The Papal Pencil

With online availability of education, business, government, and church communications, we wonder what we have begotten. Unprecedented information is available to us at all times, day and night. Every possible cultural, philosophical, religious, or economic source is there. We live in a neighborhood, but we buy our clothing and tickets on the internet. We read newspapers online. We talk to our friends in Australia as easily as we do those in the next county. Are existing institutions, like many of our journals, going to be online rather than in print or in buildings?

The Holy Father gave an address in January titled, “Truth, Proclamation, and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” The Holy See Press Office release reads: “The Pope does not surf the web, he does not use a computer and he writes with a pen or indeed preferably with a pencil.” Surely that is reassuring! When we look at the some 75 books, the hundreds and hundreds of essays, lectures, and talks that this pope has written, we can be assured that he possesses a well-used pencil.

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The pope compares changes from the digital transformation with the Industrial Revolution of two centuries ago. “The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself.” Some “serious reflection” is required.

These new instruments are still tools, products of human intelligence and craft. They are subject to reason and moral judgment. “As with every other fruit of human ingenuity, the new communications technologies must be placed at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity.” They can be used for the pursuit of “truth and unity.” These are “the most profound aspirations of each human being.”

Positive things are found in these instruments in terms of knowledge, friendship, and beauty. The downside? We find a “one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.” Likewise, a danger exists of enclosing oneself in a sort of “parallel existence, of excessive exposure to the virtual world.” We become almost angelic, as if we lacked bodies.

In this new world of easy and far-flung contact, Benedict asks the obvious question: Who is my neighbor? “Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life?” This question is a real one. Being “present” much of the time to someone on a distant cell phone makes the present world, where immediate conversation is ignored, seem almost eerie. We escape from the real presence of someone to the virtual presence of almost any one.


The pope is aware of the potential advantages of the digital world, but we need to keep several principles in mind. The first is that “the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its ‘popularity’ or from the amount of attention it receives.” Secondly, “the truth of the Gospel is not something to be consumed or used superficially; rather it is a gift that calls for a free response.” This truth is to become “incarnated in the real world.”

This digital world of interconnecting relations is here to stay. The Faith needs to be present here in its own way. In it, we maintain what we hold: “Christ is God, the Savior of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfillment.” We need to be both specific in what we present and considerate of those who listen to us.

“The truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks.” But the limits of friendship and finiteness remain. “He who is a friend of everyone is a friend of no one,” as Aristotle said. And I suppose that he who communicates with everyone knows no one in any meaningful sense.

“Believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived.” The keeping alive of “the eternal human questions” must take place in a world of social communication. There, almost any and every theory, temptation, heresy, or bias ever conceived is readily available.

It is said that Socrates lived 70 years in Athens because the locals could not distinguish between a wise man and a fool. I suspect that social communications networks labor under a similar burden. Often times, in the virtual world, the truth as Christians ground it looks like the oddest thing available to the channel surfer. This is probably why it is worth considering.




  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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