The Church and the Internet

After traveling to every corner of the globe, Pope John Paul II is ready to tackle yet another new frontier: cyberspace. The Internet may be the most revolutionary advance in the technology of communications since Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century. Noting that the Catholic Church cannot be “a mere spectator of the social results of technological advances,” the pope in March asked the Pontifical Council for Social Communications to prepare a document on the moral ramifications of this brave new technology.

The Vatican’s announcement can be taken as an invitation to lay Catholics to reflect on morality in cyberspace. The fundamental issue to be pondered: the intense libertarianism that has so far dominated Internet thinking and practice, making the Net a Wild West medium where anything goes. Some want to keep it this way. When Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act, a modest law that would require public libraries to use filtering technology to shield children from Internet pornography, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America filed suit in federal court to challenge it as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Ethically speaking, the first thing to bear in mind is that the Internet is neither good nor bad of itself. Like any medium, it is an instrument, a tool that can be used badly or well. Also, leaving aside hype, it is helpful to remember that the Net is not a development in isolation, but stands in continuity with other scientific and technological innovations that have progressively revolutionized life over the past two centuries. “The Web is a big deal,” says Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter, “but flying machines were a pretty big deal, too.”

In producing ethical guidelines for cyberspace use, the Church must consider both personal morality (How do people use the Internet? How should they use it?) and social morality (questions of structure, worldview, and access, including the much-discussed “digital divide,” which separates those with access to the Web from those without). In practice, the two spheres often overlap, adding to the complexity of the ethical questions.

The Moral Issues

As anybody who follows the news knows, there are also specific and comparatively uncomplicated moral issues that must be addressed. Three in particular already receive a great deal of nervous attention today: privacy, pornography, and intellectual property rights.

Privacy, as an ethical issue, centers on the collection and use of personal data about visitors to the Web without their knowledge or consent. This may be more widespread than is generally recognized. Known offenders include some operators of commercial sites, social science researchers who have spied on people in supposedly private chat groups, and Big Brother. Although some government surveillance of Internet activity is appropriate and even necessary (for example, in the case of terrorists and criminals), the problem is where to draw the line–and who will draw and enforce it.

As for pornography, studies show that a grossly disproportionate amount of Internet use involves prurient material. An astonishing 90 percent of e-commerce is said to occur at so-called adult sites. While critics of cyber-porn customarily speak of the threat it poses to innocent children, it would be more candid to acknowledge that susceptible adults are hardly less at risk.

Intellectual property rights are not clear-cut in cyber-space. Until now, the best-known intellectual property conflict on the Web has been the Napster case. The record industry and some performers challenged—successfully, it seems—the proprietors of this site, whose users could upload and download copyrighted music without permission from the copyright owners. In a pending lawsuit presenting similar issues, freelance writers claim that media giants should pay them when they offer their work for sale in electronic archives.

A Libertarian Medium

While all these subjects will no doubt be addressed in the forthcoming Vatican document, the Net’s fiercely libertarian character is another fundamental issue. This is partly a result of the way the system was designed. The Internet is a creature of the Cold War, dreamed up by American defense scientists as a method for linking computers so as to ensure that their information would be preserved if there was a nuclear attack. Decentralization was the answer. A decentralized system of data repositories, it was reasoned, could be bombed here, there, and all over the map and still not be wiped out.

This technological configuration is a comfortable fit with the libertarian values cherished by some leading figures in the new technology. A good example is Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the late 1980s, Berners-Lee came up with the idea for the World Wide Web—a simplified system of addresses as a way to make the Internet user-friendly. He contends that he deliberately designed the Web to have no central location where someone would have to register a server or get approval from anyone for content. “Its being ‘out of control’ was very important,” he wrote in his 1999 book, Weaving the Web (HarperSanFrancisco). Interestingly, Berners-Lee announced at end of his book that he felt attracted to Unitarianism—a fitting religious analog to the unstructured, permissive Web.

Although Internet service providers can be prosecuted if they break the law, Berners-Lee’s description captures the Internet’s hard-to-control atmosphere. You can post just about anything there. This is good for freedom of expression, but sometimes that freedom is abused. An indifference to the rights of others, for example, is reflected in the activities of computer hackers who invade and disrupt Internet sites, launching globe-trotting viruses; in the activities of Napster’s copyright-defying fans; or in the abundance of Internet pornography.

Web abusers typically subscribe to a belief in an absolute and unlimited right of free expression. “One of the great myths of our time” is what legal scholar Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago called this misguided view in an interview about his new book (Princeton University Press, 2001). Even in a pluralistic democracy, there is nearly universal agreement that government can and should take steps against criminal conspiracy, libel, fraud, child pornography, and a lot else—including maliciously sending viruses into cyberspace. The relevant question, by no means easy to resolve, is which forms of expression should be banned and which should be permitted.

How not to Look Repressive

The Vatican needs to bear in mind that a document coming from the Catholic Church, not always notable for its defense of free speech, must avoid even the appearance of advocating the regulation of expression as an Internet cure-all. A document called Ethics in Communication, issued last year by the same pontifical council that is preparing the Internet document, made the important point that even though freedom of expression is not an absolute, “the presumption should always be in [its] favor.” Government regulation and suppression of content should be the last resorts, not the first, the document said.

This reasonable principle takes on added weight in light of the craving of authoritarian regimes to limit access to information. Despite the technological difficulties, for example, the Chinese government reportedly blocks access to Web sites it deems politically unacceptable (while allowing unhampered access to pornography, it seems). In a conversation in Rome not long ago, a woman from another Asian country told me that her own nation’s authoritarian government, which already bans telecasts from Singapore lest people get ideas it doesn’t want them to have, would be pleased to have the apparent support of the Catholic Church for a crackdown on the Internet.

In light of such circumstances, it would be good if, besides voicing concern about problems like cyber-porn, the Vatican document takes a strong stand for freedom of political expression on the Net and against totalitarian efforts to curb it. In the same vein, while encouraging the use of filtering technology to protect children, the Vatican would do well to note the troubling fact that the power of Internet users to customize the information that reaches them could lead some to pare their exposure to different points of view to a vanishing point, thus heightening social fragmentation.

Side by side with that disturbing possibility, however, stands the fact that the new information technology is spurring interdependence among nations. The name of this phenomenon is globalization. Much of it has a decidedly American cast.

Even Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, who believes politics is best understood in economic terms in the age of globalization, concedes that it has important dimensions besides the economic. “What bothers so many people about America today,” Friedman pointed out in his best-selling globalization primer, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), “is not that we send our troops everywhere, but that we send our culture, our values, economics, technologies, and lifestyles everywhere—whether or not we want to or others want them.” As time passes, the Internet is increasingly becoming the principal vehicle of this process.

John Paul II apparently is one of the people whom this worries. In this year’s World Day of Peace message, he offered a forceful statement of his concern. On the one hand, he spoke approvingly of new technology as a stimulus to intercultural dialogue. “The free flow of images and speech on a global scale is transforming not only political and economic relations between peoples, but even our understanding of the world. It opens up a range of hitherto unthinkable possibilities,” he said. But he also saw “negative and dangerous” aspects in the new situation. “The fact that a few countries have a monopoly on these cultural ‘industries’ and distribute their products to an ever-growing public in every corner of the earth can be a powerful factor in undermining cultural distinctness,” he warned.

Sounding like a man afraid that he may look out a window of the Apostolic Palace one of these days and see a McDonald’s, John Paul excoriated “cultural models deriving from the Western world,” which he said are marked by “secularism and practical atheism and…patterns of radical individualism.” Their spread, he declared, is “sustained by powerful media campaigns and designed to propagate lifestyles, social and economic programs, and a comprehensive worldview that erodes from within other estimable cultures and civilizations.”

Across the Digital Divide

But the answer is not to reinforce the digital divide among the nations, since that would mean widening the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor at a time when high-speed electronic access to information is crucial to development. Already the industrial nations, with 15 percent of the world’s population, have 88 percent of the world’s Internet users. Although 43 percent of Americans have Net access, the figure for the rest of the world is 3 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa, the region most affected by the “divide,” has nearly 10 percent of the world’s population but only 0.1 percent of its Internet connections. In Chad, where the average gross domestic product per person is $187, an hour’s access to the Web costs $10.50. John Paul presumably had such circumstances in mind when he remarked bitingly (in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the papal document closing the Jubilee Year 2000) that economic, cultural, and techno-logical progress benefit the “fortunate few” but leave many millions “far below the level demanded by human dignity.”

Dumping technology on societies unprepared to receive it would produce culture shock, however, and lead to the very cultural domination of the world by Western secular elites that the pope condemns. Today’s information-poor—individuals, groups, and nations—must be brought up to speed as quickly as possible with both technology and training—especially training—in order to cope. Despite the recent setbacks suffered by Internet-related companies and their stocks, market mechanisms have successfully driven the Net’s growth in the United States up to now and will likely continue to do so in America and other wealthy countries. But it is far from clear that the market alone can bring the new technology and the skills to use it to poor countries, where there are no quick profits to attract entrepreneurs. New international agreements and forms of cooperation appear necessary to bring the Internet and information technology to the economically deprived.

Of course, the Church has a few Net-related questions of its own to face up to. For example: Should the Church officially monitor and evaluate the rapidly proliferating “Catholic” sites on the Web? Two years ago the U.S. bishops’ conference approved a plan along these lines, but nothing has been heard of it since.

Another question that remains unanswered is how Church institutions with limited know-how and resources can go beyond simple one-way communication (giving out Mass times at churches, chancery telephone numbers, and so forth) and put the interactive capability of the Net to good use. For example, should people be encouraged to e-mail questions to their pastors and bishops—and even the pope—with the expectation of getting an answer?

Catholic schools and educational institutions should integrate the Internet into their offerings far more than they have to date. This means not stopping at “computer literacy.” Young people must be helped to cultivate the attitudes and virtues, especially temperance, that Web users require. There probably is also a need for theological and pastoral reflection on the implications that the virtual reality of cyberspace holds for people’s understanding of the human person, the sacraments, and the ecclesial community (though such reflection does risk turning trendy and faddish, as some recent, eminently forgettable books and articles on this topic illustrate).

At the same time, it is important to take a realistic view of the relationship between religion and the Web. Among the fruits of the Internet is a dramatic expansion of consumer choice; and at least one study suggests that some Net users also tend to approach religion as a commodity subject to a pick-and-choose mentality. A recent survey of Americans visiting religious Web sites found that most were trying to assemble the elements of a religious package to suit their individual tastes. Peter Levine of the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs has noted that such users tended to treat matters of faith “as they would consumer goods.”

That means that along with teaching its members how to use the Web well, the Church must grasp its ecclesiological implications as a radically decentralized and egalitarian medium whose visitors are encouraged to take two-way communication for granted. Faced with the reality of cyberspace, the Church, like other traditional organizations, may need to find a new balance between the hierarchical and the communitarian in its structure and way of operating, entailing new approaches to teaching and governance that involve a more open, interactive style.

The need for two-way communication in the Church has already been acknowledged up to a point. The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, said that Catholics are “sometimes obliged” to express their views to Church leaders through “institutions established by the Church for that purpose.” Although such institutions for the most part have yet to be created, the principle is at least in place.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, the Internet has produced major changes in many people’s economic, cultural, and political lives in little more than a decade. There is much more to come. Those who want this technological tool to be used for good and not left only to cyber-libertarians and laissez-faire entrepreneurs should welcome the Vatican’s determination to provide guidelines.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.