Sacred, Secular and Cell Phones

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.


  1. It seems there are different issues mixed in here, and it may help to sort them out.

    The Pope was clearly talking about addictive behavior in relation to the use of technology and advising against it. This is a religious issue in that we are obliged to exercise prudence in care for ourselves, as we are part of God’s good creation–graced yet also vulnerable. We owe it to God as well as to ourselves, not to misuse or abuse the gifts we have been given. The gift of our attention span, the vulnerability we have to loneliness, etc.

    Tim, on the other hand, is talking about moral issues on the interpersonal level (friendship, personal interactions with peers, etc.) involving cell phone use, which is another subject. I don’t think the Pope was talking about that. How does love of neighbor influence our use of a cell phone — this is a different, though still important, question.

    1. Thanks, Rita.
      It is also the case that Francis has warned elsewhere about how a “throwaway” culture manifests itself in part in people’s use of social media (often via smartphones) to “unfriend” others and to treat human relationships as disposable.
      I think, for example, of the speed with which people move from one affective relationship to another. They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly “blocked.”
      Amoris Laetitia, 39

      1. It might argued that there’s perhaps a reversion to *part of* historical patterns, just in new form. Before the advent of the modern bureaucratic states of the West, it wasn’t especially difficult for men to abandon their families without a trace: the issue was more one of means than anything else. Even within the USA, this pattern ebbed and waxed with the economy through the Great Depression. It became harder as the whereabouts of people – especially men who had to register for selective service (all men born since 1874 or so, except for those born from March 1957-59) and then everyone having Social Security registration, et cet. – became more regularly trackable and tracked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.