The National Catholic Review

This guest blog comes from Christopher Hale, co-founder of Millennial, a digital journal that is dedicated to lifting up the voices of young Catholic intellectuals in the public sphere. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

As the cardinal-electors meet this week in Rome to elect the next Successor of Saint Peter, many concerns will be occupying the consciences of the 115 men as they make the biggest decision in their ecclesial lives and perhaps the biggest decision in the Catholic Church since Blessed John XXIII announced on Christmas Day 1961 his decision to convene the Second Vatican Council.

Vatican insiders, most notably National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen and Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, have correctly identified several of the profound and complex issues that will await the next pope upon his election: the Church’s ongoing response to the sexual abuse crisis, the decline of religiosity in Europe and throughout the West combined with its growth in Africa, the struggles of governance within the Roman Curia, and the role of lay faithful—and in particular women—in the life of the Church among others.

With profound respect for the great importance of every one of these issues and more, I believe there is one that is perhaps being overlooked, but contains within it all these issues and embodies the greatest threat to living the faith and proclaiming Gospel values to modern humanity: the globalization of superficiality.

This globalization of superficiality—a term first coined and defined in 2010 by Father Adolfo Nicholas, SJ, the worldwide leader of the Jesuits—describes an era in which depth of thought and the authenticity of human relationships is slowly being short-circuited by a combination of rapid technology growth, excessive worldwide consumerism and a dizzying pluralism of choices and opportunities.

In particular, it is affecting the lives and futures of young people.

Nicolas says:

When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from the New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

[When] one can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions. When…the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow.

This globalization of superficiality—which is being fueled by life’s ever-increasing pace—is leaving precious little room for religion or even authentic human communities and relationships. Religion and—in fact—every venerable tradition of thought, community and mission presuppose time for study and reflection and room to risk and to discern a choice. In this ever emerging dictatorship of superficiality, it is much easier to do as one is told by the authorities of popular culture than to study, to pray and to discern an individual path.

Nicolas continues:

When one can become “friends” so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks – and if one can so easily “unfriend” another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation – then relationships can also become superficial.

Take a walk in any urban community in the United States and it is easy to see the reality that Nicolas describes. We are addicted to our Apple products at the expense of the people all around us. If we aren’t careful, we will grow into a society where the devolution of human relationships is dominant.

When people lose the ability to engage with reality, a process of dehumanization—though gradual and silent—becomes very real. This modern dehumanization allows the old heresy of Gnosticism to percolate in new and even more disturbing ways, particularly in reducing intrinsic human worth to mere physical utility, namely economic productivity. It gives birth to the idea that immigrants’ value to a country can only be measured in what they produce, not who they are or even in how much they care for and love their children. And—most disturbingly—it creates a culture where quiet, subtle acts of violence against the marginalized go unnoticed by most, especially  refusal of certain to states to pass Medicaid expansion, which serves above all, the poor. A martyred prophet, Robert Kennedy, spoke of this new reality several generations ago. He said that when people allow for the dehumanization of society, they create a space where the “mindless menace of violence” dominates.

In his 1968 Cleveland speech a day after Martin Luther King was killed, Kennedy said:

[Let us remember] that those who live with us are our brothers [and sisters], that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and [sisters] once again.

This emerging dictatorship of superficiality is real and consequential. It is taking away our ability to think deeply, engage authentically and to discern truthfully. It idolizes excessive hedonism and consumerism and promotes a lazy intellectual life. A single shepherd—with his intellect, personality, leadership and programs—cannot himself turn the tide against this new reality. But he can start the process. Our faith, as Benedict so eloquently reminded us, is not simply the result of an ethical choice lofty ideal, but rather, of a human relationship with a human event and a human story.

Our next Holy Father must be a man who within the context of his humanity is willing to engage in the gritty new reality that Christians and all people find themselves living in. He must be willing to propose in both word and deed the timeless truths of the Catholic faith: all men and women are redeemed and made holy by God’s love in Christ and that their authentic flourishing, both individually and communally, must be the fundamental goal of all human activity.

If he does, standing with him will be millions of Catholics and people of all different traditions, willing to work with him to make of this blessed, but broken world something all the more blessed still.