The heart-rending saga of Charlie Gard, a terminally ill infant in the U.K. whose parents have contested court rulings in an effort to pursue further treatment, is just one recent story in which issues of care for human life, whether at its beginning, end or both, come to the fore. It’s also a story that touches on continual advances in medical technology and their potential to save and enhance human life.
“Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?” Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (No. 102).
And these fields aren’t the only ones in which we have seen incredible advances. A conference hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome earlier this month looked at the ethical implications of rapid advances in the field of artificial technology. When scientists are forecasting that machines will be outperforming humans in virtually every task by the middle of the next century, that raises stark questions. For instance, what becomes of the Church’s teaching on the dignity of work in a world without jobs?
Even beyond that, Pope Francis is quick to raise the objection that, in so many fields, the default approach to technology is to conform to its logic and, rather than controlling it, to let it change us.
In the middle of summer, we can pause and reflect on the extent to which many people haven’t paused. We haven’t unplugged from the ubiquitous smartphones that keep our news, entertainment, friends, jobs and so much else of daily life ever in our reach, and that allow us to keep real human interaction at arm’s length. Even God rested after creation, and yet we are more incapable than ever of switching off, of freeing ourselves from the machines.
Despite the promise of a “connected” world, digital technology and social media have led increasingly to the atomization of culture, to people spinning off into “echo chambers” of thinking and being through self-selected media and social circles.
While not without their own dangers, earlier advances in communications technology — the printing press, the telephone, radio, film, television — bridged distances between people in ways that contributed to an increased sense of community, of shared humanity and solidarity. To affect the same results through social media requires continual awareness and intentionality on the part of users, including Christians. This is because the technology itself does not inherently possess what it means to be human.
Again in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes, “Technology, which … is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others” (No. 20).
The principle that allows us to escape this “technocratic paradigm,” as Pope Francis and others have called it, is one the Church has long espoused when addressing human systems, from industrialization to finance, globalization to health care: People should always be at the center. Not profit. Not the ability to build for building’s sake. Every system we create should exist to serve the flourishing of all people.
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor