Cardinal Parolin Address to CAPP, September 2022
The Digital Space
Dr. Fakharzadeh, President of CAPP-USA,
Professor Tetlow, President of Fordham University,
Professor Schwalbenberg, Director of the Graduate Program in International Political Economy and Development,
Distinguished Faculty Members,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be with you this evening at this dinner offered by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation and made possible by the generosity of Fordham University. I extend a cordial greeting to each one of you present here, and I wish to express my appreciation for the commitment of Centesimus Annus to spreading the Social Doctrine of the Church, not only at the level of the articulation of principles, but also at the level of the application of the same principles in the concrete reality of our world.
I would like to share some brief thoughts on a theme that I know has been the focus of your attention: the digital space.
Over the last few years, we have become accustomed to gazing at small screens attached to powerful microcomputers, each with a processing power millions of times greater than the computers that powered the Apollo-era spacecraft. It would be no exaggeration to say that these devices have revolutionized our lives. We call them smartphones, but, in fact, seldom make a traditional phone call with them. Instead, we use an array of applications to communicate, to entertain ourselves, to manage our time and our finances, to make purchases and access all manner of information. We become absorbed by these devices, which in turn absorb all our personal information. Problem: A belief that all that is possible must be achieved – because doing so generates value.
Of course, the digital space cannot be reduced to the mobile telephone, but it is the primary portal of access to the digital world for the vast majority of human beings. Indeed, the statistics for the current year show that there are 6.6 billion smartphones in the world, and that 83% of the global population now owns one. (figures according to Statista) We have come a long way since mobile telephones were launched as an exotic and exclusive commodity with the slogan “connecting people.” The mobile telephone conceived as a tool of liberation has mutated into the smartphone, a device that often creates dependence; always being available comes at the price of never being free.
Let me share an example with you. Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, was telling me that students who enter the propaedeutic year of his Archdiocesan seminary are obliged to forego the use of a smartphone for a period of one year. At the outset, the seminarians are traumatised, wondering how they will survive for so long without this vital tool. At the end of the year, however, they are all most grateful for the experience of liberation, recognizing that it was not they who had been using the smartphones, but rather, vice-versa, the smartphones that had been using them.
With many people in the most advanced economies – but not only – now spending more time on connected devices than they do sleeping, the effects on physical, mental and spiritual health are deleterious. The words of Pope St. Paul VI come to mind: “Every kind of progress is a two-edged sword. It is necessary if man is to grow as a human being; yet it can also enslave him, if he comes to regard it as the supreme good and cannot look beyond it.” (Populorum Progressio, 19)
There is a growing awareness of the urgent need to address the impact on human beings of prolonged immersion in the digital space. The Holy Father Pope Francis has recognized this, as evidenced by his words over the past decade. In 2014 he spoke very optimistically about the internet describing it as “something truly good, a gift from God.” (Message for 48th World Communications Day) Five years later, he struck a more cautionary tone, suggesting that “a highly digitalized culture […] has had a profound impact on ideas of time and space, on our self-understanding, our understanding of others and the world, and our ability to communicate, learn, be informed and enter into relationship with others.” (Christus Vivit, 86) Last year he stated yet more directly that “the new changes brought about by the digital revolution […] force us to rethink what it is to be human.” (Video Message to Pontifical Council for Culture)
It is clear therefore, that whilst remaining optimistic about the positive side of a digital culture that contributes to enable human beings to reach their full potential, there is also need for an examination of the pathologies and pitfalls of that same culture.
A recurrent word in analyses of what “constant digital connectivity” means for human beings is fragility. Being constantly on-line leaves human beings in a perpetual state of agitation, clicking and swiping on a virtual journey to nowhere. The fundamental unsatisfaction of that journey weighs heavily on those people who are already fragile and ultimately has a deadening effect. In reality, the digital space, which potentially is the world of unlimited connections and interactions, is a lonely place. Paradoxically, being too connected leads to social isolation, which in turn can cause a range of spiritual and mental challenges, including depression. At the same time, being too connected also means that every movement, every message, every aspect of our lives is available for scrutiny by third parties, benign and otherwise.
A consideration of the digital space from a Catholic perspective requires us, of course, to ask whether it brings authentic and durable benefits. The Church traditionally distinguishes between the potential moral neutrality of communications technology and the morality of its use by humans participating in the act of communication. It also reiterates that digital technologies should always be at the service of the human person and never the opposite.
In brief, we need to ensure that our engagement with digital technology takes place in an informed, wise, and balanced manner, cognizant of both the benefits of connectivity, and the dangers its disordered use poses. Addressing a message to Catholics engaged in communication media, Pope Francis urged them to “pay […] particular attention to the need to assist people, especially young people, to develop a sound critical sense, learning to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, good from evil, and to appreciate the importance of working for justice, social concord, and respect for our common home.” (Message to the Participants in the Signis World Congress) It is advice we would all do well to heed in our own engagement with the digital space.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Before concluding, I would like to take a moment to highlight the strong links that exist between the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and Fordham University. To put things in context, I should briefly explain that the day-to-day working of the Mission and, most importantly, the ability to cover numerous meetings at UN Headquarters, is made possible by the hard work and generosity of the many interns who come to work with Archbishop Caccia and his team. They hail from around the globe. Indeed, since the program began, the Mission has welcomed interns from thirty-five different countries and all continents.
Over the years, a significant number of these interns have come from Fordham University and specifically from the Master Program in International Political Economy and Development, known – in true UN style – by its acronym:
IPED. Additionally, some former interns and indeed Mission staff have also been offered fellowships under the same IPED program.
I wish to thank Fordham for this generous contribution to the work of the Holy See at the United Nations. The faithful witness and hard work of all our interns, who are bright and committed young men and women from around the world, is integral to the mission of the Holy See at the UN. At the same time, the maintenance of the intern program is a major undertaking for the Mission, and the continued support of all benefactors is one of the key factors that make it possible.
Perhaps I might ask you to consider supporting the Holy See through the IPED intern program. It would be a practical way to offer real and much needed assistance to the work of the Mission, whilst also furthering the educational opportunities of deserving students
In concluding, allow me to reiterate my thanks to our hosts for bringing us together and wish you all a pleasant evening.
Thank you for your attention.
Three Key Principles
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)
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