Reading Octogesima Adveniens, Part I

Reading Octogesima Adveniens, Part I January 31, 2021

This blog post is the first post where I reflect on Octogesima Adveniens, the last CST document from Paul VI.  My previous reflections were about Populorum Progressio, Gaudium et Spes, Pacem in Terris, Mater et Magistra, Quadragesima Anno, and Rerum Novarum.  This document is somewhat different than the previous ones, as it is an apostolic letter and not an encyclical, and it is not addressed to the whole Church.  Rather, it is addressed to Cardinal Maurice Roy, President of the Council of the Laity and of the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace.  It was written to mark the 80th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum  In 52 paragraphs it reflects on some of the many problems facing the world community, and discusses the challenges for Christians to respond to them in light of the gospel.   The text ranges from very specific issues to broader philosophical concerns, but is not intended to be a new and definitive statement of Catholic social teaching.  As Paul VI says in the final paragraph,

In expressing these reflections to you, venerable brother, we are of course aware that we have not dealt with all the social problems that today face the man of faith and men of goodwill….We address these present reflections to you with the aim of offering to the Council of the Laity and the Pontifical Commission Justice and Peace some fresh contributions, as well as an encouragement, for the pursuit of their task of “awakening the People of the God to a full understanding of its role at the present time” and of “promoting the apostolate on the international level” (par. 52)

In our first discussion we read paragraphs 1-29, and we were very much in agreement that much of the document was very clear, and moreover was very relevant to the present day.  Indeed, some of the passages struck us as almost prescient.  However, we immediately got hung up on  paragraph 29, which in some ways served as a philosophical introduction to the subsequent paragraphs.  (We thereby skipped some of the introductory paragraphs, though we returned to them in our second discussion.)   It is short, and is both obscure and rich in possibilities:

It has been possible today to speak of a retreat of ideologies. In this respect the present time may be favorable for an openness to the concrete transcendence of Christianity. It may also be a more accentuated sliding towards a new positivism: universalized technology as the dominant form of activity, as the overwhelming pattern of existence, even as a language, without the question of its meaning being really asked. (par. 29)

We were confused by several terms.  What did the text mean by a “retreat of ideologies“?  And what was the “new positivism“? The great ideological division that underlay the political division between the American and Soviet blocs was still very much present, and ideological (and military) skirmishing would continue along the periphery in Africa and Latin America for another 20 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union.   I was reminded of an argument made in the 1990s by the continental philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who argued that the “end of history“, as promulgated by Francis Fukuyama and others, really marked the triumph of a liberal ideology that insisted it was not an ideology but really just the natural order of things.   This would seem to be in accord with the description of positivism as an “overwhelming pattern of existence” that was not questioned but just accepted.

Thinking of the present day, one example of this “overwhelming pattern of existence” is the widespread use of the internet and social media.  It is ubiquitous, and in the past 25 years it has moved to occupy a central role in society (at least in the US), but only now are we beginning to realize both its extent and the often pernicious impact that it has had on society.   This situation is similar to the introduction of TV and radio in the previous generations.  Indeed, in a different context, one of my former students recently called my attention to the article by Franz Fanon, This is the Voice of Algeria (pdf).   Fanon discusses the general rejection of radio by Algerians in the 40’s and early 50’s, viewing it as being French and foreign to their culture, and the ways in which their cultural understanding of radio, and their rapid embrace of it, was triggered by the beginning of the Algerian war of independence.  Paul VI was conscious of the impact that these new media were having, for both good and evil, on human society.  Earlier in the text, he noted that

by their very action the media of social communication are reaching the point of representing as it were a new power. One cannot but ask about those who really hold this power, the aims that they pursue and the means they use, and finally, about the effect of their activity on the exercise of individual liberty, both in the political and ideological spheres and in social, economic and cultural life….[T]he public authorities cannot ignore the growing power and influence of the media of social communication and the advantages and risks which their use involves for the civic community and for its development and real perfecting. (par. 20a, b)

As someone noted, TV was strikingly different in that it was a visual medium.  Originally, the internet was based on written texts, but with increase in bandwidth and computing power, it too has evolved into a visual media.  As Marshall McLuhan noted, “the medium is the message” and the shift from written to visual has had a substantial impact.  One small example is my own son, who, when he wants to learn something online, will look for a video rather than an article.

Our discussion then shifted to the concern raised by the Pope about those who “hold this power” over social media, and the uses and misuses that this power can entail.  We were discussing this two weeks after the attack on the US Capitol, in which social media played a prominent role in organizing the attack and shaping public perception of it.  Naturally, we began to think about the role of Facebook, Twitter, and online news media played in all of this, and whether and how this abuse of social media could have been avoided.  One member pointed to the end of paragraph 20, in which Paul VI argues for an active government role in social media:

[Governments] are called upon to perform their own positive function for the common good by encouraging every constructive expression, by supporting individual citizens and groups in defending the fundamental values of the person and of human society, and also by taking suitable steps to prevent the spread of what would harm the common heritage of values on which orderly civil progress is base. (par. 20c)

While the first part about “enouraging” and “defending” seem benign, there was some concern about what “taking suitable steps to prevent” would entail, and if this would degenerate into governmental censorship and control of social media.  One member referred to the extraordinary control that China exercises over social media, shaping and policing content in ways that make it perhaps the first technological dictatorship.   On the other hand, as the Pope noted, there are many different kinds of control, and while government is (or rather, ought to be) concerned with advancing the common good, many of those who control social media are only concerned with economic wealth and power, often the antithesis of the common good.  In the end, Facebook does not care at all about the content which they provide, in these sense that it does not matter to them if it is harmless (cat memes), positive (real sharing between groups and individuals) or negative (racist hate speech, anti-scientific nonsense about vaccines).  Their only concern is whether the content can be manipulated in such a way as to increase clicks and views, and so generate more data and more revenue for the company.

At the same time, other companies use social media to sell products that we do not really need:  they use media to create demand where there was none before.  As Paul VI noted, “superficial needs are ingeniously created” (par. 9) I am reminded of the dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Though not as popular as Orwell’s 1984, I think it has a lot to say to us about the kinds of control that unbridled capitalism has come to exercise over our lives (and indeed, or very bodies).   One small passage describes the creation of new recreational equipment:  development is driven by the rigid requirement that any new toy or machine must be more complicated and more expensive than previous ones, so that when people are convinced to purchase them they will contribute to the bottom line of the corporations:

“Imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It’s madness. Nowadays the Controllers won’t approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games.” (Brave New World, Chapter 3)

Unlike, in Brave New World, however, we are not forced to consume more:  rather, we are convinced that we want to consume more.  Moreover, while we object to government surveillance, we freely allow stores and businesses to track us and shape what we see by what they want to sell us.  (Anyone who has ever idly searched for a consumer product and then been bombarded for ads for similar items on Facebook and prominent links in Google searches should be familiar with this phenomenon.)

At this point our discussion began to bounce among some of the other parts of the encyclical.   We turned to the paragraphs on urbanization (paragraphs 1013), and the problem of loneliness:

Man is experiencing a new loneliness; it is not in the face of a hostile nature which it has taken him centuries to subdue, but in an anonymous crowd which surrounds him and in which he feels himself a stranger. (par. 10a)

Life in the city seems to foster disconnection  Moreover, this problem is actually exacerbated by social media:  I am sure you have all seen a variation of a rather common scene here in a college town:  a dinner party consisting of a group of young people all staring at their phones and ignoring those physically present.   While social media (particularly Zoom and other forms of video conferencing) have made some degree of connection possible during the pandemic, they have also revealed themselves to be poor substitutes for physical proximity.  I noticed this teaching this semester:  I started with two online lectures, in which the students were so distant that they would not even turn on their cameras; once I got them into class they warmed up and became very engaged and interactive.

The text lists a number of problems: loneliness can lead to anomie; urbanization creates  “new proletariats” (par. 10b, the first time this word has appeared in a social encyclical):

Behind the facades much misery is hidden, unsuspected even by the closest neighbors; other forms of misery spread where human dignity founders: delinquency, criminality, abuse of drugs and eroticism. (par. 10b)

However, the text does not retreat from the existence of cities, calling for some return to a mythologized agrarian past.   It notes correctly that urbanization is “undoubtedly an irreversible stage in the development of human societies” (par. 10a).  Indeed, while many middle-class people want to move out of the “city” or even heavily developed suburbs to enjoy “rural life”, few of them want to actually take up the rigors of actual farm life.  And in the third world, despite horrors of urban poverty, many people still find it preferable to life in the countryside.

Paul XI does, however, call upon Christians to take an active part in addressing the evils that the new forms of civilization have created in their midst.  Christians are asked to break through the barriers of isolation that urbanization has created, see the plight of the neighbors, and act to address it both by acts of personal charity and by building up new and more human social structures:

To build up the city, the place where men and their expanded communities exist, to create new modes of neighborliness and relationships, to perceive an original application of social justice and to undertake responsibility for this collective future, which is foreseen as difficult, is a task in which Christians must share. (par. 12)

There is a need for new kinds of ministry adapted to the needs of an urban poor.  Already in the 19th century this was seen in the ministry of people such as St. John Bosco in Italy,  or Blessed Fr. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, in the United States.   (For all their problems, the Knights have tried to continue this legacy of urban ministry.)  More recently Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement were at the forefront of applying Catholic social teaching to create new and innovative forms of ministry to address the needs of the urban poor.   In many ways, this is a recurring theme in Catholic history.  The early Christians first spread among the urban poor of the Roman empire, and it was their charity and work with the sick that attracted much attention and many converts.  And the Franciscans and other mendicant orders in the high Middle Ages were very successful in part because they adapted their ministry to meet the needs of the newly redeveloping urban areas of southern Europe.

We concluded our discussion by noting the first appearance of environmentalism in Catholic social teaching:

While the horizon of man is thus being modified according to the images that are chosen for him, another transformation is making itself felt, one which is the dramatic and unexpected consequence of human activity. Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. (par. 21a)

Here were taken the first steps away from thinking about humanity’s dominion over the world and instead talk about its stewardship of God’s creation.  This idea will continue to expand and reach new heights in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

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