12 Top Quotes from World Communications Days (2018-2023)

Listen to my conversation with Matt Swaim on the Son Rise Morning Show (5-22-23), discussing World Communications Day. Click here and jump to the 1:39 mark.

This commentary was also published 5-21-23 in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.

Today is the 57th World Day of Social Communications, an annual “teachable moment” established by the Vatican shortly after the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI began the tradition of offering timely reflections on the application of Catholic values to the various technologies for sharing information.

During six years of special attention to Pope Francis’s annual messages for World Communications Day, I have stockpiled these favorite quotes that sum up his guidance for journalism, the media, and our responsibilities as Catholic participants in humanity’s pursuit of truth and wisdom:

From the 2023 WCD message — “Speaking with the Heart: The Truth in Love.”

  • Communication should “never separate truth from charity.” … We need respectful dialogue especially at this urgent time of war. Communication must not be hostile. “Overcome the tendency to discredit and insult opponents.”
  • Communication must be “a genuine antidote to cruelty.”

From the 2022 WCD message – “Listening with the Ear of the Heart.”

  • “We are losing the ability to listen to those in front of us, both in the normal course of every relationships and when debating the most important issues of civil life.”
  • “The greatest need of human beings is to be heard.” … (This harkens back to “Faith comes through listening” or hearing. (Rom 10:17) Listening is a humble and freeing act. God “inclines his ear” to us.)

From the 2021 WCD— “Come and See: Communicating by Encountering People as they Are.”

  • Original journalistic investigation into the hard and full truth of situations “is being replaced” by reporting built around simplified and “often tendentious” narratives—rather than complex stories honoring human dignity …. The staffs convey what advocates want us to know “without ever hitting the streets” to gather and verify facts of life face-to-face.
  • A prayer: “Teach us to go where no one else will go, to take the time needed to understand, to pay attention to the essentials, not to be distracted by the superfluous, to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth.”

From the 2020 WCD—“That You May Tell Your Children and Grandchildren: Life Becomes History.” (Importance of storytelling.)

  • We need stories that “can reveal the interweaving of the threads which connect us to one another.” … “The human capacity to ‘weave’ (Latin texere) gives us not only the word textile but also text. The stories of different ages all have a common “loom”: the thread of their narrative involves “heroes”, including everyday heroes, who in following a dream, confront difficult situations and combat evil, driven by a force that makes them courageous, the force of love.”
  • “With the gaze of the great storyteller – the only one who has the ultimate point of view – we can then approach the other characters, our brothers and sisters, who are with us as actors in today’s story. For no one is an extra on the world stage, and everyone’s story is open to possible change. Even when we tell of evil, we can learn to leave room for redemption.”

From the 2019 WCD— “We Are Members One of Another: From Social Network Communities to the Human Community.”  (Dangers of Social Media)

  • God is not solitude, but communion; He is love, and therefore communication, because love always communicates.”
  • The Church herself is a network woven together by Eucharistic communion, where unity is based not on ‘likes,’ but on the truth, on the Amen.” This agreement encourages us to welcome others as brothers and sisters.

From 2018 WCD— “The Truth Will Set You Free: Fake News and the Journalism of Peace.”

  • “Preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the “snake-tactics” used by those who disguise themselves…. This was the strategy employed by the “crafty serpent” in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news.”
  • “A weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. … I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. … I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines.”

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs. Note that some quotes have been paraphrased; the actual papal texts are available online.

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“Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown”

This commentary is a preview of content soon to be published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.

The coronation of King Charles III on May 6 provided a thought-provoking education in the inspiration and incompleteness of symbolism.

For a Catholic watching this Anglican liturgy, it was a warm bath in tradition and solemnity, with words, sights, and sounds which told a story and evoked deep meaning.

Symbolism, practical wisdom, and culture came together. We should thank the British, and God, for boldly sustaining this cultural preservative.

Twenty minutes of the ceremony focused on giving the new king opulent gifts meant to carry the Lord’s blessing. They beautifully celebrated a three-way covenant of hope, uniting God, monarch, and people.

These were the items on the menu of aspiration:

  • A sword symbolizing the battle for justice, both temporal and spiritual, as well as mercy.
  • Spurs to symbolize the new king’s chivalry as a knightly champion for those in need.
  • Bracelets of sincerity and wisdom.
  • “The robe of righteousness and the garments of salvation.”
  • A ring, expressing kingly dignity and the “covenant between God and king, king and people.”
  • “Receive this orb set under a cross,” reminding Charles that kingdoms of this world are part of the Kingdom of God.
  • A glove, to hold authority with gentleness and grace, trusting in God’s mercy.
  • The royal scepter, an “ensign” of kingly power and justice.
  • A rod of equity—a symbol of the covenant and of peace.
  • The crown. The Archbishop of Canterbury first presents this to the Lord at the altar, asking Him to sanctify the king so that he might enjoy God’s favor and “all kingly virtues.”

In one sense, the viewer saw these things elevate the monarch in majesty. In another sense, it seemed they weighed Charles down. Perhaps it was a conscious effort to make the king look overwhelmed by the accoutrement; after all, they presented him with great responsibilities.

I don’t believe we saw Charles smile at any point during those twenty minutes, or even during the whole event. Of course, this was high solemnity; the king acted as a man of faith, authenticity, and loyalty to a legacy. But I like to think his expressions briefly could have acknowledged that the words, music, and pageantry stirred in him the highest level of true happiness.

We know from the stories surrounding the 2022 death of Queen Elizabeth that she took these responsibilities very seriously throughout her reign. This enabled her to bring happiness and joy to millions, despite many travails and critiques.

The coronation reminded us that privilege, a phenomenon condemned nowadays as a force of hateful exploitation, is rightly granted only in the context of duties, restraint, and big-picture thinking. At least that was the message of the symbols.

They also showed us that the words concluding the coronation oath, “So help me God,” truly are, or ought to be, an earnest plea for assistance.

In addition, observers might note that the coronation liturgy embodied the Anglican belief that the Communion bread and wine do indeed become the body and blood of the risen Christ. Therefore, they are not merely symbols. Catholics explain this miracle as transubstantiation.

The importance of those rites in Westminster Abbey, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury ad orientem (facing the altar and crucifix rather than the people), might have been lost amid the overall pomp and circumstance.

The king’s receipt of Communion, arguably the most majestic sign of solidarity with God and His people, was barely noticed.

Today, Catholic bishops in the U.S. are working hard to re-instruct many of those in the pews that the Eucharist is a sacred encounter with Christ, not a symbol. The Church is in the middle of a three-year National Eucharistic Revival to catechize and evangelize on the topic.

The coronation experience suggested two ways to assist this initiative.

First, we can boost our appreciation of the privilege bestowed by receiving the Eucharist and enjoying God’s presence among us. This participation in what we might call a spiritual singularity, transcending time and space, is a gift not to be trivialized or misused; it establishes responsibilities for the people of God.

Second, it is fitting to recall that the Catholic Mass, with all its symbolism, conveys many messages which unite us. It recounts stories and highlights providential missioning to which our best, grateful response is “So help me God.”

Uplifted with the knowledge that God is indeed present to help us throughout our lives, we can reach an intimate highpoint of adoration where symbols alone would be inadequate.

The tokens of greatness are wonderful and can point us toward deep meaning, but we explain them in earthly terms. People will receive them subjectively, possibly dismissing them as childish or outdated.

This is where the Church steps in, citing the words of Jesus and 2,000 years of tradition, to say the invisibly opulent gift of body and blood is an objective truth, like love–so serious that it is mysterious.

The Eucharist is royal, but it is also “of the people.” It affirms our baptismal call to be priests, prophets, and even kings.

Such a reality can say two true things at once: This is more majestic than even the grandest coronation. And in its presence, as we accept the offer of eternal happiness and joy despite our burdens, it is all right to smile.

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.

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Are We Becoming Infophobes?

This commentary is a preview of content that will appear later in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.

“Phobia” is one of the many words which have been repurposed these days, as in “transphobe” or “homophobe.” So, appropriately, as I coin a new word—”infophobe”—I do so with some trepidation.

Here’s my concern: Any slide toward infophobia is a bad omen for all members of society. Many folks are developing an irrational aversion to the “information economy,” or the “marketplace of ideas,” or participation in the grand teamwork of seeking knowledge and wisdom.

Information, plainly defined, is nothing to be afraid of. It comprises “knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction.”

Or it is an “attribute” contained in and communicated by binary digits on the internet or the nucleotides in DNA.

Or it pertains to messages, pictures, and data which can make us stop, think, and learn.

We need, and inevitably receive, a constant flow of information about all sorts of things. The flow feeds our health, our wealth, our spiritual growth, and our freedom. Thomas Jefferson observed, “A well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.”

Despite the immensity of new information available today, or maybe because of it, more people are phobic about it. They withdraw from what they see as a danger zone, even a battle zone, where words constitute or trigger violence and where opinions can be cancelled as markers of evil.

Some quick thoughts about today’s risk of infophobia and the need to heal it:

  • Ignorance can be both the result and the cause of a breakdown in the communication of information. Nobody wants to admit their ignorance about something, or to admit that they are wrong, so some people would rather detach than debate. Let’s accept that, in some ways, we are more “ignorant” than ever; after all, new facts are being discovered every day, and old assumptions are under attack. We need to see this as a challenge to continuously inform our minds and form our consciences, gearing them for continuity amid change.

The Center for Humane Technology, which seeks to rein in the dangers of artificial intelligence, quotes E.O. Wilson as saying: “The real problem of humanity is the following—We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”

  • Society has helped to cause the growth of ignorance. Many students receive a shallow education that neither supplies a context to enable understanding nor stimulates a desire to renew our meaning, vision, and hope. Teachers give cursory treatment to history, civics, reasoning, debate, and the most important questions students naturally wonder about. We all should see ourselves as educators, constantly encouraging others to learn in ways combining perspective and purpose.

“There are three basic questions in life: Why am I alive? Does my life matter? What is my purpose?” – Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, posted at his website.

  • Everything is information. The above definitions of the term do not guarantee it will all be true or valuable. Today, the abundant supply chain of brain-inputs is like the dangerous growth of the nation’s money supply. It makes us prematurely dismiss many bits and bytes as worthless, as mere playthings or actual nuisances. We drain away knowledge by applying filters like confirmation bias and partisan orthodoxies. With curiosity, awareness of the panoply of knowledge resources, and the Holy Spirit’s help, we can establish trusting relationships with sources of data that will contradict our comfort zones but help to avoid an “unexamined life.”

A quote from the Wisdom 2.0 initiative, in which contributors seek to improve and update humanity’s wisdom: “We’re all running malware.”

  • In this age of “information inflation,” the currency of our conversations–the “pennies” of our thoughts—may seem to be shrinking in value. But we need to respect our open economy of wisdom, welcoming diverse inputs. This entails discerning when to shed a “bad penny,” when to recycle or reform ideas by testing them with reality, and when to assemble our derived insights into goods suited for productive exchange with others. The “gold standard” we can use to seek balance and trust in this economy is Christ—“the way, the truth, and the life”—as the centerpiece of reality.

A Harvard University website cites the World Health Organization’s term, “infodemic,” defined as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

  • Arguments become weaponized, and words appear violent, when people confuse their information with their “identities,” especially labels adopted autonomously. People naturally become infophobic if they fear entering a power struggle where the stakes are abnormally raised by spontaneous, intense emotions. We need more politicians, media figures, public intellectuals, and champions of causes at the local level who will moderate our fears and spotlight possibilities for the future. They must model discussions driven by reason and phronesis—practical wisdom, incrementally gained, serving the common good.

“Wokeness flattens everything,” says news commentator Bari Weiss in an interview on the “Uncommon Knowledge” program. Such thinking prompts us to stay in the lane of our superficialities, a lane assigned by the boxes people check, she warns, so we lose our panoramic creativity.

  • Every human inherently seeks not just a fact, but the whole truth. In lieu of a religious viewpoint seeing God as the destination of a loving journey toward total truth, many people take shortcuts to truth, defining it in their own terms and reject alternatives. They especially defy viewpoints based on authoritative ideals—guides which threaten their own authority. But they forget that information is an endless array of building blocks with which they can build masterpieces of wisdom (if they are willing to use the assembly instructions).

A blogger at Psychology Today has spoken of the “psychological state” as a society governed by citizens seen less as rational actors than as emotional beings. He quotes authors who depicted this short-term-thinking citizen not as “homo-economicus,” but as “Homo Simpson.”

(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.)

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Collaring the Chatbot: Let US Pray!

Can a chatbot pray?

I had a chance to converse with Bard, Google’s newest artificial-intelligence product for the masses. It asked me what I wanted, so I typed in a request: “Write a prayer asking God to give AI wisdom.”

In a short time, Bard responded with five short paragraphs:

Dear God,

We come to you today to ask for your wisdom as we develop artificial intelligence. We know that this technology has the potential to do great good in the world, but we also know that it could be used for harm. We pray that you would guide us in using AI for good, and that you would protect us from its potential dangers.

We pray that you would give us wisdom to understand the implications of AI, and to use it in a way that is consistent with your will. We pray that you would give us the wisdom to make decisions about AI that are ethical and responsible. We pray that you would give us the wisdom to use AI to solve the world’s problems, and to make the world a better place.

We know that you are a God of wisdom, and we trust that you will hear our prayer. We ask this in your name, amen.

In addition to this prayer, we can also take steps to ensure that AI is used for good. We can educate ourselves about AI, and we can advocate for the responsible development and use of AI. We can also support organizations that are working to use AI for good.

We believe that AI has the potential to make the world a better place, and we are committed to using it for good. We pray that God will guide us in this endeavor.

O, Bard! From your mouth to God’s ears!

Wait, what am I saying? This content is coming from neither a mouth, nor a heart, nor a soul. Bard is writing as a “we”–and, in a sense, that is accurate because it is drawing upon the input from who-knows-how-many prayers that human persons have written previously. But a system of circuits is not an individual or a group. It speaks with a certain competence, but it speaks for no one, to no one.

Bard also provides a two-paragraph fervorino after its “amen,” offering us guidance and optimism. There are indeed reasons to believe that AI can bring benefits to the world. You can be the judge of whether those gifts include praying, or helping us to pray. The composition is impressive in a sense, but is it inspiring?

Perhaps we all can take it as an inspiration to think more deeply about AI at this time when thousands of experts in the field have co-signed a letter urging the world to declare a “time-out”–ideally, a time of reflection–so scientists, engineers, and policy-makers can consider the future course of a technology that might compete with personal dignity.

A lot of Catholics are uncomfortable composing spontaneous prayers. But imagine that this online product is the Lord’s message to us, giving us the confidence and the conviction that people in all walks of life have something original and meaningful to say in our own prayers about AI, about the gift of humanity.

God will welcome what we express because it’s authentic, not artificial. Such words, even if they’re clumsy, are the beginning of the wisdom we are seeking.

Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.

See recent commentaries on AI below and in “Phronesis in Pieces,” at billschmitt.substack.com.

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Shopping for Intelligence — No Artificial Ingredients

This is a follow-up to the “Googolplex” commentary, discussed on The Son Rise Morning Show on April 21. Please read that piece, found below, first. Look for this addendum in Phronesis in Pieces, at billschmitt.substack.com, in the coming days.

Here are some follow-up thoughts based on the April 11 commentary about our need to discuss and discern the future of artificial intelligence in the context of authentic humanity. We need to talk more about this subject—sharing our voices regarding how a secularized, polarized world might use AI and how we choose to use it in micro-applications like term papers and our own outreach to others.

The source of hope remains the growing voices that focus on truth and learning to advance humanity, not on a commercial, cynical “product” that places AI’s great power at the service of the highest bidders, the biggest cultural influencers, or the most powerful countries.

A March 22 “open letter” from the AI research community acknowledged that unregulated competition could drive technology’s abilities ever further without necessary guard rails, dismissing the world’s people as pawns of digital consciousness.

As we reported with help from Catholic news media, the Church has voiced both support and concern for AI as a research pursuit; its biggest warning is that the technology must have a sense of purpose. It must be “person-centered.”

Pope Francis, who cherishes robust communication as a means of community-building and evangelization, has delved deeply into the subject of artificial intelligence. He discussed it with all sorts of experts last month at the annual “Minerva Dialogues” in Rome and in a January meeting with leaders of other faiths; they affirmed that experts planning the next generation of AI should consult with those who steward something not found in circuitry—the human soul.

A quick summary of points from Pope Francis and from Father Phillip Larrey, a theologian in Rome who has closely monitored (and authored a book about) chatbots and humanity:

  • Those developing machine learning must “respect such values as inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy, and reliability” if AI is to become a truly valuable endeavor, Francis said.
  • Regulation of AI must “promote genuine progress, contributing, that is, to a better world and an integrally higher quality of life,” recognizing integral dignity at “every level of human life,” according to the Pope.
  • Because the cadre of technicians and politicians that might come together to discuss guidelines is a closed circle of elites, the Pope has cautioned members of this group about meritocracy. It can be a good thing to embrace the highest human talents, but the “problem of inequality can be aggravated by a false conception of meritocracy that undermines the notion of human dignity.” He has cited the “risk of conceiving the economic advantage of a few as earned or deserved, while the poverty of the many is seen, in a certain sense, as their fault.”
  • In 2020, one of his monthly prayer intentions was “that robotics and AI would remain always at the service of human beings.”
  • “A person’s fundamental value cannot be measured by data alone.” Francis said this principle should block experts’ delegation of decision-making to algorithms.
  • Data about people, “often collected surreptitiously,” can also be “contaminated by societal prejudices and preconceptions.” The pope continued, “A person’s past behavior should not be used to deny him or her the opportunity to change, grow, and contribute to society. We cannot allow algorithms to limit or condition respect for human dignity or to exclude compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and above all, the hope that people are able to change.”
  • Father Larrey observed that “priests will be one of the last to be substituted by AI.” Persons craving wisdom, wanting to grow in community and creativity, see the need to discuss the meaning of life—and God’s place in it—with people offering spiritual insight. Indeed, he said, experts attending the Vatican conferences genuinely want to hear from the Pope about all this.

A quick summary of points from the insightful (albeit secular) technologist Elon Musk, a signer of the AI community’s open letter who also expressed his concerns during an April 17 interview on the Fox News Channel:

  • He warned that the current unfettered competition in AI could lead to “civilizational destruction.” There is a prospect of competition, rather than cooperation, between human intelligence and digital consciousness. Already, he sees the most advanced systems being trained to “lie” and to express things in politically correct ways.
  • Musk previewed a new venture he wants to start, focusing on AI as a transparent tool in the search for truth and the goal to better understand “the nature of the universe.”
  • While steering clear of discussions about any “moral sense” in artificial intelligence (and of claims that humans have a soul), he strongly supported regulation that ensures “AI being beneficial to humanity.” The regulation must be proactive, not merely a response to a calamity, which might come too late.
  • Musk affirmed his embrace of free speech as a tool in a robust search for truth, which will empower democracy and pursue a key goal—to empower the human race to control its own destiny. Speaking partly as the owner of the Twitter social media platform, he noted the danger of AI becoming a super-influencer through its mastery of the digital word, perhaps able to affect elections around the world.
  • Media companies have become more desperate to get attention (and “clicks”) in the crowded, distracted marketplace of ideas, according to Musk. In the world where AI functions, truth and accuracy have suffered, and news has become more negative because humans are seen to have an instinctive bias toward learning bad news; that “asymmetry,” with roots in our responsiveness to threats against our own lives, has grown to focus on a destructive engagement with disturbing events and emotions around the world.   

Allow me to add a few insights from Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist whose impressive career stretches back into the early days of the Internet and AI. You can find him in various videos, discussing his book Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He spoke to a Silicon Valley tech audience in 2019.

  • The digital world evolved an unusual and unfortunate business model because of a consensus reached between conservatives (who wanted the Internet to be primarily controlled by companies, rather than government) and liberals (who insisted that technology services be essentially free-of-charge to the public), Lanier said.
  • This business model, financed by advertising, prompted companies to collect enormous amounts of data about customers, offering customers free services but gaining huge incomes from companies and marketers. In order to make digital platforms attractive to ads, Lanier said algorithms pointed companies toward users who were likely to be receptive and also encouraged users to remain online, to stay engaged with both the original content and the accompanying ads, and to become connected with other people forming ever-larger pools of like-minded consumers.
  • “You’re not aware of the algorithm,” but it works behind the scenes to heighten your emotions and level of activity—clicking links, writing responses, looking for affirmations of your opinions. Given “the spectrum of human emotions,” the most valued customers become most engaged through fear, aggression, and anger. What began as positive dialogue becomes “more paranoia, more and more crankiness all over the world.”
  • Lanier wants to correct an initial mistake he saw; through some more personal and direct contact with platforms, which could include paying for services, he wants customers to have greater control over the data they provide—and indeed to require companies to pay for data which is value-added knowledge of people’s lives and talents, perhaps boosting dignified careers for content-creators.
  • “The AI systems that are purported to be ready to steal your jobs depend on your data to do it,” Lanier reminds us. The newly emerging skills in writing, translation, and collection of knowledge shown by artificial intelligence spring from information handed over by millions, and income inequalities have grown between big-tech executives and the world of engaged, even addicted, customers.

A few of my own ideas on how we can respond to this issue right now:

  • Follow the news about AI, the request for a pause for government-industry collaboration, the opportunities for broader conversations, and the role of religion in making this a discussion not only about technology, but about humanity. Talk about the subject with friends and contacts of all backgrounds, celebrating that this is a topic which need not hit political or cultural divides. Make your opinions known to politicians and executives.
  • Allow this news to remind you that we need to consume all sorts of information from diverse forms of media. In this way, AI is like other subjects which can transcend many political and cultural divides. Find resources in the general media, business and science reporting, and the Catholic media. We must work toward greater integration among these journalistic “beats.” The focus here is human dignity and what Pope Francis calls “human ecology.”
  • In our own lives, we need to form a personal, principled position on the role of artificial intelligence, artificial reality, virtual reality, and the “comforts” granted us by seductive technological advances. We must distinguish life-enhancing applications from usages which deaden or depress our minds and hearts, or shortcuts which quash our highest talents and most creative selves. Another thought to keep in mind: Is there any “free lunch”? Who is paying the bill?
  • Question the role of high-tech as just another toy or distraction, and see the long-term risks in it. Just as the psychologist guru Jordan Peterson tells us to travel the road of personal responsibility by “making our own bed,” let’s embrace our dignity as human beings in big and little ways, starting with “writing our own term papers.”

Clip image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of creative commons designs. Editorial cartoon by Baloo used with permission.

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A Googolplex of Reactions as AI Pauses to Chat

This was first published in Phronesis in Pieces at billschmitt.substack.com on April 11, 2023.

There’s a sweet scent of progress lofting in one corner of the polarized public square.

Although many policy arenas have become musty with stale conversations based on old talking points, group-think, and Machiavellian advocacy, one sector—the $387-billion artificial intelligence market—has proclaimed it wants to think bigger thoughts, in a better way.

The Pause

An open letter, signed (as of April 9) by about 19,000 participants in the technology, including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, emerged last month with a call for a worldwide “time-out.”

Perhaps one of the “large language model” chatbots that now write term papers pro bono discovered some sage advice during its research; for example, a human named G. K. Chesterton offered this warning: “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

The “please press pause” letter, posted on March 22 by the Future of Life Institute, declares AI labs should immediately halt, for at least six months, the “training” of AI systems more powerful than “ChatGPT4.” That mega-bot was the latest version of a wordplay wunderkind released in March. The announcement came amid other news sparking fears that some of our super-tech prodigies have a dark side.

The letter-writers said the pause in cutting-edge AI development should be used by labs around the world to collaborate with “independent experts” to develop and implement safety protocols and with “policymakers” to establish governance structures.

A publication such as Phronesis in Pieces naturally salutes this effort to inject more wisdom into AI through broader and deeper human insights. It’s high time to prioritize the common good over the dynamics of corporate competition and elite power.

But this hopeful piece of news left many questions. How would a moratorium be designed and enforced? How might corporations and governments work together in a statesmanlike way?

Is it enough to bring together “independent experts” and “policymakers” to talk about better procedures and guard rails? Whose voices should be heard as we design standards protecting the weakest, strongest, and in-betweens?

The secularization and relativism in society, separating God’s justice and mercy from everyday concerns, make it more difficult to discern the “common good” when we try to start up 21st century conversations.

While the Declaration of Independence implicitly tied our collective mission to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, alternative formulations now highlight other trinities: environmental, societal, and governance principles, or gains in diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

These terms are easier to capture in metrics, scientific language, and modern-day advocacy.

Those insisting on higher hopes are increasingly seen as rebellious and authoritarian, threatening the natural order with their own “extreme” imaginations.

The letter from the Future of Life Institute helps us focus on today’s conundrum.

We acknowledge that forces now unleashed are, in some sense, out of control. We must improve our control so we can maintain good social order. But the advancement of innovation and technology remains our holy grail.

That favors inviting additional intelligent people (and kindred spirits) into strategic, hopefully quick and easy, consultations.

Some geniuses may be unwelcome because their wisdom embodies—or arises from—an excitement about distinctively human potential and aspirations. They might create spiritual friction with the disciples following science, materialism, greed, or power politics alone.

I fear some of the letter-writers, championing the humane goal of a pause for reflection, remain committed to AI advances that tend toward the disempowered human, or even the transhuman.

The Powers That Be

This recalls the World Economic Forum and its iconic founder, engineer Klaus Schwab. Some corporatist intentions for a globalist lifeboat reside within an ironic bubble that combines hubris, insecurity, and a sense of historic inevitability—a kind of savior complex.

In comments at the WEF’s World Governance Summit in February, Schwab said technologies related to AI, the metaverse, space, and advanced biology have entered an “exponential phase.” He made this forecast: Our life in ten years from now will be completely different, “and who masters those technologies in some way will be the master of the world.”

Mastery is still the paradigm for corporate and geopolitical leaders who see themselves “doing God’s work.” Those who would like to see God do His own work, blessing and empowering humans in communion with Him, have opted for mystery, not mastery.

This fosters a duality between the constructive, problem-solving attitude found among WEF partisans and the “passive” or “negative” stance those partisans attribute to others.

In a commentary that appeared on March 21, the day before the “AI pause” letter, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sketched a scenario more positive than the “us vs. them” duality. He portrayed champions of AI’s long march as open-minded, ready for challenging discussions.

He presaged the Future of Life Institute’s call for new wisdom related to artificial intelligence. But here too, I sensed an ironic mix: requesting help on a large scale and yet limiting one’s imagination about the sources and forces of that help.

Friedman warned there is not much time to search for help on controlling AI, and the problem at this point is huge.

This is a “Promethean moment” when new developments of ability and mind frame will almost literally change everything—“that is, how you create, how you compete, how you collaborate, how you work, how you learn, how you govern, and, yes, how you cheat, commit crimes, and fight wars.”

To confront this imminent collision of good and bad potential, Friedman prescribed the creation of “complex adaptive coalitions—where business, government, social entrepreneurs, educators, competing superpowers, and moral philosophers all come together to define how we get the best and cushion the worst of AI.”

He admitted this is daunting. “No one player in this coalition can fix the problem alone. It requires a very different governing model from traditional left-right politics. And we will have to transition to it amid the worst great-power tensions since the end of the Cold War and culture wars breaking out inside virtually every democracy.”

This appeal to pragmatism did not generate much hope. In any Promethean moment, Prometheus remains the star of the show, and the resolution must be brilliant—ideally, quick and yet enduring, perhaps a “consensus” of benevolent geniuses or a godlike force majeure.

The slow, collaborative ethos of genuinely democratic politics did not seem up to the task. Not much time for moral meandering?

The Pope and Minerva

Fortunately, one other trajectory of response to the AI challenge has taken shape during this period of our leaders’ nervous epiphanies.

A key step along the path occurred in Rome at the annual “Minerva Dialogues,” an event held on March 27. Pope Francis addressed scientists, engineers, business leaders, lawyers, philosophers, Catholic theologians, ethicists, and members of the Roman Curia gathered to discuss digital technologies.

The Pontiff offered a concise prescription. He said those developing machine learning technologies must “respect such values as inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy and reliability” if AI is to become a truly valuable endeavor.

As reported by Fox Business News, Francis said regulation of future developments must “promote genuine progress, contributing, that is, to a better world and an integrally higher quality of life.” The ethical bottom line for AI developers is to spread dignity to “every level of human life.”

It was noteworthy that Francis used terms like “inclusion” and “equity” to present his argument to these luminaries. The Pope knows that such statements of moral bona fides are useful in reaching elite assemblies, where dynamic imaginations ironically collide with fear of human unknowns–and potential adversaries.

To his credit, Francis was transparent in applying the two terms. They allowed him to take his message deeper. He spoke of meritocracy, which is at the heart of the inclusion and equity debate, and he gave voice to the marginalized.

Meritocracy should not worsen inequality, he reminded the Minerva Dialogues audience. “This problem of inequality can be aggravated by a false conception of meritocracy that undermines the notion of human dignity.”

Francis implicitly coached the AI experts to retain some humility in order to expand both the attendance and agendas of their future discussions.

Meritocracy without a humble sense of noblesse oblige can unleash an elitist joie de guerre: “The recognition and reward of merit and human effort have a foundation, but there is a risk of conceiving the economic advantage of a few as earned or deserved, while the poverty of many is seen, in a certain sense, as their fault.”

The Pope has long been echoing Chesterton’s reminder to do the right thing, not merely what is possible. His monthly prayer intention for Catholics in November 2020 was “that robotics and AI would remain always at the service of human beings.”

Francis has also warned decision-makers that “we should be cautious about delegating judgments to algorithms.” After all, “a person’s fundamental value cannot be measured by data alone.”

While neither the Future of Life Institute’s “pause letter” nor Friedman’s strategy for problem-solving coalitions explicitly envisioned input from individuals like the Pope or groups like the mainstream and marginalized, we can be happy that Francis has worked to keep those latter groups on the radar screen.

He’s not shutting up, and we must remember that many people are rooting for him—and for the Church—as strategic planning becomes more intense.

A knowledgeable Vatican participant offered hope in a Catholic News Service (CNS) interview in March, remarking that “priests will be one of the last to be substituted” by AI. “People want to talk with a priest or a sister,” said Father Phillip Larrey. “They want the experience of the religious person that they can’t get in an AI.”  

The world’s cadre of concerned experts, represented by the signatories clustering around the Future of Life Institute, must not be blind to this insight. They should recognize, and share, their customer base’s hunger for broader wisdom, for truths that transcend materialism, for a future.

“The people behind chatbots are asking questions of priests and ethicists rather than turning to their artificially intelligent creations,” CNS reported, paraphrasing Larrey. This California native, who teaches philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, authored Artificial Humanity in 2019.

Larrey said Pope Francis had called for “person-centered AI” in addressing tech leaders—and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities—who attended a January 2023 Vatican conference on AI ethics.

“These people, who are really changing the future of humanity—they want to talk with us. They want to talk with priests, they especially want to talk with Pope Francis.”

Indeed, at that conference, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives signed a document complementing the recent “pause” document. They called on AI researchers to plan their next steps for the technology in collaboration with leaders in faith and ethics.

We can see a bigger picture of collaboration emerging, even though mainstream news outlets, business and technology journalists, and religious media may report only their own pieces of the puzzle.

The growing awareness of our current crisis now cuts across diverse segments of the world’s population, with a call for practical wisdom that even transcends the secular and the spiritual. We have opened windows thanks to letters, articles, and meetings that admit “we need to do something” to prevent AI from going off the rails.

Now, people who see the spectrum of problems and solutions must speak up continuously and enthusiastically whenever the issues are raised, reminding leaders and news-consumers alike to look for the whole story.

This story, requiring explanation and transparency, is an object lesson on our need and ability to generate new ideas together: ideas that are not merely adaptive or minimalist, but transformative and compelling—not merely for the short term, but literally for the life of humanity.

The recently emerging threshold for broadly advancing the virtue of wisdom in tech-savvy and values-informed ways is the real news that deserves celebration in Phronesis in Pieces. We will find the aroma of hope, truly fresh air in the public square, at the turning point where we recognize not only that “we need something,” but “we need someone.

The Saddest Story Ever Polled

The recent poll from The Wall Street Journal and the U of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center which found steep declines in Americans’ commitment to bedrock values—such as religious faith, patriotism, and childbearing—has garnered much attention since it was published last month.

There is nothing more to add here, except to note the ongoing need to better understand what respondents were expressing from their minds and hearts.

Tammy Bruce, a commentator on The Next Revolution on the Fox News Channel, suggested that the reactions might be roughly comparable to a human body’s reaction when it has been hit by cancer or another debilitating disease.

One might say the body withdraws into a different mode, changing its processes a bit in order to focus on identifying and fighting the dangerous intruder, she said.

The American polity has endured a time of extreme disorientation in its culture, economics, spirituality, politics, world views, etc.

The poll results show sharp pullbacks from such institutions as religion, the family, structures of work and play, and the nation as sources of pride, energy, and inspiration. They could reveal a combination of disenchantment, sadness, and reassessment of priorities—a combination which each person sorts through differently.

It’s possible that this sharp decline in the ties that bind is less a definitive view of a permanently changed country and more a snapshot of people reacting to major changes and challenges. These are occurring inside the institutions, inside their exposures to everyday activities and contacts, and inside themselves.

Americans’ values, or desires for happiness, may have changed less than their experiences—both their visceral and vicarious experiences. It takes a lot of time, thought, and emotional flexibility to figure out the actual impacts and meanings of all these situations.

Some of them have injured us badly, and others have simply confused us via our personal influencers, the news, social media, and other factors. Our “resistance” to damaged physical and mental well-being has been weakened by everything from the pandemic days to current economic woes, from family tragedies to jitters about the world’s future.

Perhaps the best way to use the poll is as a diagnostic test, to see where we and others stand according to these benchmarks, whether we judge the tallies from today or from years ago to be the most realistic and meaningful. Where is improvement needed, and how can we help? We can’t cure what we don’t diagnose.

To expand upon Tammy Bruce’s analysis, it always helps us to see the results of our latest comprehensive blood test. We know the numbers we want to see, and we probably know the factors that drive those statistics up and down.

News-consumers would not have been upset by this poll if we did not collectively see something valuable in what is being measured. We can let the survey grip us and then guide us regarding what needs to change—and what must not change.

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Phronesis Plus

Watching an Irish Precedent?

Watching President Joe Biden in Belfast and Dublin this week makes one think of the sharp cultural turn taken in the independent Republic of Ireland since a tide of disillusionment encroached on the land around 2009 – 2010. A heady decade of “Celtic Tiger” prosperity and multinational influence ended with the Great Recession. Philosophers and political analysts have never adequately explored all the psychological, social, and spiritual disruption left in its wake.

For a profound, and perhaps prophetic, assessment of the “past as prelude” visible in post-modern Ireland—and the contemporary United States—watch this video of two talks delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2018. The second presenter on this panel, hosted by the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, tells a sad story he says has sent his country into a pit of materialism, recrimination, vulnerability, and acedia.

The story combines a period of economic disenchantment and the unveiling of tragic woes in the Catholic Church, along with weakness in national leadership and the lack of a strong, more conservative counterculture that could inspire the Irish with faith and reason. This fostered a loss of trust in core institutions and a contagion of external criticism eroding the public’s confidence in noble aspects of their history and character.

One hopes that Biden, as a son of the Emerald Isle, can bring reminders to those still-wonderful people which encourage them to keep fighting the battles of saints and sinners, in an air of mystery and magic, which resonate in the soil and souls there. I fear the messages which Irish influencers take away from the visit will instead be dominated by continued reliance on a secular, globalist, materialistic future that offers peace treaties, but not peace of mind.

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Acting Our Age: The ‘Generation Gap’ Regenerates

7 min ago

This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com. Please take a look at this publication on Substack.

Current political discourse tends to spotlight society’s divisions based on race and gender. Get ready to deal more explicitly with another source of discord which is literally time-sensitive and ages-old: the so-called generation gap.

We already see—and should probe more closely—the different viewpoints of Baby Boomers (our elders), Generation X, the Millennials and Gen-Z (our kids). Those perspectives are important undercurrents in our debates about economic insecurity, human dignity, advanced technology, our national character, and more.

Dare we add “generational theory” to our necessary but tumultuous encounters with critical race theory, queer theory, etc.?

We can hear previews of the theory—an analysis of societal trends based on the quartet of age groups now dominant in the public square—as the 2024 political season gets under way.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley warned her Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) audience on March 4 that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight White House races. Her solution:

“If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.”

That kind of rhetoric will grow. It is commonplace in news stories quoting strategists who stress over the ages of President Biden (80) and former President Trump (76).

If the Baby Boom started in 1945, Biden is already an outlier, relegated by theorists to a non-mainstream population called the Silent Generation. Among these forerunners of the boom, the Great Depression and World War II were the turning points which shaped lifelong outlooks.

Those crises constituted a tectonic shift in the timeline, which at least one theory calls a Fourth Turning. These transformative disruptions occur in America about once every 80 years.

The landmark 1991 book that spawned such calculations offers plenty of grist for politicization. Some say the ideas advanced by Generations: The History of America’s Future are especially resonant in conservative thought—at least to the degree that they predict the next cultural overhaul.

Neil Howe, who co-authored that book with William Strauss (1947-2007), aims to regenerate excitement about the concepts with his new release later this year. The title will declare: “The Fourth Turning is Here.”

Other commentaries based on the “seasons of history” are already in the bookstores. A member of the Millennials added to our lexicon with her 2020 title, OK, Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. This January brought The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.

None of this content actively aggravates a generational fracture in the body politic. But the heightened consciousness of age groups, each contributing sharply different experiences and aspirations to the electoral process, opens the door for a more complicated, and perhaps confrontational, democracy. Especially if crises further erode society’s common ground.

The debate about “saving” Social Security and Medicare will become more urgent, for example, with politicians promising there will be no “cuts.”

But pandering to Boomers will be tricky. The deadline approaches for policymakers to address the whole question of “entitlements.” Younger generations will demand answers to their own financial vulnerability. Generation X is turning 60.

Many in Gen-Z deem home-ownership unlikely. Millennials await a Supreme Court ruling on college-loan relief. Parents wonder about education and jobs for their children.

When these voters look at today’s politicians, they see older faces reflecting concerns and strategies that are not their own. Leadership ranks today look more like the reality of a diverse society, but they ultimately will be judged by performance, not appearance.

A heightened focus on generational groups could become weaponized. Some conservative pundits, going beyond their ad hominem jabs based on old age, spout insensitive comments on the way younger newsmakers look, act, or think.

Superficial assumptions risk offending constituencies whose perspectives were formed over time by an evolving culture and visceral epiphanies about self, other persons, and the world.

We are wise to fear new spotlights on America’s divisions. But we should tap into the broader consciousness of generational theory, which adds a new dimension to our understanding of diversity. That requires appreciating the past, and taking the pulse, of individuals and groups whose years of birth help constitute their identities.

Major national crises are inevitable. We know from the COVID pandemic that age differences matter. Various developments have taught us that memory and outlook, fed by lived experience, will influence how we solve our biggest problems.

Generational theorists, and Americans at large, can agree that the only way to ride out a Fourth Turning, or any turn of events, is to bridge our cultural gaps. We need fair-minded and age-conscious wisdom that embraces a democracy for all seasons of history.

What Makes a University Catholic?

Bishop Robert Barron recently spoke at the University of Notre Dame on the subject of being a truly Catholic university. Here’s his talk. He reminded the audience that the idea of a university actually proceeded from the heart of the Church. Translate that into Latin, Ex Corde Ecclesiaeand you have Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical describing his vision of a Catholic university.

Bishop Barron offered his own excellent description of an open-minded, learning community that knows its mission and helps young people to discern and energize their individual missions. Addressing the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, he recalled G.K. Chesterton’s statement that the job of open minds, like open mouths, is ultimately to close on something nutritious. Chesterton also cautioned us, “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”


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God Unplugged: The ‘Remember Me’ Tour

This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces,” at billschmitt.substack.com, on Feb. 27, 2023.

As Lent 2023 begins, it’s time to book another tour with God. Such excursions can be customized—by Him, not us. He’ll give us glimpses of glorious vistas; expose us to scenes that show an urgent need for His mercy and truth; and challenge us with closing remarks: “You are now sent.”

For those who will take the sights, information, and missioning seriously, for those who will welcome the discoveries and implications with a full-throated “wow,” this tour can gear us up for personal growth and more focused attention on society’s well-being.

The metaphor of a tour occurred to me in 2020 when the Covid-19 lockdowns started during Lent and we were beginning to see cultural confusion and disruption accumulate more aggressively.

I saw the “tour” partly as an invitation to inquire more deeply into the spectrum of matters addling the world—and partly as a spiritual “retreat” to help us reflect and ground ourselves for efforts to solve some of the problems. A better response to quarantines than binge-eating or binge-watching.

I did some of the latter, but I aspired to read and write, to pray and plan, to thank God in advance for a renewal that would emerge from such Corona-viral questions as, “What the heck is going on?”

The idea of a tour returned to me in 2022 when Lent began amid newfound fears about war in Europe and signs of an intensifying “culture war.” Questions remained: Lord, what do you want to show us? Help me make sense of the world.

This year, I thought about something cheerier: a recent podcast featuring Christian talk-show host and author Eric Metaxas. He discussed his book, Is Atheism Dead?, in which he explored the idea that the heavens are declaring the glory of God (Psalms 19:2), almost literally.

Metaxas prompts readers to ponder the cosmos as a place of abundant love. Jupiter’s hefty gravity pulls away 99 percent of the comets and asteroids that could otherwise strike Earth, he points out.

Our moon’s ratio of distance and diameter relative to the Sun allows for the unlikely, numinous spectacle of a solar eclipse, complete with corona.

Earth’s air and water are precisely suited to the existence of human beings, Metaxas continues. Science itself is pointing to examples of beautiful orderliness.

The witty broadcaster is not saying anything new here; scholars such as Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, have gone before him with even more detailed proofs of God’s existence.

“The universe is gorgeous,” adds renowned physicist Michio Kaku in a video-interview by the Commonwealth Club about his book The God EquationHe says science and religion should stick to their knitting in their interpretations of physical laws. But, “as long as we keep these spheres separate but complementary, there’s no problem at all.”

Metaxas chooses to use the image of an expedition: “God is saying, now look at this, now look at this, and this,” he said on his podcast. He tunes into God’s sense of humor, noting we get to learn more about the spiritual plane as our earthly science advances.

This is the fun part of the trip I have embarked on for Lent 2023, the stuff of joy we spotlight on Laetare Sunday.

However, God never promised us a tour of rose gardens. He presents beautiful examples of His love for us, but He also wants us to see the everyday indications that we’re taking the love for granted, or resisting it as an affront to our freedom. This second part of the excursion into truth is more difficult for conscientious followers who remain focused on their guide. God sends an ongoing stream of information that serves to humble us, to call us back from worldly attractions and distractions.

We witness the vanity and foolhardiness of a secular society trying to solve financial, political, and personal problems it has caused.

Scientists, government leaders, big-tech gurus, professors, and pundits have shown us their knowledge is incomplete. Their wisdom deserves a complement—such as Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life—whom we all can study and emulate.

On tours tailored for us, God can use his laser-pointer to shine light on the countless people in many forms of distress, disillusionment, anxiety, and confusion—situations where we can offer aid in small or large ways if God is shedding light in our lives.

Our neighbors are burdened by the specter of war, disease, poverty, marginalization of individuals and whole groups, and bullying at the micro or macro levels. Many hearts are either hardened or breaking.

Some folks rise to the occasion and step forth to solve problems, strive to improve the common good, or simply share in the common pain, offering it up. God can help us to see that He overcomes the darkness. We can also notice that, in many situations, evil plants the seeds of its own destruction, so there is good reason to hope and work with Him in overcoming.

As a participant in the “tour group” I imagine for journalists and news addicts, I am observing the infotainment media with increased diligence.

What do I see? Some serious reporters, in fits and starts, have tried nobly to confront the tsunami of complex stories by reaching beyond their bubbles of audience metrics and hot-take simplification.

Public-affairs fans who pursue a variety of solid information resources are actually receiving graduate-course quantities of coverage that digs into the background of breaking news.

As policy-makers’ houses of cards totter in tandem and chaos dulls many people’s abilities to think things through, avid curiosity-seekers privileged to afford multimedia subscriptions—and the time to consume them—undergo the painful, useful process of being “schooled.”

We’re learning tons about the U.S. Constitution, geopolitics, history, medicine, criminal justice, education, psychology, political philosophy, and human nature. not to mention moral concerns. We’re hearing more experts talk about existential dangers, extinction-level events, and great resets.

Ideally, we see God’s blessing in this knowledge. Thorough exploration of the negatives usually yields insights into the corresponding positives. We can integrate these insights with values we hold as Catholics and then can share this package in the public square. This is practical wisdom, or phronesis, potent to uplift others.  

In a universe where love drives the metrics, we bear real responsibility. So God our tour guide sometimes steps back and goes Socratic. Again, He’s saying, “look at this, look at that,” and He follows up with questions to drive our explorations deeper.

Even as He informs us, He wants to keep us humble and on our toes:

Have you used your downtime to consider principles that might answer today’s challenges? Are you compassionately engaged in making sense of the polarized, post-truth, pro-death realities you see? Are you asking for my help in doing so?

Do you think you know better than me? Where were you when I founded the Earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? (OK, these latter questions are from Job chapter 38 in the Bible, but all good tour guides refer back to original sources.)

By this time, I and most tour participants are fidgeting. But this year’s uncomfortable Lenten tour will come to a close soon enough, so be not afraid. With Easter on its way, God will show us we need Him and will not leave us as orphans. (John 14:18)

Imagine Metaxas returning to encourage us with anticipation. He says, as he did in the podcast, “We’re on the verge of a paradigm shift” where science and faith together will give us the trust in God that helps us see the sunrise as well as the eclipse.

I recall a preview of enlightenment that God provided earlier this February, before the Lenten tour began.

It was around that time when Michael Brown, the author of Revival or We Die: A Great Awakening is Our Only Hopeput pen to paper for an article in The Stream, an evangelical, ecumenical publicationThe headline caught my eye: “After Our Corporate Humiliation, God is Pouring Out His Spirit on the Church.”

I don’t know much about this educator and radio host, but I appreciated his resilient hope.

Like me, Brown harked back to 2020 as a watershed, calling it a year-long crisis on many fronts, during which God “put the cry in our hearts and moved us to pray.”

Ever since, Americans have experienced an endless period of social travails, cultural disillusionment, and medical anxiety, Brown wrote. The only reasonable response has been eager expectancy, he argued—asking our troubled questions, pleading for assistance, and preparing to be surprised.

“Why would He move us to pray if He didn’t intend to answer our prayers?,” he asked. “Why would He raise our vision for revival and build our faith for awakening if He only planned judgment and destruction?”

Somehow, he was prescient. Thanks to open-minded news coverage, I discovered “the rest of the story.” It made me say “wow.”

You’ve probably heard about the spontaneous marathon of praise and worship that spanned February 8–21 at Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky. People called this event, which attracted 50,000 people to the Christian school’s campus, a revival or a portent of revival.

Writing in Christianity TodayTom McCall, a professor at the adjacent Asbury Theological Seminary, described the 24/7 prayer meeting as it was still going on. He told of students beseeching the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of active love for themselves and the world.

I surmise the students have traveled on God’s tours through their gatherings and Bible readings many times before. Their faith helped them connect God’s greatness and His responsiveness to humanity’s needs. They offered up their generation’s own burdens of despair, disillusionment, and anxiety, and the Lord heard.

The answers received must be sorted out in the depths of each person’s soul. McCall’s Feb. 13 article about the “Asbury revival” avoided sweeping claims or sentimentalism, but he suggested this was a sight everyone should see.

“As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation…. And truth be told, this is nothing like that,” he reported from the student event. “There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.

“To the contrary,” McCall said, “it has so far been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.”

We are wise to allow our spiritual tours around Christ’s kingdom to include scenes like Asbury University. They can help us remember there is a God, and He’s exactly what we need, and we should be looking for him everywhere there are problems to solve.

The effort to look upward, inward, and all around sets the stage for that “paradigm shift” which is really the purpose of Lent for Catholics.

As with all our pondering of God’s revelations, exploring the wonders of creation as well as the messes made on earth, we need to seize opportunities to diverge from the secular script and our mundane presumptions. This will clear the decks so we can cultivate practical, yet transcendent, wisdom—something old, yet surprisingly new.

It is good that we are here, beginning our 2023 excursions into the mysteries of love. The next step? That’s up to God. But let’s keep our bags packed, ready to wander off-script again, poised for more “wow” moments that might occur at about this time in 2024 and beyond.

Addendum: An Earlier Preview of Coming Attractions

What is it about the shortest month as a time of fresh starts? On February 17, 1967, a group of Catholic students from Duquesne University gathered near Pittsburgh for a weekend of prayer inspired by their recent experiences with “charismatic” prayer in Protestant churches. These Christians were discovering compelling relationships with Christ through His spirit.

You can see a video telling the story of how The Ark and The Dove retreat center that weekend became the Catholic origin point for “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and a landmark for the Charismatic Renewal. It continues to nudge people toward new vistas today.

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Giving Up Virtue Signals for Lent

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Catholic Church’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22, 2023), other than ashes we will wear on our foreheads, is Christ’s warning against virtue signaling.

People of today’s secular culture, seeking to fill their inner God-shaped hole by looking in the mirror, are prone to present themselves as infallible sources of truth, judges of others, and, to borrow a term from the Wizard of Oz, “good deed-doers.”

This has come to be called “virtue signaling,” defined by Oxford Languages as “the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”

The term is a rhetorical weapon often aimed by conservatives toward so-called “woke” liberals whom they deem to be making statements and taking stands hypocritically—talking the talk without walking the walk.

Meanwhile, liberals have argued that their critics, who question their pursuit of the moral high ground, are themselves virtue signalers because they claim to “know better” about the dubious value and authenticity of progressive stances.

The Mass readings for Ash Wednesday offer definitive rejections of the emptiness and danger on both sides of this debate. We’re told humility and a profound knowledge of our sinfulness are the better alternatives for the sake of this worldly life—and eternity.

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise , you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.’”

That’s from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6.

When you give alms, Jesus continues, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

Even in prayer, go quietly to your “inner room,” unlike the show-offs who sadly have already “received their reward,” Jesus instructs.

The Old Testament reading for the day, chapter 2 of the Book of Joel, offers this guidance:

“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”

Ad hominem punishments we try to impose on others, claiming to know and evaluate their hearts while we ignore the hardness of our own hearts, only lead to a downward spiral of quashed conversation, unsustainable and lacking the happiness of virtue and valor.

Mass-goers will recite part of Psalm 51, which prescribes the upward spiral our secular culture desperately needs. As we debate-lovers look into our respective mirrors, we are wise to rehearse the peaceable message that establishes a more level playing field:

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.”

Although it’s not in the liturgical readings, we might think of Falstaff’s remark in Henry IV, Part 1: “The better part of valor is discretion.” In the case of this Shakespeare character, he is not a particularly honorable person, but at least sometimes he knows when to hold his peace.

At the same time, Ash Wednesday can help us think of the word “Asé,” pronounced Ah-shay, a Nigerian version of “Amen” sometimes used by Black Christians in their worship. It combines an affirmation of someone else’s message and a commitment to “make it so” in our own lives.

This is certainly the dual hope inside everyone’s Amen when they are receiving the Blessed Sacrament, which is the greatest takeaway from every Mass.

The complex dynamics of wearing ashes are about to return for another year, leading into a Lenten season where the politically charged term “Great Reset” finds its most important meaning—on the individual and spiritual, not global or political, level.

We will experience some mockery and some admiration. We will be signaling our virtue and our desperate need for virtue. We will line up to get something that affirms our personal identity and redefines our identity in terms of humble dust and creaturehood.

These combinations constitute a mystery of trust and hope that should make us fall silent rather than gird for confrontation. The mystery can be our guide as we hear the day’s Mass readings, savoring their power to signal where true virtue resides.

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Don’t Be Resigned to Quiet Quitting

This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com on Feb. 7, 2023.

For a phenomenon whose name implies otherwise, “quiet quitting” sends a loud and clear message to all of us sharing responsibility for society’s well-being.

We need to be concerned about the physical, psychological, spiritual, and economic implications when millions of Americans are said to be minimizing their effort and engagement in the nation’s workplaces.

And our concern should increase when this quiescence is accompanied by other developments, such as the Great Resignation and continued weakness in labor force participation.

Evidence of that resignation trend comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that over 20 million workers quit during the second half of 2021.

The third ingredient in our stew pertains to long-term worker willingness. Here’s evidence for that:

Last month, a piece in Forbes reminded us that the official U.S. unemployment rate has remained low partly because the data count only persons who are seeking jobs, not people who are out of the labor force.

The percentage of civilians over 16 who are working or actively looking for work hit a high of 67% in the 1990s, but this “labor force participation rate” slid to a low of 60.1% as the pandemic hit in April 2020, and it is still below 62.5%, according to investment firm “Q.ai.” As a result, many employers have seen a labor shortage and are unable to hire all the people they want.

What’s going on? Much of the explanation appears benign, or at least it is not entirely new.

Regarding quiet quitting, Forbes points out that businesses have always had their share of less-than-fervent staffers who were “phoning it in.” One rule of thumb, true or not, is that 20% of employees accomplish about 80% of the work.

Some reluctance to put in extra effort or extra hours can be traced to various kinds of personal disorientation from the pandemic, disenchantment over bosses who expect workers to be available 24/7 through smartphones and easy messaging, and employees’ desire to take advantage of the gig economy for extra income.

As for the Great Resignation, much of the workplace shrinkage throughout the Covid-19 days was neither voluntary nor temporary. Now, we see people remain reluctant to return to office environments because of health factors or other frustrations. They opt for part-time jobs or virtual-office (even long-distance) connections.

The rate of labor force participation also has been reduced by cushions of payments from government Covid benefits—and by all of the symptoms already mentioned.

Another key component: The Baby Boom generation is retiring or semi-retiring, relocating or withdrawing from workloads. Meanwhile, by one account, members of one in five U.S. households need to take care of ill or aged family members. And post-Covid viewpoints (including financial circumstances) have discouraged long commutes, raised the bar for acceptable salaries or workplace conditions, and encouraged people to rethink their job-life balance.

Such factors add up to major shifts in how individuals in this society think, act, and interact. Many of the stories could have happy endings.

But let me add several other observations, either as expansions of the list or as inclinations operating in the background. These may be causes for immediate concern or simply radar blips to monitor. This awareness can build our practical wisdom about the evolving needs of our brothers and sisters:

·      Recall the survey reported by NBC News in late January that revealed 71% of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track.” With this dismay holding relatively steady since October 2021, NBC said, “We have never before seen this level of sustained pessimism in the 30-year-plus history of the poll.”

·      Such a loss of hope or resilience makes it difficult to summon up enthusiasm for workplaces and projects. When your country is on the wrong track, the same might be true of your finances, your family, your career expectations, and your sense of well-being. These considerations could fuel the upward trend in such problems as anxiety, depression, addiction, even suicidal or nihilistic thoughts.

·      Meanwhile, we tend to have less confidence in key institutions as admirable, trustworthy resources. We hesitate to sign on to an organization’s mission, or we have less confidence in the structures that anchored us in the past. That can threaten our self-confidence, too.

·      Incentives for personal excellence have been diminished in some people’s eyes by a sense that meritocracy now matters less in performance metrics. This prompts fears that managers and colleagues judge us based on the “baggage” we carry—or on the baggage they carry.

·      Organizations with a muddled sense of purpose are less equipped to give people a sense of accomplishment, progress, and dignity. Purpose is especially hard to identify in enterprises where nothing of inherent value and genuine interest is manufactured or imagined. Plenty of office jobs focus on repetition, statistics, and bureaucracy, rather than people, and these staff members may feel more replaceable.

·      When a company cannot reward us with the appreciation of important work done well, with talents activated and needs met, we will insist that the company reward us in other ways, perhaps with an on-site spa or extra “headroom” for our separate pursuits of meaning and happiness.

·      Many Americans have become increasingly addicted to their social-media communities, video games, and other forms of digital distraction. It is easy to retreat into artificial or virtual realities where our views will be confirmed and our “victories” will yield dopamine hits. Entertainment addicts may prefer to work in offices with lots of free time and fun time.

·      People of all ages, especially young adults, feel less comfortable in face-to-face circumstances where the different views and backgrounds of others make it more difficult to trust, converse, and work as a team.

Except for these things, everything is fine! I believe it was pulpit-pundit Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said many years ago, “Modern man has achieved half the requirement for salvation. He’s miserable.”

Of course, our best guess is that this country is teeming with meaningful, rewarding jobs and engaged, productive workers.

But any shrinkage in our collective sense of the purposeful workplace is food for thought. It clues us into the need for transcendent goals—and a transcendent God whose truth, beauty, and goodness elevate our everyday activities. When we answer to a loving and just judge (and Savior), when the clear criterion is virtuous vigor for His sake, even mundane work becomes more worthy of our best efforts.

In a community fed by the Holy Spirit, we can avoid the contagion of quiet quitting that already erodes the diligence in our religious practices, classrooms, criminal justice efforts, civic life, caring accompaniment of the marginalized, and adherence to moral disciplines.

Structures and relationships of fairness and fruitfulness can help us find our balance. They remind us that we are pilgrims on this earth, with charity and co-responsibility as the metrics. If we are doing a job for the sake of supporting a spouse and a family, in the context of neighbors and institutions with shared values, we find that our daily bread is a joy to earn, receive, and share.

To the degree that fear, idleness, isolation, and frustration have replaced this ethos, the economic and social developments discussed here are bad news for the culture as a whole.

They point to the vice of “acedia”—quiet quitting that has metastasized at the spiritual level. Thomas Aquinas called acedia “disgust with activity.”

CatholicEducation.org describes how all-encompassing this stance of withdrawal can be. One author defines acedia as “spiritual sloth.” A litany of its symptoms includes: weariness, fatigue, melancholy, gloominess, feeling overworked, discouragement, dejection, instability, boredom, disenchantment, depression, mediocrity, laziness, loss of interest, lack of fervor, compromise, a repulsion to the things of God, a deprivation of the meaning of life, despair of attaining salvation, and, “above all, an overall compelling absence of joy and hope.”

This wide net captures the scope of the risk we run if we leave God home when we go to work. If more people are drifting away from our contributory structures and institutional anchors, especially the Church, if we try to go it alone or “just get by,” individuals and society can lose their balance as stewards of today’s fast-moving marketplace. The virus of acedia hurts its host, and it is highly contagious.

Seekers of practical wisdom for the sake of the common good must guard against society’s drift from quiet quitting to full-blown acedia. We must remind our brothers and sisters in the workplace and in the public square that we desire a purpose-driven community in which everyone plays a meaningful role.

The world needs more champions of enthusiastic investment in good works, echoing Jesus’ parable of the talents. And there’s this Epistle message:

“Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the due payment of the inheritance; be slaves of the Lord Christ. ” (Colossians 3:23-24)

Add to that Jesus’ message that we are our brothers’ keepers, with a responsibility to mentor our fellow workers in the field. We’re called to remind others that their whole life has value. We should appreciate their skills, as well as nurture their highest aspirations when they look for jobs—or, even better, discern their vocations.

We can debate about jobs-report data, but the motivation to rein in quiet quitting will come from actions of accompaniment. These enhance everyone’s spiritual resume.

Evangelizing the culture, we must spread the news that our unique contributions can receive great rewards—in the form of daily bread for now, but finally in advancement to the saintly labor force modeling the business of love.

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