What Would St. Peter Tweet?

Pope John Paul II didn't fear technology, but he knew its risks. Photographer: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

In Rome today, and on televisions around the world, a ritual with roots a thousand years old will unfold. There will be singing, praying, tweeting. And there will be remembrances of two men who helped shape the modern face of the Catholic Church .

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II will be recognized as saints today, and their dual canonization carries a potent symbolism. It represents, most obviously, a reconciliation between two wings of opinion within the church. More broadly, though, it juxtaposes two responses to the turmoil of modernity -- especially the material wonders and spiritual dislocations that new technology can unleash.

John XXIII, remembered in Italy as the "Good Pope," exuded optimism for the future. He opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 with these words: "We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand."

That night, overlooking a huge crowd, he delivered a speech that's now famous -- not least because his words, and his spontaneous and pastoral demeanor, were broadcast around the world on television, then still a technological marvel for many. It also demonstrated his intention to bring the church into the modern world.

John's final encyclical -- addressed to "all men of good will," not just Catholics -- likewise expressed a Space Age sanguinity toward the advance of science. Although primarily concerned with preserving peace during the Cold War, it affirmed that science and technology -- "leading to almost limitless horizons" -- were examples of God's grace. But it also advanced the hope that moral and religious values would "keep pace with scientific knowledge and continually advancing technical progress."

John Paul II was more wary of that progress. Coming of age in Nazi-occupied Poland, then under Soviet dominion, he understood too well how technology can be harnessed for the worst of human intentions. His response to that threat, like his response to collectivism and unbridled capitalism, was to reassert the overriding importance of the individual. "Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development," he wrote. John Paul didn't reject technology: He e-mailed, he sent texts, he published his sermons on the Web. Yet he warned, repeatedly and eloquently, that material progress without moral progress was likely to end in tragedy.

The two popes being celebrated today could scarcely have imagined some of the technologies we now take for granted. Yet the moral ambiguities they identified, and the perils they warned about, are as pertinent as ever.

Thrilling as it is, the digital era brims with apprehension. Automation will bring us driverless cars, pilotless planes and factories that hum with robotic efficiency. It also threatens to render once-dignified jobs obsolete. Digital networks give us convenience and material abundance. Yet even as they grow more indispensable, they're becoming more unstable and susceptible to intrusion. Social media and smartphones connect the world as never before, but they also intensify the modern maladies of alienation and anxiety. And all of the above, as we've recently seen, can be abused and exploited by the state.

Prophets of gloom, of course, will always be with us. Yet if there's one lesson that can be drawn from these two soon-to-be-saints, it isn't to reject technological progress, or to fear it. It's to impose on it some moral order -- and to recognize, always, that it comes with a human cost.

--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net