If Pope Francis’ prayers are answered, humanity will devote more of its collective efforts toward cleaning up our planet instead of polluting it. How and where he thinks technological progress should play a role in those efforts is a more complicated question.
President Barack Obama officially welcomed the pope to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. At the White House, Francis began his remarks by applauding the United States’ history of immigration. He went on to say that climate change was an issue that must be addressed now.
“Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” the pope said, as Obama looked on.
Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our “common home,” we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about “a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (Laudato Si’, 13). Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them.
Video of the pope’s full remarks is embedded below.
The pope’s recent focus on climate change has not been uncontroversial in the U.S., where the partisan divide over global warming remains as wide as ever, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the matter.
According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans believe global warming is occurring, but only 22 percent of Republicans say that it’s because of human activity — something that nearly all of the world’s scientists agree to be the case. The hottest summer on record has done little to shift those views, much less galvanize the Republican-controlled Congress to take action. It seems unlikely that the Pope’s address to the U.S. legislature on Thursday will alter the trajectory of that debate.
Based on a generous reading of the encyclical that Francis wrote earlier this year, it seems like he would probably endorse the White House’s use of open climate data in the hopes of increasing the resilience of the coastal cities where a majority of humanity will live in future decades, and enabling governors and mayors to protect hundreds of millions of people.
After all, in a June letter to the Catholic Church, the pope laid out a moral case for fighting climate change grounded in the need to protect the poor from pollution and environmental degradation.
In that letter, the pope embraced and supported the development of clean technology, including solar energy, to replace fossil fuels.
But even as he heralded technology as a possible solution, he decried not only the role that industrialization has played in pollution but also a modern mindset that exalts the use of technology to manipulate the natural world.
“It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society,” he wrote.
Given the Catholic Church’s history with practitioners of the scientific method, we might be inclined to take that with a grain of salt, but in fairness the church has moved away from being an enemy of science in recent centuries.
Pope Francis himself appears to have something of a love-hate relationship with technology. The 78-year-old pontiff, who holds a degree in chemistry, has supported the application of technology in various areas, including genetic modification in agriculture, and has called the Internet a “gift from God.” He’s also urged young people not to waste time online or on smartphones, which almost all of us do.
The man often described as the most influential world leader on Twitter uses social media to communicate with the public as @Pontifex, albeit not personally — he has confessed to being a “disaster with machines” himself.
“By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, these ‘new possibilities,’ we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it,” he wrote in January.
The pope called attention in his climate change encyclical to the limits of taking an explicitly technocratic approach to a complex social, economic and environmental issue.
“Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources,” he wrote. “There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.”
In his encyclical, Pope Francis expressed concern about the effects of technology on our capacity to make decisions and find space for creativity. More subtly, he wrote about the need to use technology in a moral and ethical way, one that makes change possible without abandoning our ideals of “freedom and justice.”
But he also acknowledged that in many ways, technology has improved life in ways that would have once seemed impossible.
“We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies,” the pope wrote. “It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for ‘science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.'”
Whether or not you agree with his views on technology — and not everyone does — the pope’s focus on applying tech for public good, and his habit of calling attention to the ethical questions that disruptive technology can pose to society, are bringing more sunlight to issues that deserve it.
I think that’s a valuable public service, and it’s one reason among many that I welcomed Pope Francis to Washington on Wednesday. Here’s hoping that his presence brings about more connection, not more controversy.
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