All experts who have their eyes trained on the social effects of Covid – along with a heart attuned to the conditions of those who are worse off – are well aware that a path out of this crisis will require massive doses of “nearness”. Thomas Banchoff, vice-president of “Global Engagement” at Georgetown University and one of the experts appointed by the Pope to the Vatican Covid-19 Commission, focuses heavily on a “green technological revolution”. “The time is over,” he says, “in which we could allow ourselves to celebrate technological progress without paying attention to its negative environmental impact.” Now, he continues, we need to develop “sustainable and inclusive economics” and “make technology part of the solution.”
You are part of the Vatican COVID 19 Commission, Pope Francis’ response mechanism to an unprecedented virus. What do you personally hope to learn from this experience? In what way do you think society as a whole can be inspired by the work of the Commission?
R. – The Commission is a wonderful opportunity to think with the Church about this unprecedented crisis and its implications for the world. The Commission allows us to connect Catholic Social Teaching with different disciplinary lenses on the pandemic and its farreaching impact on public health, the economy, and world affairs. At a time of great suffering, when so many are tempted to despair, the work of the Covid-19 Commission is a source of hope.
Pope Francis asked the COVID 19 Commission to prepare the future instead of prepare for it. What should be the role of the Catholic Church as an institution in this endeavor?
R. – The pope has challenged us to imagine and pursue a better future in the midst of this terrible crisis. As a global community animated by faith, hope, and love, the Church is well positioned to articulate and embody principles that can guide us as we seek to rebuild just, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies. Several core principles of Catholic Social Teaching are fundamental, including solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, and the common good.
The world is divided into those who manufacture new technologies and those who use them. Factory workers often labour in ethically deplorable conditions: children, poor and exploited populations, people who have no rights. Is there any hope for change?
R. – As Pope Francis has pointed out, deep social inequality is one of the greatest evils facing the world today. At a time of great material abundance and revolutionary breakthroughs in technology, most of the world's population must struggle to make ends meet. Women, children, refugees and migrants are among the most vulnerable. There is reason for hope, however. Greater social inclusion through access to education, healthcare and a just wage is a key to long term prosperity in countries around the world. The moral imperative of addressing social inequality also has a strong economic logic.
Is the race for the latest technology justified, which, in addition to exploiting human beings, it also irreversibly pollutes the planet?
R. – The time has passed when we can afford to celebrate technological progress without attention to its negative environmental impacts. The industrial and consumer technologies which have driven unprecedented prosperity have also strained our ecological systems to the breaking point, devouring natural resources, threatening biodiversity, and promoting climate change. We need to make technology part of the solution. The development of effective Green technologies and the shift toward sustainable economies, while still in its early stages, will help us chart a path to a more hopeful future.
Is it reasonable to envision sustainable technology that respects the environment, and which is more widely accessible, even for those who work to manufacture it?
R. – As Pope Francis powerfully argues in his Encyclical Laudato Si', the ecological question and the social question are deeply connected. The degradation of the environment and the acceleration of climate change have a disproportionate negative impact on poor communities. Looking forward, it will not be enough to produce sustainable Green industrial and consumer technologies. We need to make those technologies accessible to workers and citizens. The fruits of the Green technology revolution must must be widely shared - in keeping with the principle of solidarity and in view of the fact that economies that are both sustainable and inclusive will have competitive advantages into the future.
The world is more and more connected. Could the right to be connected digitally become a fundamental right? What are the consequences?
R. – Today the exercise of basic human rights is increasingly connected with access to digital communications technology. Universal rights that flow from the dignity of the human person - including the right to life, heath, education and employment and the freedom of religion, expression and association - have a strong social dimension. They cannot be exercised in isolation. In an era when digital technology, including the Internet and mobile communications, connect people and empower citizens as social actors, wider access to those technologies is an ethical and policy imperative. Without it, the scourge of deep social inequality - already a pressing global problem - will become an even greater challenge.
Rethinking technological progress to make it more equitable, evenly-distributed and accessible does not entail overturning the entire economic system. With the shock of the current crisis fresh in our minds, would now be a good time to carry out this reflection?
R. – The pandemic has revealed the extent of social inequality in our world; poor and marginalized communities have suffered the greatest losses in health and economic terms. As we look to the future, our watchword should be not recovery but transformation. We should deploy the most advanced technologies and best policy know-how to build public health and economic institutions that are not only resilient but also inclusive. A top-down, government-driven approach will not achieve the goal. Policy frameworks that encourage market competition, technological innovation and social inclusion are our best option.