The Complex Challenges of New Technologies

Cardinal William Keeler
Chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee
on Pro-Life Activities
Reprint with permission

"Perhaps the most complex challenges facing us as Christians are posed by our new technologies affecting the creation, manipulation and preservation of human life," Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said to a group of 700 at the annual meeting of the Missouri Catholic Conference Sept. 22. The theme of the meeting, held at the Capitol in Jefferson City, was "Faith and Freedom." Keeler called for "careful discernment in the light of Christ" to avoid the two extremes of "either distrusting all these new technologies as unwarranted interventions in God's created order or welcoming them all as signs of progress despite the very real threats some of them pose to human life and human dignity." Even in the debate on stem–cell research he said, "new technology is not our enemy. " He said society needs to seek "morally acceptable alternatives to destructive embryo research. Catholic scientists, physicians and medical centers should be in the forefront of exploring the vast potential of stem cells from adult tissues, umbilical cords and placentas, and other sources that pose no moral problem." Keeler also discussed in vitro fertilization, human cloning and "neglect of human dignity near the end of life." Turning to communications media technologies, Keeler described church efforts to combat pornography, offered advice on how the church might deal with the media and discussed pluses and minuses of the Internet. In putting in "a good word for the Internet," Keeler praised its potential "to make every home ... a center of learning," to help isolated and alienated people reconnect and to exchange information worldwide, which, he said, makes the Internet "of particular interest to a church which is both local and universal." He said the church should be ready to take advantage of the interactivity of the Internet. He added, "It could be a perfect ministry for retired priests and religious to be present on the Internet to offer guidance to seekers." Keeler is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro–Life Activities and a consultant to the bishops' communications committee. His text follows.

To Archbishop Justin Rigali, a dear friend of many years and a great shepherd in the church, I express my thanks for the personal invitation to be with you today. It is a grace to be able to reflect with you on the life of the church in a critical moment of our nation's history and indeed of the history of the world.

What happened 11 days ago when terrorists struck has seared itself into our memories. What happens now in our lives as people of faith is colored by those events, but it is not dictated by them.

I suggest today that, within the framework of Pope John Paul's apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, we now consider issues that face church and state — and our global society — in these days. In his letter the Holy Father recalled and celebrated the events of the jubilee year. He singled several out for special mention.

One which has proved so significant for our relations as church with the world was the public "request for forgiveness," the day of pardon. This took place in the context of a moving celebration of the eucharist in St. Peter's on March 12, 2000. It was a fulfillment of the recommendations of the consistory of cardinals that met in 1994 and laid the groundwork for the apostolic letter Adveniente Tertio Millennio. They asked that the church look through history at the failures of her sons and daughters and confess them frankly. The Holy Father took his cue from this and arranged for prayers asking God's forgiveness for a variety of failings. Then he devoted his homily to reflections on this remarkable new page in the modern history of the church.

And there was his unforgettable visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem when he placed in it his prayer of earlier in the month for God's pardon for the failures of Christians in regard to the children of Abraham. When his hand touched the wall, he seemed to touch all the history and all the anguish of a people who had suffered much.

Then the Holy Father raises the challenge of holiness. He describes it as the "dimension which expresses best the mystery of the church" (No. 7). It is a "message that convinces without the need for words" and "reveals the living reflection of the face of Christ." Throughout his letter Pope John Paul returns again and again to this theme. As we remember the events of Sept. 11, throwing in sharp relief what truly is important in our lives, we see reinforced the teaching of Jesus for our day: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God's righteousness."

The Holy Father next recalls the joyous pilgrimage of 2.4 million young people to Rome last summer. As one who witnessed what transpired under a warm and unblinking sun, I say that their faith proved how alive God's Spirit is in the hearts of the young church.

Pope John Paul reflected also on the power of the eucharist, recalling the great congress in Rome a year ago, and on the ecumenical events, reflecting the insistent and growing hunger in the Christian family for the unity for which Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper. The sign of the unity we pray and work for will be unity around the table of the Lord, the eucharist. (Here, logically, the Orthodox churches, Oriental and Byzantine, hold out the greatest promise because they share the Catholic faith in the early creeds, the seven sacraments and especially the sacrament of holy orders, with the three orders of deacon, priest and bishop.)

The Holy Father also recalled his personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a "moment of brotherhood and peace, ... one of the most beautiful gifts of the whole jubilee event." He spoke of his "deeply felt desire for a just and prompt solution to the still unresolved problems of the holy places, cherished by Jews, Christians and Muslims together" (No. 13).

During his visit to Jerusalem, Pope John Paul met with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders to remind them all that each of their faiths held as basic opposition to violence and the importance of moving toward reconciliation and peace whenever conflict arose. What a helpful lesson for our nation, for all of us today! We are blessed to live in a land where there are, at least at the local level, fruitful communications among the world religions. There was a remarkable witness to this in St. Louis two–and–a–half years ago, when for the first time a rabbi read in the cathedral a passage from the Old Testament as a prelude to a papal address!

We are mindful of the personal example Pope John Paul has given at Assisi in 1986, at Los Angeles the following year, in Israel especially with Jewish representatives and this year in Damascus when he became the first successor of the apostle Peter to set foot in a mosque.

In closing the cardinals' consistory in May, the Holy Father reminded us, "Christian contemplation [the search for holiness] does not take us away from our earthly commitments." Here he mentioned "the advance of globalization," a concern of so many today, and "emerging moral questions," citing first the "area of bioethics." Let me say something about this and about another sign of the times, the impact of the new technology as it intersects with moral issues in the context of the communications media.

A Technological Approach to Life

Perhaps the most complex challenges facing us as Christians are posed by our new technologies affecting the creation, manipulation and preservation of human life. Yet nowhere is it more urgently necessary to bring Christ's presence and teaching to our modern world. Without careful discernment in the light of Christ, we risk falling into either of two extremes — either distrusting all these new technologies as unwarranted interventions in God's created order or welcoming them all as signs of progress despite the very real threats some of them pose to human life and human dignity.

We see a timely example of the need for such discernment in the public debate on embryonic stem–cell research. Many proponents of this research and their allies in the news media and polling organization consistently frame this issue as a simple question: Do you support or oppose potentially life–saving stem cell research? But this is to misrepresent what is at stake. For hundreds of thousands of patients have been successfully treated with stem cells from adult bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and other sources that pose no serious moral problem. In fact, adult stem cell research is far ahead of embryonic research in offering new, previously unexpected treatments for debilitating disease. Our moral concerns arise when living human beings are destroyed to obtain their stem cells, as invariably occurs with embryonic stem cell research.

We hold that it is always gravely wrong to treat another human being, made in the image and likeness of God, as a mere instrument of research or to destroy human life at any stage to provide research material. We further hold that private and public research agencies should not support research that could be seen as legitimizing such destruction even after the fact.

Here, we have to say, President Bush's decision to fund embryonic stem cell research on existing cell lines was a disappointment — not only because it tends to legitimize the past destruction of human embryos as a source of cells and tissues, but also because the basic research supported with federal funds may only set the stage for far more expansive reliance on destruction of embryos if and when clinical treatments issue from this research. Catholics and other pro–life Americans will face new and seemingly intractable moral dilemmas in the future if the only new treatments for their serious illnesses or those of their children are based on the destruction of other human beings.

Even here, however, new technology is not our enemy. While continuing to insist on the inviolability of each and every human life, we can help ensure that such horrible dilemmas do not arise by fully pursuing morally acceptable alternatives to destructive embryo research. Catholic scientists, physicians and medical centers should be in the forefront of exploring the vast potential of stem cells from adult tissues, umbilical cords and placentas, and other sources that pose no moral problem.

Ironically, the debate about embryo research has refocused critical attention on a technology that has been with us now for two decades. For the very idea of harvesting cells from human embryos and the supply of so-called "excess" embryos needed to pursue this idea would hardly have arisen without the practice of in vitro fertilization. While many Americans see this technology as just another means to help infertile couples, the church has seen something more troubling: a tendency to separate the life–giving act of human procreation from the love-giving act of marital union.

By making the generation of new life into a laboratory procedure performed and presided over by technicians and other third parties, people of our day have set the stage for researchers to treat these new humans as something less than fellow human beings. Embryos in fertility clinics are produced as raw material, "selected" for quality, screened for defects, frozen as back–up resources and now harvested for their useful cells. Some clinics in the United States have taken the further step of using donated eggs and sperm to make embryos solely for research purposes.

These abuses are leading to new and urgent calls for government regulation of an industry that for over 20 years has operated with little scrutiny or ethical constraint. Perhaps they may also lead more Americans to appreciate the wisdom of the church's longstanding concerns about creating human life in the laboratory. Perhaps, too, we have a new window of opportunity to educate more Catholics and others about positive solutions for infertile couples that do not raise these concerns. Some of those solutions, like adoption, are not technological in nature. Others, based on insights into fertility gleaned from many years of research into natural family planning, place technology at the service of assisting and healing the natural gift of fertility instead of replacing it with a laboratory technique.

If in vitro fertilization has become all too uncritically accepted in our society, the prospect of human cloning has deservedly been greeted with revulsion by most Americans. This technique, in which a new embryo is created by transplanting genetic material from a body cell into an unfertilized egg, marks a dramatic further step toward treating procreation as mere manufacture — and manufacture to preset specifications at that. Because cloning completely divorces human reproduction from the context of a loving union between man and woman, human beings arising from the procedure do not even have "parents" in the usual sense. As the Pontifical Academy of Life has said:

"In the cloning process the basic relationships of the human person are perverted: filiation, consanguinity, kinship, parenthood. A woman can be the twin sister of her mother, lack a biological father and be the daughter of her grandmother. In vitro fertilization has already led to the confusion of parentage, but cloning will mean the radical rupture of these bonds" [Pontifical Academy for Life, "Human Cloning Is Immoral" (July 9, 1997), in The Pope Speaks, Vol. 43, No. 1 (January⁄February 1998), p. 29].

On Feb. 12, 1998, I quoted these words in testimony before a committee (subcommittee on health and environment of the Commerce Committee) of the House of Representatives on behalf of our pro–life committee. Protestant and Jewish clergy embraced the same basic reasoning in their testimony that day.

And what of sick and elderly patients at the other end of the human life span — those seen as the ultimate beneficiaries of embryo research and "therapeutic" cloning? Ironically, they too are at risk of being treated as mere artifacts of technology, of having their human dignity neglected in the name of medical and scientific progress.

We must also recall that neglect of human dignity near the end of life can even take the form of efforts to preserve life. For while we do have an obligation to take reasonable steps to preserve and sustain life, today some are tempted to take this to the extreme of what church documents call therapeutic obstinacy — a commitment to extend life at any costs, regardless of the burdens imposed on patient and family.

Our secular age has encouraged people to lose their sense of perspective about earthly life. Physicians today are trained in the latest high–technology medicine and led to see death as the ultimate enemy to be opposed with every possible tool at our disposal. But when even high–tech medicine finally admits defeat, as eventually it must, physicians and families are tempted to see continued life as the enemy — to entertain euthanasia and assisted suicide as ways to wrench some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. It is as if we were trying to show how advanced we are by developing a cure even for incurable disease — the cure being to eliminate the patient.

At times such an intent to cause death is carried out by obvious direct action — a drug overdose or lethal injection. At other times it may be achieved in more subtle ways by deliberately withdrawing nourishment and other basic care in order to hasten death. However it is achieved, such a deliberate intention to end life shows disrespect for the gift of human life and is very different from a decision to discontinue particular means of life support because they are no longer effective or impose too serious a burden on the people we are trying to help.

The most complete remedy against such disordered views and actions regarding life is our church's complete vision of human life as our first and most precious gift from a loving God — a gift over which we have stewardship, not absolute dominion. We cannot hope to cheat death by our technological prowess — nor do we have any right to inflict death, seeing life as worthless once it has lost the qualities that may make it seem valuable to us. As Christians we can look upon death, not without fear and trembling, but without averting our eyes because we know that the love of God in Christ, which is infinitely more powerful than death, will accompany us on that dark passage and awaits us in its fullness on the other side.

Here is a vision that can stand up against the temptations, the fallacies, the wrong turns that may be all too common in a society impatient to find the solutions to all its problems in technology. Viewing questions of life and death in light of the wisdom of Christ, we will know when to use our technology to enhance human life — and when to oppose trends that would enslave human beings to technology.

Pornography and the Internet

Let me first put in a good word for the Internet. The media, which so often emphasize bad news, have given a great deal of coverage to stories about people, young people in particular, preyed upon through the Internet. These are important stories and well worth covering because they alert young people and their parents to the dangers of what can seem at first like a bright new toy. At the same time the Internet did not invent the predators; it just provided them with an additional opportunity. And that can be said of the Internet in general: It has not created knowledge or business, but it has provided both with exceptional new opportunities.

So, on the positive side, the Internet has the potential to make every home — no matter how far removed from what are ordinarily considered centers of learning — a center of learning itself.

It also offers expanded opportunities to exchange information and ideas with others, and this makes it of particular interest to a church which is both local and universal. For example, the Internet makes contact among Catholics worldwide much easier and immediate. Today a Catholic anywhere can find out about the Holy See's activities and documents directly.

The Internet also offers something akin to what the church has offered for centuries through the anonymity and confidentiality of the confessional —the chance to ask questions which people would not ask their closest friends out of embarrassment for their ignorance. This Internet anonymity has its bad side: It gives predators a way to manipulate others [as I have indicated]. But in a society in which mobility can make it difficult for people to establish relationships or in which people are isolated, even alienated, for other reasons, Internet is a way to reconnect. The church should be ready to take advantage of this. It could be a perfect ministry for retired priests and religious, especially those who can no longer get around so easily, to be present on the Internet to offer guidance to seekers.

Interactivity is extremely important to Internet use. If it is just a one way supplier of information, that meets some needs but people are aware that it can do more. It is often the opportunity to interact with others that keep visitors coming to a site.


It has been said of the devil that his most successful deceit has been convincing people that he does not exist. To a certain extent, the same thing can be said of pornography. It is certainly something that people do not like to talk about in "polite company." And the hesitancy to talk about it has helped cover up just how vast a problem it is.

In an article in the New York Times magazine a few months ago, former theater critic Frank Rich had a fascinating article. In it, from what might be called a non judgmental point of view, he described how the pornography industry was given a new lease on life through the production and distribution of material for videocassette use. Those who indulged in this kind of thing could now order these cassettes by mail and use them in the privacy of their own homes.

As a result, it is a multibillion dollar industry which is a kind of shadow of the mainstream entertainment industry. A manifestation of this that everyone can see is the XXX–rated sections of video–rental stores in which large collections of pornographic material sit on shelves not far from their respectable companions. A similar point can be made about the movie offerings in hotels and motels (and by the way we should go out of our way to support the video stores and hotels/motels that don't offer this kind of film).

What many people think of as pornography is actually relatively "softcore," and it is not easy for them to imagine (and embarrassing to try to describe) the degradation of hard pornography and the effect it has. But it is a very profitable industry which has effects similar to alcohol and drug addiction in becoming a destructive obsession.

Sadly, hard-core pornography spreads like a cancer from media to media, and the Internet has been no exception. Very quickly pornography sites became a predominant presence on the Internet, often under guises which could lure the unwary; and the Internet has been another way for pornography to invade the home, the school and the library. Legislation to control Internet pornography has been struck down by the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. At the same time, existing, constitutional obscenity and child pornography laws do apply, and we should seek their enforcement.

Television and AT&T

Pornography is typically addictive in that many of its users begin to need more of it and more powerful doses to maintain the thrill. That is why the softcore type that is found on some cable stations and even the pervasive sexual innuendo that is found on the networks cannot be viewed as harmless. Demeaning to the dignity of the human person in themselves, they can be the start of what will become a very destructive addiction.

Although it is not easy for people to make distinctions among the material that comes to them through the same TV screen, there are important differences in the source.

The networks, who use the publicly owned broadcast spectrum, have always been bound by an obligation to broadcast in the public interest. The government once enforced this vigorously. In the movement for greater deregulation of industry across the board, this government enforcement lessened considerably. Broadcasters, as a result, became less committed to the public interest and more committed to treating TV as simply another business whose main obligation is to make money for its shareholders. However, enough remains of a sense of obligation to viewers' interests for the networks to put some restraint on what they provide.

Cable, especially its "pay" or"premium" channels, however, are viewed as services which are purchased and which the consumers are free to drop if they dissatisfied. That is why some of those channels will show things which no network would show. However, the recent success of the sexually and violently graphic "The Sopranos" has built up the competitive pressures and tempted network executives to ask whether they ought not to try to expand the boundaries of what they show.

Audience reaction does influence TV, both network and cable. So the viewing audience needs to be vigilant about such attempts and to speak out. The TV audience's tendency to take what it has been given is part of the explanation for the state of things as they are today. As a former Federal Communications Commission member told me recently, he does not think things will change unless there is an uprising among the viewing public to demand changes.

This can happen. The sense that the public was widely dissatisfied, especially with what TV was making available to children, resulted in the v–chip legislation requiring every television now made to be equipped with a device which can assist parents to screen out certain kinds of programming as identified by the TV ratings system. While some people disparage these efforts, I can assure you that the networks did not want them. It was the sense that Congress and the administration at that time were voicing a concern felt by the public that forced TV executives to go along. The public does have power. You might want to contact the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Communications Department as to how the public can be educated in using the v–chip and the TV ratings system.

The public also needs to be reeducated in the fact that broadcast TV and radio stations are licensed by the government free of charge and required to act in the public interest. The public can insist on these stations receiving their comments and making them part of their license renewal process.

One way religious groups are trying to exercise the power the public has is to pressure some blue chip corporations who support the pornography industry through their investment in cable channels to cease this activity. Currently, AT&T with its Hot Channel is the chief target.

What Religious Groups Are Doing

In June 1998 the bishops adopted a pastoral statement "Renewing the Mind of the Media," which other faith groups have imitated or even adopted. The bishops also approved a pledge campaign to help our people to understand that they can make a difference with the media and that we bishops are on their side in doing so. I would recommend that every diocesan communications office familiarize itself with the pastoral statement and the pledge campaign and find ways in which to implement them in the diocese and at the parish level. I also recommend that our education offices develop media–literacy curricula. Given the influence the media have on young people and that these young people will one day be parents themselves, it is important to help them know how to evaluate what comes at them through the media.

The Religious Alliance Against Pornography is a coalition across the religious spectrum which helps educate localities on how they can fight pornography. It has targeted, in a special way, the participation of blue chip corporations in the pornography industry, such as AT&T, which I have already described briefly.

In 1993, in my address as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, I described the media as having a preprogrammed "Catholic story" in which the Catholic Church in the United States is presented as in disarray, rife with dissent. I called it a caricature then, and unfortunately it still is a caricature.

A story which began on the front page of The New York Times last June (Thursday, June 7, 2001), "Web Links Married Priests to Flock Adrift From Church," speaks of "the fractured nature of the Catholic Church in America." It is about the "Rent a Priest" group which supplies priests who have left the active ministry to marry for a variety of religious services. This is, needless to say, a tiny group compared to the millions of Catholics who celebrate the sacraments as the church prescribes. In August the same group was featured in a story titled in part, "It's the Catholic Church vs." Thus a dissident group makes use of the Web to get publicity, and news organizations on and off the Web provide it.

The Web is the most "democratic" form of information distribution ever, and outside actual news organizations on the Web like, there are no editors and publishers to complain to. The traditional media are in many ways easier to deal with. And, although I am still annoyed by stories such as I described, there are many positive signs, especially in the local media that a good relationship can be created.

Like the Archdiocese of Baltimore, St. Louis had the tremendous experience of a papal visit, and I think we both had the experience of a wonderfully responsive local media. The relationship has to be cultivated in ordinary as well as extraordinary times, and it can be done with success. The national media are more difficult, but even there we have seen some response in the direction of more balanced coverage.

The Web and Internet can be much more difficult to deal with. A mass of misinformation can be quickly and universally disseminated, and so far the most effective response is to have a site oneself which is effective in attracting visitors and keeping them interested.

Part of holding visitors is the interactivity inherent in the Internet about which I have spoken. Scheduled and well–organized "chats" with the bishop and his collaborators can be a great opportunity to be available as one can also be through television and radio and the diocesan newspaper.

In my experience I have found very little media actually hostile or opposed to us. The few examples are so memorable, however, that they can easily cast a pall over all dealings with the media. But that should not discourage us. While there are many who are indifferent to us and many who are simply ignorant about the church and religion, few are actively hostile and bent on misrepresentation.

And like those who work in other areas, they respond to an empathetic spirit. By that I mean we need to approach the media with an awareness of the professional demands on them: that we are but one of many organizations clamoring for their attention, sometimes stridently; that they need help and having someone regularly available to help them in a courteous fashion is always appreciated; that they have deadlines which can annoy them as much as they annoy us; that we are prepared and know what we want to say when we speak to them, and we do so clearly; and that while we may have to say that we cannot tell them everything, we never deceive them. If that sounds like how we would want to be treated, that's because media relations, like the rest of life, should be guided by the Golden Rule.

In some ways the single most important thing to remember when we deal with media is that they are "media," i.e. "means" — means to reach the public. I think we can get frustrated because we try to convince the media person of the rightness of our point of view. That may be a happy side effect, but it is not our main purpose. What we rightly expect of the media person is not agreement but accurate reporting, so that our point of view is properly represented to the public.

National and International Challenges

Any pope will be a predominant media figure by virtue of his office. However, John Paul II, with his faith, which illumines his whole person, and his natural ability with people and their languages and currently with the stamina and dedication to his office with which he thrusts aside the effects of advancing age to fulfill his obligations, all this makes him, if it is not disrespectful to say it, a "media star."

I think his most important message about the media is one of the themes of his pontificate, "Be not afraid." Religious people tend to avoid the media and even be fearful of them. The Holy Father has shown why the media can be enormous use to us, why we must use the media, as Paul used the gathering place of ancient Athens to preach the Gospel — because it was the place to reach the people. The media are one of those places today.

Last, one more thought: Globalization affects the media as it does other industries. This can be very good if it gives us a greater sense of being one human family as can come from familiarity with news from around the world. However, it can also mean that a few may come to control the sources of information across the globe. Also, concern about global profits can bring media products down to the lowest common level. For example, an action movie with lots of fights and special effects and little dialogue can be much easier to sell around the world than a movie which depends on dialogue and the beauty of a particular language. And of course, one nation's culture can come to dominate the globe as the rest of the world never ceases to tell us that ours has.