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BUDAPEST – Before leaving Budapest Sunday, Pope Francis paid a visit to a Catholic university, where he stressed the need for humility and a commitment to truth amid the risks of rapidly advancing modern technologies.
Given at the Faculty of Information Technology and Bionics of the Catholic University Péter Pázmány, the pope’s speech to the academic and cultural communities was his last official appointment in Hungary, where he has spent the past three days on an official state visit, meeting with national authorities, refugees, and members of the local Catholic community.
In his address at the university, Francis cited various dystopian and fatalistic visions of what the world could become if advances in technology and science go unchecked and are allowed to forge ahead without a clear ethics or desire to pursue the truth.
He quoted at length from Romano Guardini, a German Catholic priest, philosopher and theologian who is widely recognized as being one of the most influential figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century.
In one of his writings, the pope said, Guardini indicated that there are two forms of knowledge, one of which delves into something and seeks to understand it and live it from within, whereas the other picks a thing apart, compartmentalizes it, and ultimately takes over.
This latter form of knowledge, he said, is “directed to a single end: the machine,” the result of which is the development of “a technique of controlling living people.”
“Guardini did not demonize technology, which improves life and communication and brings many advantages, but he warned of the risk that it might end up controlling, if not dominating, our lives.”
Pope Francis pointed to the dangers of allowing this type of system to develop unfettered, saying, “much of what Guardini foresaw seems obvious to us today.”
To this end, he pointed to the growing ecological crisis and a growing lack of ethical boundaries in science and technology, ushering in the mentality that, “if it is doable, then it is permissible.”
Francis also pointed to what he said is a growing tendency “to concentrate not on persons and their relationships, but on the individual, absorbed in his or her needs, greedy for gain and power, and on the consequent erosion of communal bonds, with the result that alienation and anxiety are no longer merely existential crises, but societal problems.”
“How many isolated individuals, albeit immersed in social media, are becoming less and less ‘social’ themselves, and often resort, as if in a vicious circle, to the consolations of technology to fill their interior emptiness,” he said.
“Living at a frenzied pace, prey to a ruthless capitalism, they become painfully conscious of their vulnerability in a society where outward speed goes hand in hand with inward fragility,” he said.
As he has in the past, Pope Francis also referenced the dystopian 1907 science fiction novel by Robert Hugh Benson, The Lord of the World, which centers on the reign of the antichrist at the end of the world.
Francis, who has often cited the work, on Sunday called the book “prophetic in its description of a future dominated by technology, where everything is made bland and uniform in the name of progress, and a new ‘humanitarianism’ is proclaimed.”
This new humanitarianism ends up “cancelling diversity, suppressing the distinctiveness of peoples and abolishing religion,” he said.
As a result, he said, “Opposed ideologies merge and an ideological colonization prevails, as humanity, in a world run by machines, is gradually diminished and social bonds are weakened.”
Because of this, Benson in his grim description of the world painted a picture of what Francis said was an increasingly “listless and passive populace” who accepted as a given fact that “the sick should be ignored, euthanasia practiced and languages and cultures abolished, in order to achieve a universal peace that is nothing else than an oppression based on the imposition of a consensus.”
Admitting that Guardini and Benson offered a “somber” look at the future in a hyper-technologized world, the pope said it is the task of science, scholarship and culture to ensure that these fatalistic and dystopian scenarios do not arise.
“A university is, as its very name indicates, a place where thought emerges and develops in a way both open and symphonic” and is a place where humanity and its fundamental relationships can be cultivated, he said.
Quoting the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, the pope said, “Culture must be directed to the total perfection of the human person, to the good of the community and human society as a whole.”
“It should cultivate the mind in such a way as to encourage a capacity for wonder, for understanding, for contemplation for forming personal judgments and cultivating a religious, moral and social sense,” he said.
He argued that the greatest intellectuals of the world are humble, insisting that the mysteries of life are “disclosed to those who are concerned with the little things.”
Culture, he said, “truly preserves and defends our humanity. It immerses us in contemplation and shapes persons who are not prey to the fashions of the moment, but solidly grounded in the reality of things.”
Real lovers of culture “feel the duty to remain open and communicative, never unbending and combative” he said, saying, “It is by openness to others that we come to know ourselves better.”
Pope Francis then pointed to the famous Delphi maxim, “know thyself.”
These words, the pope said, advise people to recognize their limitations and as a result, “to curb the presumption of self-sufficiency.”
This is important, he said, because “Technocratic thinking pursues a progress that admits no limits, yet flesh and blood human beings are fragile, and it is precisely by experiencing this, that they come to realize their dependence on God and their connectedness to others and to creation.”
Delphi’s inscription, he said, is an invitation to embrace a knowledge that begins from a humble awareness of one’s own limitations and frailties, and thus “leads us to discover our amazing potential, which goes far beyond that of technology.”
He also stressed the importance of pursuing truth, noting that Hungary throughout its history has experienced a series of ideologies that have imposed themselves as truth, but which have failed to provide freedom.
This risk is also present today, he said, and pointed to what he said has been a shift from “communism to consumerism.”
Both of these “isms,” he said, contain a false notion of freedom. While communism provided a freedom that was “restricted, limited from without, determined by someone else,” consumerism promises the world “a hedonistic, conformist, libertine ‘freedom’ that enslaves people to consumption and to material objects.”
“How easy it is to pass from limits imposed on thinking, as in communism, to the belief that there are no limits, as in consumerism! To pass from a blinkered freedom to an unbridled freedom,” he said, saying Jesus offers a path out of this through his insistence on truth.
“Truth frees us from our fixations and our narrowness,” he said, saying the key to accessing this truth is love and a knowledge that is both humble and relational, as well as courageous and constructive.
He closed his speech voicing hope that all universities and institutes of higher education would “always be a beacon of universality and freedom, a fruitful workshop of humanism, a laboratory of hope.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen