Will religion ever become obsolete?

Don Luca Peyron, a former lawyer, was appointed by the Vatican to establish a new positioning for the Catholic Church on the web

a conversation with Don Luca Peyron

by Matteo Scanni

“The dilemmas of the Church are in part the same as those of the world. It could not be otherwise, considering that the Church lives in the world and is concerned with the world. Then there are more ‘internal’ dilemmas, if you will: how to convey the Gospel’s message in the infosphere, how to protect the needy and the poor, how to pray and have a spirituality that leads to Christ in the liquidity of bytes.”

In a world exhausted by the pandemic, hungry for political representation, detached from everyday social problems and on the verge of a perpetual nervous breakdown, Don Luca Peyron sits in a trench light-years away from Silicon Valley. Although he speaks its language, as an insider, he does not see reality the same way, with an unadorned view, often lacking humanity.

Perhaps this is also why, despite his belated calling, he has become one of Pope Francis’ most valued associates. As a rather solitary walker of the ridge that divides the official position from personal opinion, Don Peyron speaks directly, disputes questions that he finds objectionable, and clarifies. When he explains, he obviously turns to theological and doctrinal grounds, but only from time to time, most often preferring a confident, rational, ethical, and never dogmatic approach.

Forty-seven years old, an essay writer, a background as an industrial property lawyer, in 2019 he founded the Service for the Digital Apostolate of the Archdiocese of Turin, which on a global scale investigates the connections between the digital world and faith. An insightful choice, which in turn offered the Vatican’s hierarchies not only a solid operating system but also an outline to act structurally on some of the major issues arising from exponential technologies.

Don Peyron, the mission of the Service is “Sharing codes of salvation.” What does that mean? What exactly do you do?

We serve the Church in the difficult task of being a seed of unity and hope for all humanity within the technological change around us, especially in terms of its anthropological and ethical scope. We are a team of academics, professionals, and graduate students that explores digital transformation. Each of us contributes our personal perspectives and expertise.

I studied law first and then theology: my job is to put together the pieces of a mosaic consistent with the Gospel and the reality of our time. Speaking of which, I would like to point out something right away: since it was founded, the Church has never stopped dealing with technology and communication. Among the first to study technology in modern times were some Jesuits; in the US, one of the first women computer science graduates was a nun.

 

However, the feeling is that Catholic institutions are only half-heartedly involved in the digital infosphere and that it lacks a language capable of evoking powerful imagery.

Rather, I would ponder on the fact that when the very secular digital culture had to talk about itself to the world, it plundered religious language. We “save” a file, we “share” a piece of content, we “evangelize” a market. We use “python,” a snake, to code, while a bitten apple is the symbol of a major Big Corp. In reality, the Church has always said the same things: it is the surrounding culture that has taken its lexicon and, with it, has begun to mean other things, at times very unrelated to the original concept. This fact is evidently disorienting.

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Moreover, just like culture as a whole, the Church has to keep up with a digital transformation that is developing faster than society’s ability to interpret it. But if digital transformation is one of the places where God already manifests Himself, I am confident that He will know to run there as well. These are often unexplored grounds, and therefore it’s easy to say and write nonsense from a theological point of view. But the Church today must be a field hospital and not be afraid of getting hurt — and the Pope himself is asking us to do so.

Do we have an overall goal on the communication front? Well, to help humanity understand that progress without development is an illusion of power, a giant with clay legs. To point out that human achievements that leave most humans aside are false achievements.

To reiterate that the natural limits of the human being are not a disease to be healed, but the meeting point where we can build the relationships that become fraternity. To continue to look to Heaven as a solution to the ultimate questions we all face, aware that our feet firmly set on the ground — the technological solutions — are instrumental to that approach and not to the solution to those problems.

 

The fact that a tiny elite of businesses controls the leading modern technologies seems to have established a new earthly and, in some ways, spiritual realm.

More than a risk, I think it’s a fact. The issue is to shift from a merely descriptive view of reality — whereby, if doing something is legal and possible, then doing it is right — to a view that starts from values, and has values as its goal. Profit maximization is not a value; it is a means to a higher value. If that higher value is debased, profit maximization is unjust and anti-human.

The view according to which greater wealth equals greater development is misleading. I don’t believe that stricter regulations are needed, but rather a shared culture made up of awareness and a clear idea of the future, for all and with all. Adam Smith’s economy is not the only one that exists; before him, someone spoke of “civil economy.” It is time to brush up on it.

According to the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, today time is so fragmented that humans are unable to truly experience it.

Technology gives us space, not time. We consume time to have more space, but time is the most important element. In the Bible, God sacralized not objects or places, but a time, the seventh day, still so dear to the Jewish tradition and, I say with regret, less so to Christian tradition. As a result, the relationship with sacred and transcendent matters is also affected by this tension: doing before being. It is a notion that has been around for decades, but we have not yet understood it.

Algorithms and AI are two of the big topics in innovation due to their moral problems and implications. Are you more fascinated or worried about their potential?

Let’s say I trust human beings and their ability to discern. After that, I think we ought to get out of the fear/fascination dichotomy as soon as possible and take the only compelling path, the one that combines reality and value, judgment and curiosity. Algorithms are our everyday, and as such, they affect us all, like the price of bread.

AI is an issue that primarily concerns the responsibility of believers; the very idea of responsibility leaves no room for delegation. The word “glory,” which frequently recurs in the Bible, concerns man and God. “The human being is the glory of God,” it says. Here glory, in Hebrew, the language of Scripture, means both glory and responsibility. There is much, if not all, of the matter in that.

For most people, including those who run our public bodies, the expression “artificial intelligence” only generates a vague sense of a dystopian film. On core issues such as the human-machine relationship, biohacking, and regenerative medicine, I see a general lack of basic culture. It is lacking simply because the acceleration of these processes has found us out of breath. We must catch it.

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And I want to emphasize: to be authentically Catholic, we need to commit to an exclusionary either/or decision. Jesus is true God and true man — both — and therefore holds together analog and digital, material and immaterial, real and virtual.

With a balance that arises from feeling like citizens not only of the world — Catholic means universal — but of the universe and of History. The petty flight to the “it has always been done this way,” to the tiny rule that protects the small group, was wrong yesterday and will be wrong tomorrow.

The pursuit of extreme forms of longevity is one of the most disorienting aspects of scientific research. How do you deal with issues such as transhumanism?

I fear the ideological backdrop of certain movements more than their link to technology. I have already touched on the value of time and space. As a believer, eternity for me began the day I was conceived in my mother’s womb, and death will be nothing more than a mutation of the form in anticipation of the time when my body will also be resurrected, restoring my full relational capacity. For Catholic theology, the body is not the soul’s container but rather the fundamental instrument of relationship and giving.

I believe that the issue lies in these terms: a life is worthwhile if it is spent for someone or for an ideal that involves the lives of others, of many, potentially of everyone. Views centered on an egoistic ego — winner takes it all — who in the name of financial power claims rights and duties is not very interesting.

The commercial promise of eternal life has been so well described by poets and novelists that I don’t feel I can add much. But perhaps one thought: that humans try to buy their happiness when they could receive it as a gift if only they would accept the role of an adult son instead of that of a temperamental teenager.

Where can one encounter God today?

God can first of all be found in others and then, certainly, in creation in nature. So immaterial storytelling can be an effective bridge to a material experience — both of the human and of the splendor of creation. If, on the other hand, we want to talk about forms of religiosity and sacralization of technology, I see both lights and shadows. Lights where the medium does not overcome the message, shadows where the medium obscures the message. Praying online can be a good thing if it does not become alienating with respect to a concrete encounter with God.

Who are the prophets we should believe these days?

To begin with, let’s say who we should not. Not those who pose as soothsayers and try to predict the future, nor those who sell cheap solutions or solutions for the very few at a high price. A prophet is, above all, someone who sees and says, someone who can look deeply into the present. We need these men and women to make an anthropic future happen and to avoid a future we have not chosen and do not want.

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