In this crowd of "popearazzi", (if I might coin a phrase,) an older woman, face radiant like Moses on the mountain, gazes without obstruction on Pope Francis, who appears to be looking at her. She's not touching him but is clearly touched. The younger woman, hand actually grasping the Shepherd's hand, holds in her other hand a smartphone, through whose 3 x 5 screen she stares at a pixelated image of the actual man five feet away from her. Granted, she too is touched. Both are joyful and smiling, but there is something sociologically intriguing about this image. Which of these two is having an actual, personal encounter? A 'communion of persons' for only a fleeting moment?
I think we all know where this is going. And you may have strong feelings about it.
Some history. Facebook launched 11 years ago this year. YouTube is just 10, and Twitter is 9 years old. The first iPhone debuted only 8 years ago. What a decade it's been. The digital revolution is in full swing. A tsunami of smartphones brimming with social-sharing apps has washed over nearly every continent and seems to be omnipresent, popping up even in the most remote of Third World villages. It's important we talk about its effect on us as persons, called to interpersonal relationships. I hope to do this in a circumscribed manner. So let's shift gears for a few paragraphs and then we'll return to this pregnant phrase, pardon the pun, of "digital contraception."
Decades before the digital revolution, in fact, shortly after the sexual revolution of the late 60's, the Theology of the Body debuted. It's a biblical and philosophical reflection on the human person by St. John Paul II; a glorious life-giving vision of the potential of human love. It speaks of how our sexual complementarity as created by God is meant to be a fruitful sign, imaging the gratuitous gift-giving nature of God Himself, Who lavished on creation from the very beginning a design of communion and complementarity that, when embraced, is creative and efficacious on many levels. It's an extensive catechesis on the human person as imago dei, a being fully realized in relationship, in family, for God in His deepest essence, as St. John Paul II wrote, "is not a solitude. God is a family."
Those who have reflected upon this beautiful teaching of the Holy Father, who have opened their hearts, minds, and bodies to its life-giving truth, can certainly attest to this fruitfulness in their own lives. When one receives the teaching, which in essence is Christianity itself, the gospel "reloaded", then the walls come tumbling down. Illusions are blown away. Misconceptions about who God is and who we are get a proverbial facelift and our faith is lifted! One finally sees within one's masculinity or femininity, not a confused and solitary shuffling around for meaning and purpose that we must construe by ourselves, but a divine dance. A holy communion. A divine romance.
Circling back... Today, the life-giving joy that flows from living the theology of the body shines all the more brighter as we live and move and breathe in this increasingly suffocating, contraceptive culture. When I speak of contraception and of a contraceptive mentality in the present culture, it isn't merely the biological block. It isn't merely latex or a pill that is the issue. That exterior contraception is really the manifestation of a deeper interior contraception. An emotional contraception. A kind of spiritual contraception that holds back the heart and soul of one person from another. We see it everywhere. We struggle with it at multiple levels. In our frenetic activism we've failed as receivers. We've neglected to become that naked heart to the real and raw encounters of everyday life.
In his beautiful reflections on our common home, Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote "We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature." (Laudato Si, 44) Can we add our little gadgets to this list?
Pope Francis advised us that "the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life... a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything." (Laudato Si, 113)
These naked hearts, open to encounters with the real world of persons and signs and wonders often feel as though they are the person who escaped from Plato's dark cave of self-inverted shadows and they've seen the light. They return to the cave changed. They try to express what they've seen and heard and touched with their hands but everyone in the cave is touching screens.
The walls of smartphones that we've seen in the photos and videos of the recent visit of Pope Francis are certainly not intrinsically evil, or even sinful, but they sure seem strange. In a certain sense, these phone walls can be just as much a block to the life-giving call of humanity to love as other forms of contraception. I think you all know what I'm talking about. You all have experienced it in your own lives, in restaurants, movie theaters, workplaces, sidewalks and even busy streets.
Dozens of times per day, people hold up a very thin wall in front of faces. A 3 x 5 screen that aids us remarkably in communicating with others, yet too often hinders the communion with the real flesh and blood right in front of us.
Again, Pope Francis' insights here are spot on. In the Joy of the Gospel, he wrote that some people "want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness." (Evangelii Guadium, 88)
During the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States, watching video and looking at photographs from the various places he went, I was struck again by this reality of "digital contraception". I fall into the same struggle, I wrestle as much I'm sure as anyone with the wonder of these little gadgets but it leaves me wondering. Many of us touch these screens so many more times a day then we touch other people's hands and little heads of children, and blades of grass and the bark of trees. Our touchscreens have left us out of touch with the very real world we've been placed in by God. I think we need once again to possess our possessions rather than have our possessions possess us. Let's all make a promise to be more present, to be more of that naked heart who can really receive the other person in front of us. For as C.S. Lewis once wrote,
"Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses."
Originally posted here for the TOB Institute