Technology and Simplicity in Catholic Culture

by Daniel Ellis

Some things are as they are because of who God is—like the Trinity or love; and some are as they are by God’s free design—like gravity or animal reproduction. In the case of the former, He cannot change them because He cannot be anything but God; in the case of the latter, He can intervene and suspend His design as He wills. He causes saints to levitate; He miraculously heals incurable diseases. Man, although he cannot actually suspend physical laws, can—by using his God-given intelligence—manipulate creation to the point where he seems to have suspended them. We cannot levitate, but we can hover in a helicopter. We cannot miraculously heal, but we have penicillin. This intelligent manipulation is what we call technology.

As civilization “advances,” we develop technology to overcome the “inconveniences” of physical laws and force them to serve our own purposes. This is not in itself wrong; God has given us dominion over His creation. But unless we want to abuse our power, we need to ask ourselves what the right use of technology is.

It is widely agreed that human intelligence has given glory to God many times over in the ways we have worked with His creation for the good of His people. But this does not mean that every technological advance glorifies God. Discovering how to construct roofs and shelter and cloth and wagons all seem like wonderful advances, but birth control pills and nuclear bombs do not seem wonderful at all. Cars, pesticides and television are not so easily categorized. What is the right use of technologies such as these? Latex may be a great technology to use for surgical gloves, but should not be used to make condoms. Not everything that can be done should be done. We need to discern what God intends for us as we exercise our dominion over His creation. Did He intend for us to live out in the rain and snow? No. Did He intend for us to use cars and telephones to make it easy to be separated from our families? Maybe. Did He intend for us to use formula to nourish our infants? Now we are into some controversy.

I believe technology can be appropriately used within Catholic culture. I observe however that all too often we become enamored by technology and the conveniences it offers. Then, in this giddy state of mind, we embrace it—without adequately considering what we lose in the process.

The Amish are a low-tech people. When a new technology is offered them, the community gathers and asks, “How will this affect our community life?” If there is a chance that it will begin to isolate members, the technology is rejected. This is why you see odd mixes of the primitive and the modern in Amish country. Their judgments may seem arbitrary to us, but at least they have definite criteria for making those judgments! Most of us simply assume that anything that saves us time, money and energy is good for us—no questions asked, except maybe: “How soon can I afford one of those?”

If we take our Christian responsibilities seriously, then whenever we are presented with a new technological convenience, we should be asking questions like: Will this truly simplify my life? Will I tend to get lazy? Why do I think this will allow me more leisure? What are the long term effects of the financial burden this will create? How does the manufacture or use of this technology affect society and the environment? Am I trusting in God or in material things? Will this enhance or detract from my time with spouse, family or friends? Is the use of this morally acceptable? Will it enable me to be a better steward of the resources God has given me?

When I honestly answer these questions, I find I do not need—and even should not have—many things I had previously thought I could not do without. I also begin to see that there are some uses of technology which, while available to all, are appropriate for others, but not for me—even if I can afford them. For example, cellular phones are great for emergency services, but I do not need one, even though they cost “only $19.99 installed and one month free calls!” Most of society would say: “So what, I want one!” They never ask the questions. The example of cellular phones may not seem very weighty in terms of moral significance, and perhaps it is not by itself. But when we amass all the countless decisions having to do with technology made every day or week, the moral weight becomes very significant.

By what criteria, then, should we make judgments in the area of technology? Without meaning to be exhaustive, I propose that simplicity should be part of every Catholic’s criteria in evaluating technology. Simplicity gives us space in our lives for the things of God—beauty, faith, other souls, contemplation and precious time. We should accept only what technology helps us to live a simple life.

Technology and simplicity are not necessarily opposed; nor are technology and materialism synonymous. It is only when we believe technology exists for its own sake, instead of as a useful tool, that we can fall into materialism and begin to live distractingly cluttered lives.

Some back-to-earth groups make sweeping condemnations of certain areas of technology, such as communications, transportation, health care and agriculture. But this is a mistake; the technology itself is neutral. And the hundreds of ways it may be used should each be judged on its own merit. This can be an oppressively difficult task, and some may choose to disregard a particular technology completely rather than wade through the muck and mire to find something truly useful. Television is a good example of this. I choose not to wade.

Technology has always been with humanity, since the first clothes were made and dwellings constructed. Today we are challenged to live peaceful, holy lives within the Church, surrounded by technology that is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. I tend to lean towards not. Within Catholic culture, we should each ask ourselves the same question the Amish do, and more.

Dan Ellis (‘88) is an engineer-turned-farmer near Jewett, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer (Chaverini, ‘87) and their two children.