Earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg met with Pope Francis, which is not a phrase I might have ever imagined writing. What did the the two world leaders with a billion followers apiece talk about?
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, spoke with Francis about “how to use communications technology to alleviate poverty, encourage a culture of encounter, and to communicate a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged,” according to the Vatican.
Over at the The Atlantic, Emma Green had a similar surprised reaction to my own: these do not seem like compatible people. Under Zuckerberg's leadership Facebook "often leverages its immense influence over the way people use the internet for profit and political power", whereas Pope Francis "is aggressively anti-technology and anti-modern, in the sense that he actively warns against the belief that technological tools can be used to redeem or fix the world." That said, most of the photos show the two men smiling, so I guess they put their feelings aside for awhile.
My other reaction was to compare this meeting with a Pope and a "revolutionary" to an earlier one, almost exactly 400 years ago: Pope Paul V and Galileo Galilei.
For those who don't remember their high-school physics history, Galileo was in the midst of a controversy regarding the orientation of the universe: did we live in an Aristotelian and Ptolemiac geocentric universe, with the Earth at the centre circled by everything else, including the Sun, Moon, planets and the stars; or did we live in a Copernican heliocentric universe, with the Sun in the centre circled by the planets, including the Earth (circled by its own moon), and the stars. The former cosmological view was the official Catholic position, representing a perfect "heavenly" arrangement supported by existing theological doctrine. But Galileo had come to support the latter view, particularly after he had constructed a telescope in 1609 and recorded the previously unseen motion of moons around Jupiter and the imperfect, cratered face of the Moon, which both contradicted the rules of a geocentric universe.
An inquisition was launched and Galileo was accused of various heresies, but he was given something of a suspended sentence, so long as he refrained from teaching or advocating for the heliocentric view. In a private meeting, Pope Paul V personally assured Galileo that this would be the extent of the discipline. Ultimately, Galileo did not give up, and went on to publish Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632 to argue in favour of heliocentrism; the Catholic Church didn't give up either though, and a prosecuted him for heresy again, under a different Pope. His book was banned, and Galileo was imprisoned under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
That's quite a contrast to Zuckerberg and Francis, although the Inquisition really is more of a 17th century thing and to be fair, Galileo only had a handful of followers back then. If only there were social media sites like Facebook or Twitter for Galileo to rally people to his cause! (We can talk some other time about the actual role social media can have during a political revolution). And it's not like Facebook hasn't run up against wide resistance (see: China and India), just not any based on Aristotelian views of physics or deep Catholic theological doctrine.