Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Seneca College, email@example.com
Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Transhumanism and the Catholic Church.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 12-17.
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Most accounts on transhumanism coming from Catholic circles show a mild to radical rejection to the idea of a deep alteration, by means of pervasive emergent technologies, of whatever we understand as “human nature”. These criticisms come from both progressive and conservative Catholic flanks. However, as it is increasingly becoming evident, the left/right divide is no longer capturing ethical, political and philosophical stances in an accurate manner.
There are cross-linked concerns which transcend such traditional dichotomy. The Church, insofar as it also is a human institution, is not immune to this ongoing ‘rotating axis’. The perceived Catholic unfriendliness to transhumanism stems from views that do not take into account the very mission that defines the Church’s existence.
Conceptions of Human Dignity
To be sure, there are aspects of transhumanism that may find fundamental rejection when confronted to Church doctrine—particularly in what concerns human dignity. In this context, attempts for accomplishing indefinite life extension will not find fertile ground in Catholic milieus. Needless to say, the more vulgar aspects of the transhumanist movement—such as the fashionable militant atheism sponsored by some, or the attempt to simply replace religion with technology—would not find sympathy either. However, precisely due to an idiosyncratically Catholic attention to human dignity, attempts at the improvement of the human experience shall certainly attract the attention of the Magisterium.
Perhaps more importantly, and not unrelated to a distinctly Catholic understanding of personal self-realization, the Church will have to cope with the needs that a deeply altered human condition will entail. Indeed, the very cause for the Church to exist is self-admittedly underpinned by the fulfillment of a particular service to humans: Sacrament delivery. Hence, the Magisterium has an ontological interest (i.e., pertaining to what counts as human) in better coping with foreseeable transhumanist alterations, as well as a functional one (e.g., to ensure both proper evangelization and the fulfilling of its sacramental prime directive).
The Church is an institution that thinks, plans and strategizes in terms of centuries. A cursory study of its previous positions regarding the nature of humanity reveals that the idea of “the human” never was a monolithic, static notion. Indeed, it is a fluid one that has been sponsored and defended under different guises in previous eras, pressed by sui-generis apostolic needs. As a guiding example, one could pay attention to the identity-roots of that area of the globe which currently holds more than 60% of the Catholic world population: Latin America. It is well documented how the incipient attempts at an articulation of “human rights”, coming from the School of Salamanca in the 16th century (epitomized by Francisco Vitoria, Francisco Suárez—the Jesuit who influenced Leibnitz, Schopenhauer and Heidegger—and indirectly, by Bartolomé de las Casas), had as an important aspect of its agenda the extension of the notion of humanity to the hominid creatures found inhabiting the “West Indies”—the Americas.
The usual account of Heilsgeschichte (Salvation History), canonically starting with the narrative of the People of God and ending up with the Roman Empire, could not be meaningfully conveyed to this newly-found peoples, given that the latter was locked in an absolutely parallel world. In fact, a novel “theology of charity” had to be developed in order to spread the Good News, without referencing a (non-existent) “common history”. Their absolute humanity had to be thus urgently established, so that, unlike the North American Protestant experience, widespread legalized slavery would not ensue—task which was partly accomplished via the promulgation of the 1538 encyclical Sublimis Deus.
Most importantly, once their humanity was philosophically and legally instituted, the issue regarding the necessary services for both their salvation and their self-development immediately emerged (To be sure, not everyone agreed in such extension of humanity). Spain sent an average of three ‘apostolic agents’ – priests – per day to fulfill this service. The controversial nature of the “Age of Discovery” notwithstanding, the Spanish massive mobilization may partly account for the Church being to this day perhaps the most trusted institution in Latin America. Be that as it may, we can see here a paradigmatic case were the Church extended the notion of humanity to entities with profoundly distinct features, so that it could successfully fulfill its mission: Sacrament delivery. Such move arguably guaranteed the worldwide flourishing, five centuries later, of an institution of more than a billion people.
A Material Divinity
Although the Church emphasises an existing unity between mind and body, it is remarkable that in no current authoritative document of the Magisterium (e.g., Canon Law, Catechism, Vatican Council II, etc.) the “human” is inextricably linked with a determinate corporeal feature of the species homo-sapiens. Namely, although both are profoundly united, one does not depend on the other. In fact, the soul/spirit comes directly from God. What defines us as humans have less to do with the body and its features and more to do with the mind, spirit and will.
Once persons begin to radically and ubiquitously change their physical existences, the Church will have to be prepared to extend the notion of humanity to these hybrids. Not only will these entities need salvation, but they will need to flourish in this life as self-realized individuals—something that according to Catholic doctrine is solidly helped by sacrament reception. Moreover, if widespread deep alteration of humanoid ‘biologies’ were to occur, the Church has a mandate of evangelization to them as well. This will likely encourage apostolic agents to become familiarized with these novel ways of corporeal existence in order to better understand them—even embrace them in order further turn them into vehicles of evangelization themselves.
We have a plethora of historical examples in related contexts, from the Jesuit grammatization of the Inka language to Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic expertise in human communications—having influenced the Second Vatican Council’s Inter Mirifica document on the topic. Indeed, “morphological freedom” (the right and ability to alter our physical existence) might become for the Church what philosophy of communication became for McLuhan.
Thus, chances are that the Church will need to embrace a certain instantiation of a transhuman future, given that the institution will have to cope with a radically changed receptacle of the grace-granting devices – the Sacraments. Indeed, this shall be done in order to be consistent with the reason for its very existence as mandated by Christ: guaranteeing the constant flow of these efficacious means which collaborate towards both a fulfilled existence in this life and salvation in the next one. Steve Fuller foresees a possible scenario that may indeed become just such transhuman ‘instantiation’ favoured by the Church:
A re-specification of the “human” to be substrate-neutral (that is to say, a “human” need not be the descendant of another member of Homo sapiens but rather could be a status conferred on any suitably qualified entity, as might be administered by a citizenship test or even a Turing Test).
Judging from its track record, the Church will problematically but ultimately successfully raise up to the challenge. A substrate-neutral re-specification of the human may indeed be the route taken by the Church—perhaps after a justifiably called Concilium.
Examining the Sacraments
The challenge will be variously instantiated in correlation with the sacraments to be delivered. However, all seven of them share one feature that will be problematized with the implementation of transhumanist technologies: Sacraments perform metaphysically what they do physically. Their efficacy in the spiritual world is mirrored by the material function performed in this one (e.g., the pouring of water in baptism). Since our bodies may change at a fundamental level, maintaining the efficacy of sacraments, which need physical substrata to work, will be the common problem. Let us see how this problem may variously incarnate.
Baptism. As the current notion of humanity stands (“an entity created in the image and likeness of God”) not much would have to change in order to extend it to an altered entity claiming to maintain, or asking to receive, human status. A deep alteration of our bodies constitutes no fundamental reason for not participating of the realm “human” and thus, enter the Catholic Church by means of Baptism: The obliteration of the legacy of Original Sin with which humans are born—either by natural means, cloned or harvested (A similar reasoning could be roughly applied to Confirmation). Holy water can be poured on flesh, metal or a new alloy constituting someone’s forehead. As indicated above, the Church does not mention “flesh” as a sine qua non condition for humanity to obtain.
On the other hand, there is a scenario, more post-human than transhuman in nature, that may emerge as a side effect out of the attempts to ameliorate the human condition: Good Old Fashion Artificial Intelligence. If entities that share none of the features (bodily, historically, cognitively, biologically) we usually associate with humanity begin to claim human status on account of displaying both rationality and autonomy, then the Church may have to go through one of its most profound “aggiornamentos” in two millennia of operation.
Individual tests administered by local bishops on a case-by-case basis (after a fundamental directive coming from the Holy See) would likely have to be put in place – which would aim to assess, for instance, the sincerity of the entity’s prayer. It is a canonical signature of divine presence in an individual the persistent witnessing of an ongoing metanoia (conversion). A consistent life of self-giving and spiritual warfare could be the required accepted signs for this entity being declared a child of God, equal to the rest of us, granting its entrance into the Church with all the entailing perks (i.e. the full array of sacraments).
There is a caveat that is less problematic for Catholic doctrine than for modern society: Sex assignation. Just as the ‘natural machinery’ already comes with one, the artificial one could have it as well. Male or female could happen also in silico. Failure to do so would carry the issue to realms not dissimilar with current disputes of “sex reassignation” and its proper recognition by society: It might be a problem, but it would not be a new problem. The same reasoning would apply to “post-gender” approaches to transhumanism.
Confession. Given that the sacrament of Reconciliation has to be obligatorily performed, literally, vis à vis, what if environmental catastrophes reduce our physical mobility so that we can no longer face a priest? Will telepresence be accepted by the Church? Will the Church establish strict protocols of encryption? After all it is an actual confession that we are talking about: Only a priest can hear it—and only the Pope, on special cases, can hear it from him.
Breaking the confessional seal entails excommunicatio ipso facto. Moreover, regarding a scenario which will likely occur within our lifetimes, what about those permanently sent into space? How will they receive this sacrament? Finally, even if the Church permanently bans the possibility of going to confession within a virtual environment, what would happen if people eventually inhabit physical avatars? Would that count as being physically next to a priest?
Communion. The most important of all sacraments, the Eucharist, will not the void of issues either. The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the portion of Catholics who are properly ‘Roman’) mandates that only unleavened bread shall be used as the physical substratum, so that it later transubstantiates into the body of Christ. The Church is particularly strict in this, as evinced in cases were alternative breads have been used (e.g., when stranded for years on a deserted island), not recognizing those events as properly Eucharistic: the sacrament never took place in such occasions.
Nevertheless, we will have to confront situations were the actual bread could not be sent to remote locations of future human dwelling (e.g., Mars), nor a priest will be present to perform the said metaphysical swapping. Facing this, would nanotechnology provide the solution? Would something coming out of a 3D printer or a future “molecular assembler” qualify as the actual unleavened bread?
Marriage. This sacrament will likely confront two main challenges; one fundamentally novel in nature and the second one an extension of already occurring issues. Regarding the latter, let us take in consideration a particular thread in certain transhumanist circles: The pursuit of indefinite life extension. It is understood that once people either become healthier longer (or stop aging), the creation of new life via offspring may become an after-thought. Canon Law clearly stipulates that those who consciously made a decision not to procreate can not enter this sacrament. In that sense, a children-less society would be constituted by sacramentally unmarried people. Once again, this issue is a variation of already occurring scenarios—which could be extended, for that matter, to sex-reassigned people.
The former challenge mentioned would be unprecedented. Would the Church marry a human and a machine? Bear in mind that this question is fundamentally different from the already occurring question regarding the Church refusing to marry humans and non-human animals. The difference is based upon the lack of autonomy and rationality shown by the latter. However, machines could one day show both (admittedly Kantian) human-defining features. The Church may find in principle no obstacle to marry a human “1.0” and a human “2.0” (or even a human and an artificial human—AI), provided that the humanity of the new lifeforms, following the guidelines established by the requirements for Baptism, is well established.
Holy Orders. As with Marriage, this sacrament will likely face a twist both on an already occurring scenario and a fairly new one. On the one hand, the physical requirement of a bishop actually posing his hands on someone’s head to ordain him a priest, has carried problematic cases for the Church (e.g., during missions where bishops were not available). With rare exceptions, this requirement has always been observed. A possible counter case is the ordination of Stylite monks between the 3rd and 6th century. These hermits made vows to not come down from their solitary pillar until death.
Reportedly, sometimes bishops ordained them via an “action at a distance” of sorts—but still from merely a few meters away. The Church will have to establish whether ordaining someone via telepresence (or inhabiting an avatar) would count as sacramentally valid. On the other hand, the current requirement for a candidate for priesthood to have all his limbs—particularly his hands—up until the moment of ordination might face softening situations. At the moment where a prosthetic limb not only seamlessly becomes an extension of the individual, but a better functional extension of him, the Church may reconsider this pre-ordination requirement.
Extreme Unction. The Last Rites will likely confront two challenges in a transhuman world. One would not constitute properly a problem for its deliverance, but rather a questioning of the point of its existence. The other will entail a possible redefinition of what is considered to be ‘dead’. In what refers to the consequences of indefinite life extension, this sacrament may be considered by Catholics what Protestants consider of the sacraments (and hence of the Church): Of no use. Perhaps the sacrament would stay put for those who choose to end their lives “naturally” (in itself a problem for transhumanists: What to do with those who do not want to get “enhanced”?) Or perhaps the Church will simply ban this particular transhumanist choice of life for Catholics, period—as much as it now forbids euthanasia and abortion. The science fiction series Altered Carbon portrays a future where such is the case.
On the other hand, the prospect of mind uploading may push to redefine the notion of what it means to leave this body, given that such experience may not necessarily entail death. If having consciousness inside a super-computer is defined as being alive—which as seen above may be in principle accepted by the Church—then the delivery of the sacrament would have to be performed without physicality, perhaps via a link between the software-giver and the software-receiver. This could even open up possibilities for sacrament-delivery to remote locations.
The Future of Humanity’s Oldest Institution
As we can see, the Church may not have to just tolerate, but actually embrace, the transhumanist impulses slowly but steadily pushed by science and technology into the underpinnings of the human ethos. This attitude shall emerge motivated by two main sources: On the one hand, a fundamental option towards the development of human dignity—which by default would associate the Church more to a transhumanist philosophy than to a post-human one.
On the other, a fundamental concern for the continuing fulfilling of its own mission and reason of existence—the delivery of sacraments to a radically altered human recipient. As a possible counterpoint, it has been surmised that Pope Francis’ is one of the strongest current advocates for a precautionary stance—a position being traditionally associated with post-human leanings. The Pontiff’s Laudato Si encyclical on the environment certainly seems to point to this direction. That may be part of a—so far seemingly successful—strategy put in place by the Church for decades to come, whose reasons escape the scope of this piece. However, as shown above, the Church, given its own history, philosophy, and prime mandate, has all the right reasons to embrace a transhuman future—curated the Catholic way, that is.
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