Francis the Luddite

When the late William F. Buckley set out to find a religion editor for National Review, he was careful to choose a Protestant. Though a Catholic himself, Buckley feared that his magazine—by then, already the flaghship of American conservatism—was becoming “too Catholic.” Eventually, he settled on a bombastic Lutheran minister named Richard John Neuhaus. Alas for Buckley: shortly after taking his post, the Rev. Mr. Neuhaus joined the Catholic Church. A year later, he became a Father.

The American conservative movement has always been distinctly Catholic, much to the embarrassment of many conservatives—and many Catholics, for that matter. Of course, this doesn’t include Crisis Magazine. Along with our publisher, Sophia Institute Press, we were the only Catholic apostolate among the sponsoring organizations of CPAC 2020.

What Catholics sometimes lack in dollars, though, we make up for in manpower. On Wednesday, hundreds of men and women (most of them under 40) traipsed about the convention center with ashen crosses on their foreheads. The organizers provided space for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every night at around 6 pm. Matt Schlapp explained to one of my colleagues that he had organized a Saturday vigil last year for his family; when they arrived to find the auditorium packed with ordinary conference-goers, he decided to make it a regular thing.

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Yet, among the younger Catholics I spoke to at CPAC, the buzz was about Pope Francis’s Ash Wednesday reflection. The Pontiff urged the thousands who gathered in St. Peter’s Square on that holy day to regard Lent as “a time to give up useless words, gossip, rumors, tittle-tattle, and speak to God on a first name basis.” He noted, too, that “we live in an atmosphere polluted by too much verbal violence, too many offensive and harmful words, which are amplified by the internet. Today, people insult each other as if they were saying, ‘Good day’.”

Of course, he’s spot-on. It’s the reason I quit social media years ago. And, happily, Catholics are now as apt to give it up for Lent as they are chocolate. But here’s my advice: never go back.

While I was in D.C., I had dinner with a friend who works for The American Conservative. “I accidentally deleted my Twitter last year,” he confessed. “I deactivated my account, figuring I could use a break. It was only supposed to be a few weeks, but, when I went to reactivate it, I realized I’d passed the 30-day period. It was gone forever.” He shrugged. “I don’t miss it.”

And why would he?

As I’ve written elsewhere, social media is designed to be addictive. Like slot machines, we get hooked on the loop of instant gratification. The user begins to crave likes on his photos and comments on his posts. Pretty soon, our powers of judgment have been compromised, and the sites themselves become the near occasion of a whole host of sins. On a platform like Facebook, which allows us to curate an “ideal self” for our friends and family, it might be pride. On Instagram, which trades in selfies, it could be lust. On Twitter, it’s probably wrath.

All the while, these apps are blunting our attention span. It becomes more and more difficult to sit quietly, or to read a book, or even hold a conversation. Our brains itch for the endless and various distractions that only exist on the internet. How are we meant to pray, or read Scripture, or just take a few minutes to be alone with God?

I doubt the Holy Father is speaking from experience. He once admitted, “I’m a disaster with machines. I don’t know how to work a computer.” Take it from me, then—or from any of the thousands of other Catholics who are ditching social media. Give it up for Lent, and never go back. You won’t miss it.

But, as Pope Francis would have us remember, the threat posed by modern technology goes beyond social media. This past December, he made a similar point about smartphones. “I ask myself if you, in your family, know how to communicate? Or are you like those kids at meal tables where everyone is chatting on their mobile phone?” he asked the mothers and fathers among those gathered for his midday Angelus. “At that table, there’s the kind of silence that you might find at Mass. But they don’t communicate with one another.”

Might is the operative word here. Francis has also (quite rightly) chastised those who use their phones during the Holy Sacrifice:

The priest says, “Lift up your hearts.” He does not say, “Lift up your cell phones to take pictures.” It’s a bad thing! And I tell you that it gives me so much sadness when I celebrate here in the Piazza or Basilica and I see so many raised cellphones—not just of the faithful, even of some priests and even bishops.

Is the Pope a Luddite? I don’t know. But I’d sure like to think so.

The problem of modern technology is a microcosm of so many problems faced by Catholics in the modern world. It brings into focus the difficulty of imitating Christ in a culture that scorns Him.

Not so long ago, the entire West was Christian. BCC Radio gave their prime-time slots to C.S. Lewis, and ABC’s number-one presenter was Bishop Fulton Sheen. Hilaire Belloc won a seat in Parliament by dangling his rosary in the faces of a couple of surly know-nothings. One of the most celebrated poets in America was a charismatic Jesuit named Leonard Feeney.

Of course, there can be no perfect Christian society, because there are no perfect Christians. But at least Christ set the bar—or, rather, He was the bar. And that meant something. Businesses closed on Sundays. Teachers led their students in prayer. Gothic spires and wooden steeples rose high above our greatest cities, a constant reminder that nothing man creates is greater than God. Church bells tolled over the din of the workaday world, turning men’s thoughts to that other City over yonder.

Speaking of CPAC, this was the real essence of what we now call “social conservatism.” It wasn’t a fusty cabal of prudes and scolds; it was a nation—a culture—of men and women encouraging one another as they strove for a common Ideal, unattainable though He may be.

And today? It’s just the opposite. The modern world appears specially designed to turn us away from Christ. All the spires and steeples have been crowded out by skyscrapers. The sound of church bells tolling is muted by pop music, which is piped out of storefronts and sidewalk cafés. The Sabbath is the busiest day of the week for supermarkets—and, incidentally, for porn sites.

This is what the Enemy calls “progress,” but we know it’s really a kind of atavism. It threatens to undo the work of those men who built Christendom. We’re called to resist all those forces which turn us away from Christ, inwards, and against each another. And what better place to start than social media?

“Never dialogue with temptation,” the Holy Father said this past Sunday. “Never dialogue with the devil.” Amen. There can be no compromise between Christendom and modernity—between a civilization built on the Faith and a culture born from a great act of apostasy.

I hope we all take this Lent as an opportunity to purge ourselves of those things which distract us from the Gospel. Our Blessed Lord is giving us yet another opportunity to imitate His life of perfect charity, simplicity, and peace—as men and women, yes, but also as a nation. May we all follow where He leads, and never go back.

Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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