The Saint John Paul II Bioethics Center was created to engage the modern project in light of the visionary insight of John Paul the Great in his first encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis.

The development of technology and the development of contemporary civilization, which is marked by the ascendancy of technology, demand a proportional development of morals and ethics. (n. 15)

Pope Francis recently addressed that theme in an address to the participants in the seminar The common good in the digital age, promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development which took place in the Vatican from 26 to 28 September 2019. 

The full text of the Holy Father’s address is here. What is striking is the continuity of thought between John Paul and Francis. Both placed emphasis on the dizzying pace of technological development and the urgent need for moral and ethical reflection. And not merely a concomitant, subordinate, or collateral reflection, but one that has a precise object: the indissoluble connection between the common good of human society and the inherent dignity of each individual human being. 

That the technological revolution presents challenges to human decency is repeated so often it may seem trite. But the threats are real and growing. Fantastic advances in scientific masterly over nature offers amazing opportunities to heal, nurture, and protect creation. But each step forward risks betrayal of what it means to be human: to be precious, unique and unrepeatable.  New techniques that allow manipulation of genetic code may cure disease, but inevitably issues of inequality of access and privacy will arise. Artificial intelligence and robotics will lead to vast changes in automation and employment, protecting the vulnerable from some dangerous conditions and even from mind numbing mundaneness of uncreative tasks, but risk massive social displacement and idleness. Growing demand for material wealth, even to excess, and ever greater knowledge of reproductive biology has, in many first world societies, deeply wounded family life and the nuptial meaning of human sexuality, reducing intimacy to pleasure and procreation to mere reproductive technique. Embryocidal experimentation on the most incapable of the human family is passé. The examples are multitudinous. Along with these changes there will occur is a social disruption the consequences of which are unknown. 

Francis sees the looming question on the horizon of human development: 

The indisputable benefit that humanity will be able to draw from technological progress (cf. Laudato Si’, 102) depends on the degree to which the new possibilities at our disposal are employed in an ethical manner (cf. ibid., 105). This correlation requires an adequate development of responsibility and of values alongside the vast technological progress underway. Otherwise, a dominant paradigm – the “technocratic paradigm” (cf. ibid., 111) – that promises uncontrolled and unlimited progress will be imposed and perhaps will even eliminate other factors of development, with great danger for the whole of humanity..

Francis readily acknowledges that “unprecedented and new challenges” require fresh solutions and he urges that these be drawn from the “creative fidelity” of an authentic moral vision that places both respect for the dignity of the individual and the pursuit of the common good in harmonious relation.

A good example would be robots in the workplace. On the one hand, they could put an end to certain arduous, risky and repetitive types of work – that emerged, for instance, at the start of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century – which often cause suffering, boredom and exhaustion. On the other hand, robots could become a purely hyper-efficient tool, used only to increase profits and returns, and could deprive thousands of people of work, putting their dignity at risk.  …  If technological advancement became the cause of increasingly evident inequalities, it would not be true and real progress. If mankind’s so-called technological progress were to become an enemy of the common good, this would lead to an unfortunate regression to a form of barbarism dictated by the law of the strongest. 

True ethical and moral development must have as its goal “the attenuation of economic, educational, technological, social and cultural inequalities.” It is nothing less than “the task of defending the dignity of every human person, convinced that the common good cannot be separated from the specific good of each individual.” 

A better world is possible thanks to technological progress, if this is accompanied by an ethic inspired by a vision of the common good, an ethic of freedom, responsibility and fraternity, capable of fostering the full development of people in relation to others and to the whole of creation.

This is nothing less then the “integral ecology” as developed in a recent L.I.F.E. post. It rejects “ecologically-garbed individualism” while embracing the precious uniqueness of each individual. Unless clarity is achieved, confusion will drive incoherence. The contradictions are plain: 

when we combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining indifferent to human trafficking; when we fight against genetically modified organisms but allow experimentation on the human genome and human embryos; when we worry about cruelty to animals while justifying the ghastly practice of abortion of our younger, more vulnerable brothers and sisters; when we seek to keep natural environment intact as a gift, and care for the male and female members of endangered species, but then think we have absolute power over our created bodies, trying to cancel out human sexual difference through gender ideology.

The future will be decided now and it will pass through the technological revolution. If it is to be an authentic advance for civilization it must respect and nourish the dignity of the individual. It cannot do that without making a choice between fundamentally different views of what a human person is: a being with inherent dignity and ultimate purpose or an autonomous actor with temporary self-consciousness but no ultimate meaning. It is essentially a choice between humility that recognizes the limits of our nature and the arrogance of the antediluvian temptation “you will be like God.” And so a choice must be made between two cups. As the ancient Knight cautions inIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “choose, but choose wisely. For as the true grail will bring you life, the false grail will take it from you.” 

Placing material progress before an ethic that unites the common good and the dignity of the individual is the surest path to our children’s children echoing the Knight’s sad lament “He chose poorly.”