In the undergraduate theology courses I teach, I often assign homework questions to my students (e.g., comparing and contrasting the Beatitudes in Luke and Matthew in one class or assessing the view of atheism presented in Gaudium et spes, no. 19). On many occasions, I offer an alternative assignment for students interested in current events. Such students can pick a news item from Independent Catholic News and discuss briefly how the news item affected their view of Jesus or God or the church.
Recently, a student selected a news story with the title “Pope advises students: ‘don’t be slaves to your mobile phones’” . When I asked the student (I will call him Joe) how that story affected his view of Jesus or God or the church, he replied that it was interesting to him that the pope would offer a comment on something that had nothing to do with religion. I asked Joe to consider whether it is really true that the question of the use of cell phones has nothing to do with religion. There is the more or less obvious case of Pope Francis’ exhortation to lift up your hearts, not your cell phones at Mass, but even that directive, taken by itself, is quite limited. Instead, I asked Joe and the other students in his discussion group whether they had ever been having an in-person conversation with someone when their conversation partner picked up a phone to read and reply to text messages. I asked whether they had ever “unfriended” someone via cell phone (or learned about being unfriended via cell phone). In his warning about slavery and cell phones, Francis also made clear that “mobile phones are for communication,” which is a great good. I asked my students to ponder how cell phones can disrupt or terminate communication.
In this course, I have frequently stressed to students God’s desire to draw all into communion with God. Whatever causes communion to break down works against that desire. If one holds that God indeed has such a desire, then the question of appropriate use of cell phones is a religious question. I suspect that the fundamental issue in my classroom was that of a split between profane (how one uses cell phone) and sacred (God-stuff). This kind of split was criticized by Gaudium et Spes, no. 43 as “among the more serious errors of our age.” As a teacher, I ask myself how well I recognize that split in the thinking of my students and, of course, in my own thinking. When I do recognize that split—in others or myself—do I respond with mercy and prodding or with condemnation? I wonder how well my life reflects the claim that Christian living is itself sacred liturgy, and that the liturgical, though it finds paramount expression in formal worship, is not bounded by the walls of the church.