist and author of Release 2.0, prophesied, “It's going to shake up every established authority in the worldÛincluding the Catholic Church.” Characterizing the Internet as “hundreds of thousands of global villages” who make any rules they choose, as do geographical communities, Dyson suggested the Church use the net itself to steer the faithful to worthwhile sites, as well as warn them of harmful ones. Several bishops expressed concern for sites that made no distinction between links to dissident Catholic websites and those of lay faithful who have jumped onto the Internet with excellent Catholic resources for the cyber-surfing public.

Dyson also noted that issues of free speech and anonymity require serious reflection. Many who lack the courage to seek the Church in person might explore Catholic doctrines privately via the Internet—if it can be done anonymously. Dyson's address, “Being Digital: What the New Technologies Are; Why They Matter, and What Will They Do To Life As We Know It,” caused heads to nod in agreement that caution is prudent.

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, delivered a profound meditation, “Why This ‘Millennial Moment’ Is Decisive: Understanding Today's Cultural Challenges in The Light Of Christian Anthropology And The Gospel.” The cardinal warned of reliance on imaginary, fictional worlds that come between man and man, or man and reality. Speaking particularly of the relationship between men and women, when “the picture is only virtual and therefore leaves man alone and without any responsibility,” desire becomes a dehumanizing fantasy, a “mirage of the real, personal encounter…. Man is then locked up in narcissistic and solitary passivity” that renders him incapable of a true relationship.

The cardinal expressed concern that simulations, virtual realities (complete with sound, smell, and touch) and holograms, give the perception that time and space are no longer anchored. The result is that the distinction between “here” and “there” or “then” and “now” are dissolved and the concept of “after” is destroyed. “What we have here is a parody of eternity. Man pictures himself as eternal. He dreams of forgetting the human condition with its mortality and infinitude, his status as a creature.”

Cardinal Lustiger asked, “How are we going to adapt the Christian rites, and even the faith itself, to the demands of modern civilization?”

Noting that many preferred the comfort of their couches, he reminded all that a TV recording of the Mass is not a substitute to being physically present; that as Christ is physically present as the giver, so we, too, must be physically present as the receiver.

New Way of Thinking

Author James Bailey (After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence) followed Cardinal Lustiger's address with “How The Information Revolution Will Change The Shape And Process Of Thought.”

“The patterns of thought we've known since the Renaissance are not just speeded up,” he said, “but goneÛre-placed.”

Bailey explained that man develops partnerships with his communication tools; previously it was man and books, now it is man and electronic circuitry. He instructed his prestigious audience with illustrations from Catholic history, “Until the printing press, it was manuscripts and ink in scriptoriums.”

Manuscripts were spatial—three dimensional. During the 17th and 18th centuries, with the advent of the press, words dominated pictures and thought became sequential. Visual images declined, so man examined his world in text. There were great losses, since, for hundreds of years, the works of Leonardo Da Vinci were lost to universities for lack of an inexpensive way to copy his diagrams and schemata.

If Catholic students are to compete, if Catholic men and women are to influence the sciences and bring a sanctified view of man to the secular world, they must learn to think in new modalities made possible by the computer. Bailey presented a video of Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Seattle, Wash., where students are issued personal computers. Because computers combine text and images, students learn to think in parallel modes. Particularly in science, parallel thinking—that is, seeing life simultaneously rather than sequentially—gives rise to new understandings of our biological world.

The “biological revolution is not amenable to words,” Bailey advised, “we are de-coupling from words.” Biology must be studied via computer to mind, not books to mind, the author explained. “Move ethics and religion onto the Web,” Bailey suggested, for “it will be a bio-tech century.”

Cultural critic Dr. Neil Postman added this caveat to the impact of new technology: “What we need to know about technology changes is that all change is a Faustian bargain.”

Every advantage carries its own disadvantage that must be weighed against any gain for society. Automobiles brought a transportation revolution, but it also brought pollution and interstate highways to mar our landscape. “What technology giveth, technology taketh,” Postman chuckled.

Author of Amusing Ourselves To Death, Postman offered an analogy from Church history, “By placing the word of God on every Christian's table, the mass produced book undermined the authority of the Church hierarchy and hastened the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire.”

Postman commented, “The advantages of technology are not equally distributed among all people.” The question for religious leaders is, “What is the advantage [of the new media] for the average person?”

More information implies solving man's dilemmas, but, Postman suggests, “Maybe not.” More information is not needed to feed the starving people of the world.

“Ask who is given power by the new technology,” Postman said “Technology isn't neutral, it favors certain values.”

Chris Archibald, a Microsoft executive, disagreed. Archibald, whose children attend St. Vincent DePaul School in the archdiocese, told the Register, “For people of faith that is the dilemma. Technology is neutral. Don't fear technology or hide from it because the technology will acquire a different flavor from what it would be if we Catholics stay engaged.”

Vatican Web whiz, Sister Judith Zoebelein FSE, put much into perspective for the Register, “The role of the hierarchy is to give us some criteria, some context of good and evil to help us understand our experiences in the new technologies.”

As technical director of the Internet office of the Holy See, Sister Judith is responsible for content, design, and integration of the Vatican Web pages.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, reminded the attendees of the Holy Father's directive that the Church “must avail herself of the new technologies.”

Cardinal Hoyos offered this thought to his brother bishops, “In an age of ‘virtual reality’ people have a deeper hunger than ever for the deeper reality … this is the challenge for our evangelization of the [computer] culture, this is the new Areopagus.”

The close of the New Tech '98 conference was celebrated with a solemn Mass. Amidst the beauty of Immaculate Conception Cathedral and the many mitered heads representing some of the wisest men in the Church, Archbishop Chaput found joy and promise in the reading from Isaiah “Behold, I do a new thing.”

Mary Jo Anderson writes from Florida.