Catholicism and crypto: Friends or foes?

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Anyone with a remote connection to the Catholic Church will know of the importance and impact of its body of doctrines and morals known as Catholic Social Teaching. Though the Church has always had a concern for societal morals and issues, it wasn’t until the release of the groundbreaking encyclical “Rerum Novarum” by Pope Leo XIII that presented the social teaching of the Church to the modern world. From there, popes such as Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and of course the current Roman Pontiff Pope Francis put social teaching matters to the forefront of their pontificates in the face of an increasingly secular and subjective world. This included topics ranging from environmental concerns, to contraception and nationalism, among many others. 

And as more human developments arise, the Church doesn’t fall behind, and is always ready to answer when the modern world presents a potential challenge to the eternal truths of Catholicism. One of these developments hasn’t made itself clear though as to what its ultimate impact will be, that being cryptocurrency.

To sum it up, crypto is an entirely digital and decentralized way of exchanging money and conducting transactions. Though there are many different varieties, Bitcoin is probably the most common and most well known, utilizing a technology called “blockchain” to give it its signature decentralized features. Eric Sammons, editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine, compares Bitcoin’s function to that of the Internet: no one controls it, and people can transfer bitcoin back and forth safely and quickly. Supposedly, that is. 

It has actually been around for a while, though due to its fluctuating popularity, it hasn’t had a consistent presence in mainstream culture. But as more and more aspects of daily life become digitized, the feasibility and popularity of cryptocurrency has become more apparent. 

But what does this have to do with Catholicism?

More than one might suspect. Firstly, there is no official statement by the Vatican on the topic, though it was briefly addressed in 2017 because of Bitcoin’s usage in some human trafficking rings. But beyond that, it hasn’t been addressed. 

An article published by the National Catholic Register titled “Baptizing Bitcoin? What Catholics Should Know About Cryptocurrency” written by Jonathan Liedl provides some different Catholic perspectives on the topic. 

On the one hand, crypto — and especially Bitcoin’s — inherently decentralized nature can provide some blessings in uncertain times. The same Eric Sammons of “Crisis” noted that cryptocurrency could be especially valuable for Catholics as religion continues to be marginalized in many modern societies. Sammons points out in a separate article titled “Why Catholics Should Care About Bitcoin” that as many prominent “Big” organizations — Big Tech, Big Media, etc — display open hostility towards orthodox Catholic teaching, it may not be a bad idea to embrace decentralized technologies should the Church continue to be driven underground and Her adherents further ostracized. In the words of Scripture, Catholics need to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” when working to convert the world to Christ.

At the same time, other Catholics have concerns that crypto could be a new way to instigate financial injustices, especially in light of Catholicism’s teaching on various monetary practices such as usury. NCR points to criticisms made by Jacob Imam, the co-founder and director of a Catholic journal called “New Polity”. In an article titled “Crypto-Idolatry: The Theology of Bitcoin,” Imam charged the way that crypto is traded and exchanged as promoting usury as defined by the Fifth Lateran Council, which is considered ecumenical by the Roman Catholic Church and therefore protected by the Holy Spirit and binding on the faithful. 

The excitement and concern around cryptocurrency among the Catholic world has its proper place. With digitization becoming the norm, there will be a time when the Church will no longer be able to remain silent on the issue and have to properly address it. However, from the perspective of the Catholic Church in the United States, the ethics of crypto are a minor problem compared to the larger crisis ensuing in the American Church. Disturbing polls from Pew Research, Gallup, and others, have shown the mass apostasy of many self described “Catholics” who deny a host of fundamental dogmatic teachings- from the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation to sexual issues such as abortion and contraception. 

Priorities need to be kept straight amidst the curiosity of new technologies like crypto. Getting American Catholics to adhere to any new decrees from the Church on cryptocurrency, let alone getting them to care to begin with, will be difficult when they can’t even accept the fundamentals. These should be restored to order before more complex and relatively obscure topics are tackled. Crypto should certainly be addressed, but not at the cost of instructing the faithful of teachings that are the essence of the Church. Without this at the center of the discussion, everything else is rendered meaningless.

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