St Benedict and Data Protection

Today is the Transitus of St Benedict, the day when we commemorate his entry into heaven. For us, it is the great feast of the saint, infinitely more important than the Translatio or Translation of his relics, which we celebrate in July. You might therefore expect a paeon of praise in iBenedictines, but that is not what you are going to get, or only incidentally.

St Benedict was a practical man and I think he would have had something useful to say about one of today’s hot topics, data protection, especially as it affects millions of Facebook users. Contrary to the belief of many, I don’t think St Benedict was particularly reclusive in his mature age. The monastery at Monte Cassino is high up, certainly, but it commands an important crossing-point, and I think what the Rule has to say about guests and visitors is a clue to the sheer numbers the community had to deal with in the course of a year. Benedict expected to have to engage with others but the way in which that engagement is surrounded with prayer and common-sensical safeguards for the peace and unity of the community is striking (see, for example, RB 53, 61). Within community Benedict had some tricky situations to deal with also, but he was always discreet and urged that the senpectae, for instance, should be such that they could support the weak and wobbly without publicising their difficulties (RB 46.6). Throughout the Rule, we find references to the need to be considerate, circumspect, and careful about what we say and how we say it. In short, Benedict expects everyone in the monastery to keep the good of others in mind and do nothing that would hurt or harm them.

How does that apply to today’s world, where the buying and selling of information is at the basis of so much commercial activity? You may question that reference to ‘buying and selling’ , but if you use any ‘free’ service on the internet, you are trading some information about yourself in return for what is offered. A problem arises when the amount of information demanded is excessive or put to uses that go far beyond what we could reasonably expect. Who would have thought, for example, that doing quizzes on Facebook could have led to the current debacle with Cambridge Analytica? I myself have always steered clear of such quizzes and limited the amount of information I allow Facebook to have access to (plus I download my Facebook data from time to time) but is it enough? Am I at risk? The answer must surely be, yes, to some extent; but on the other hand, being on Facebook allows me to have a page for the monastery which many people find useful, and a group for our oblates which makes contact between us very easy. The trade-off is thus clear, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because what we have learned about the uses to which Cambridge Analytica allegedly put the information it gathered is worrying.

Here in the West we place great store by democracy, freedom of speech and our reliance on a justice system we believe to be essentially fair, no matter how much we may dispute individual instances of its workings. However, it must be clear to everyone that these things do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they ‘eternal verities’. They are vulnerable to change and even destruction. They can only continue because we support them, i.e. we as individuals hold precious the values that underlie their existence. That is where I think St Benedict still has much to teach us. His insistence on the right of everyone in the monastery to be treated with love and respect, and the duty of everyone to exercise what we today might call a duty of care towards others, is a very sound basis on which to consider how we use the information we hold. That isn’t ‘pi in the sky’ thinking. It is something that affects all of us and is part of the nitty-gritty of creating and sustaining a just and humane society.

I said I wouldn’t be praising St Benedict today, but perhaps awareness of how much we owe him, his Rule, and the influence of his disciples is reason enough to celebrate. Much that we value in Western society is attributable to his wise and kindly emphasis on human as well as divine values. He never used the term ‘data protection’ but he certainly understood the need for privacy and its importance in protecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. May we do the same.

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