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Google versus the Pope

OBJECTOR: This past six months has been a time of whirlwind changes for the Catholic Church. The death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI have garnered a lot of attention from the world media. I find myself unable to share the enthusiasm that so many expressed for John Paul at his death. I am sure that he was a fine man, but the things he represented are repulsive to me.

CATHOLIC: Really? What kinds of things?

OBJECTOR: Well, all that the papacy stands for. The papacy is one of the longest standing institutions in the Western world, but its legacy is one of ignorance, unenlightened religion, and repression of individual freedom.

CATHOLIC: The terms you use are very general, and it is especially astonishing to apply them to John Paul. He was a champion of freedom and knowledge. In what way did he or the papacy in general promote ignorance and repression? I admit that certain popes of the past may have been guilty of these things, but it’s hard to see how John Paul was.

OBJECTOR: Oh, it’s not just the papacy that is repressive. The whole Catholic religion is guilty of that. It’s just that the papacy is the most visible institutional form of these tendencies. I have noted with great interest that there are some in the Catholic Church who wish to bring the Church into the modern world, but the papacy seems intent on muffling their voice.

CATHOLIC: Please explain how the Church is so guilty of promoting ignorance.

OBJECTOR: Let me contrast two cultural icons: the papacy and Google. Google represents a belief in the increase and spread of knowledge. Google is a tool to bring enormous amounts of information to a person’s fingertips. Its founders desired to organize human knowledge and make it accessible. This utterly contradicts the Catholic Church’s insistence on blind obedience. Google’s innovation stands in stark contrast to the Church’s anti-technology, anti-science orientation. Google stands for innovation, progress, and free trade.

CATHOLIC: Your characterization of the papacy and the Church does not fit anything I am familiar with as a practicing Catholic. If you have ever visited the Vatican website, you will discover hundreds, maybe thousands, of documents put there for the sole purpose of promoting knowledge of the Church and its teachings. John Paul wrote more than most of his predecessors in order to help people grow in knowledge of their faith.

OBJECTOR: I couldn’t have said it better myself. All the appearance of giving knowledge on Catholic web sites is directed toward obedience to the pope and his teachings. All the information made available is designed to win converts, not to increase humanity’s knowledge of the world. Google is not interested in winning converts but in making knowledge available.

CATHOLIC: Of course, the purposes of Google and of the papacy are different. Google is interested in information, whereas the papacy has a specifically religious, pastoral function. How could it be otherwise? The Church is by its very nature a religious institution, but that doesn’t mean that it is against knowledge. How can you say that the Church is against knowledge when it has created such institutions as the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences? For example, this year this academy celebrates its 400th anniversary with a conference on the neurosciences and education.

OBJECTOR: The leaders of the Catholic Church are not so stupid as to appear to be against knowledge in a modern world based on knowledge. It needs to keep abreast of today’s developments so it can counter knowledge in the name of religion.

CATHOLIC: Well, I must say you have a very cynical view of the Church. When anyone appears to be interested in knowledge, do you automatically assume his motives are a subterfuge for something else?

OBJECTOR: No, just in the case of the Catholic Church. There’s just too much history of opposition to knowledge. It has always wanted to squelch the advance of new ideas.

CATHOLIC: You might be interested to know, then, that a leading historian of the scientific revolution, John Heilbron, has written a book published by Harvard University Press entitled The Sun in the Church. The book is a beautiful history of how churches in the early modern period (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) were used as solar observatories. As a man knowledgeable about history, you undoubtedly know that these two centuries saw the foundations of modern science with such great thinkers as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, just to mention a few. In the beginning of his book, Heilbron states that the Catholic Church contributed more support for the pursuit of science during this period than all the other institutions of Europe put together.

OBJECTOR: I find that hard to believe. I wonder if Heilbron has his facts straight.

CATHOLIC: Heilbron’s facts do contradict a misperception of the Church common in today’s world, but that just shows the deficiency in people’s knowledge. You can check on Heilbron’s facts yourself, but I warn you that he is a seasoned historian of science. He is not likely to make an amateurish mistake.

OBJECTOR: Another way the spirit of John Paul stands against innovation is his altruism. He constantly spoke about sacrificing for others and bearing suffering for a “higher” cause. Such ideals squelch human progress. For example, not only was he an opponent of Communism—for which I praise him—but he also heavily criticized the free market system with the odious term consumerism. In my opinion, we don’t need less consumerism; we need more: People pursuing their own wants and pleasures is good for society.

CATHOLIC: Perhaps you misunderstood John Paul’s critique of consumerism. He was not against free trade and the material advancement of culture. Having lived under Nazi and Communist oppression, he was all too aware of how centralized governments can squelch economic and intellectual innovation. His involvement in an underground theater group during World War II had the purpose of promoting Polish intellectual life, which the Nazis were trying to suppress.

OBJECTOR: Yes, but in his later years he turned his polemical guns to the West and its tradition of liberal democracy, which shows that he was more interested in blind religious submission than individual freedom.

CATHOLIC: John Paul’s criticism of Western liberal democracy was not against the idea of individual freedom. His critique was designed to remind the West that with freedom comes responsibility. A free marketplace that forgets its responsibility to work for the common good carries the latent danger of forgetting its responsibility to use its wealth for the progress of the human spirit. There are times when the hoarding of wealth can impede and even destroy human good. Take Google, for example. Suppose its creators had gained extensive knowledge and then decided to keep it to themselves. Wouldn’t you agree that this would have been a misuse of knowledge? I don’t think John Paul’s ideal of sharing wealth is much different from your example of sharing knowledge.

OBJECTOR: Sharing wealth is good only when that is what the individual chooses to do. Sharing wealth cannot be something imposed by some religious leader or government officials.

CATHOLIC: So you would oppose heavy taxation to support programs for the poor and disabled?

OBJECTOR: Yes, because wealth belongs to the individual who created it, not anyone else, whether that be another person, a church, or a government. Why should I have to sacrifice my wealth that I worked hard for to support people in their indolent lifestyles?

CATHOLIC: Again, I think you misunderstand John Paul’s point on this score. He was not saying that a government or even a church has the right to tax people against their will. He was asking a deeper question: What is our obligation to our fellow human beings in light of our excess wealth?

OBJECTOR: Yes, I understand that. I am saying that an individual has no obligation except a self-imposed one. The idea of altruistic self-sacrifice is bunk.

CATHOLIC: You began our discussion with the insistence that human progress and innovation are good and criticized the Catholic ideal as wrongheaded. But I presume that your ideal of promoting knowledge would laud the establishment of universities and schools. Consider two important facts that contradict your characterization of the Catholic religion as anti-knowledge: Many of the great universities of Europe and the Americas were founded by Catholics. In fact, until quite recently the Catholic school system in America was the largest private system. This system, from elementary schools to universities, was created at great personal sacrifice on the part of individual Catholics. That spirit of sacrifice was a key ingredient for promoting the knowledge that you so admire.

Secondly, I agree with you that no one can compel an individual to give away wealth, but John Paul urged individuals to consider what obligation they had to use that wealth for the good of their fellow human beings. Part of the greatness of our American system has been philanthropy. Individuals with excess wealth give of their own largesse to create institutions that promote knowledge. Some of our country’s great private universities were created by people who chose to promote knowledge with the use of their wealth.

OBJECTOR: But that is exactly my point. They chose to establish those universities from their wealth. They didn’t have a pope telling them what to do.

CATHOLIC: And John Paul would agree. He was not imposing an altruistic ideal. By his own example, he was encouraging individuals to use their wealth, whether material or intellectual, to benefit their fellow human beings. The Catholic faith is all about promoting human good of every kind.

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