The Pope, Technology and Slavery

The Holy Father has once again ambushed American Catholics with Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment and global warming.  As was the case with his earlier document on social teaching, we should not be too surprised; there is a great deal of precedent for this kind of thinking.  As R.R. Reno points out:

In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.

Buried in the Catholic psyche is a longing for a Ptolemaic, village-centred world where the church, at the heart of things both physically and spiritually, rings out the daily cycle of Mass and prayer and orders the life of the people.  This was before Copernicus and Galileo had the bad taste to point out that the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, which didn’t sit well with the Aristotelian intelligentsia that dominated Catholicism.  The fact that post-modern progressives find a congenial ally with such a mentality speaks volumes of their own scientific level.

(For my Anglican readers: this is a little different from Rowan Williams’ rolling over and playing dead on the subject; that was so bad even a gay atheist called him out on it, as you can read here.)

In any case, Reno is right: an anti-technological bias pervades the entire document.  But is technology (and I’ll leave the scientific part for elsewhere) really that divorced from moral life?  The kerfuffle over the Confederate flag in view of the recent shootings in Charleston provides an interesting answer to this question.

There’s a lot of argument about the motivation for the Civil War: slavery, tariffs, states rights, etc.  But there’s no argument that, when the country split apart, the disparity in economic and human strength was enormous.  The South had adopted an economy that was in part a plantation system worked by slaves and a small landowner (whether they really farmed the land was a mixed bag) collection for the rest.   It was a pretty traditional set-up: slavery had been a part of human civilisation for a long time, and the small landowner had been an ideal since Biblical times.

In the North we certainly had the small landowners, but we also had a robust industrial and technological base, the rail system to go with it, and sizeable cities.  Immigration (at that point mostly German and Irish) overwhelmingly went to the North because that’s where a livelihood was to be made; Texas was a notable exception for the Germans.  (And that immigration, BTW, is where American Catholicism got it real shot in the arm, one put on steroids by Italian and Eastern European immigration after the war, also favouring the North).

Had the South seceded in the 1820’s or 1830’s, things might have been different.  But by the time South Carolina stormed out of the Union 20 December 1860, the advance of technology was such that a serious manufacturing base was becoming a major advantage in fighting what was in many ways the first modern war.

The South certainly started out with, man for man, better military leadership and better soldiers.  And the North struggled in its early years with an overly politicised system of promotion.  But once the North got its act together, generals such as Grant and Sherman brutally used the numerical, industrial and technological advantages to basically grind the South to powder.  Under these conditions the South basically came to a “gunfight without a gun”, as one SCV relative put it.  (I had ancestors on both sides of this drama; some were on the receiving end and some were on the industrial end).

Americans in particular are a) always trying to make everything into a moral cause and b) always trying to gin up everyone’s motivation, which is why motivational speakers stay busy.  But once you have motivation you must have means, and North certainly had that to win the war.  Without the North’s technological and industrial advantage the War Between the States would have ended with the states still divided and the black slaves working the plantations.

If that’s the kind of result the Holy Father wants, he’ll get it.

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