Internet hackers have acquired a dubious reputation for piracy, sabotage and the spilling of sensitive secrets, but an authoritative Vatican publication appears to rehabilitate them and traces parallels between hacker philosophy and the teachings of Christianity.
The surprisingly charitable view of hackers was expressed by the Jesuit priest Father Antonio Spadaro in an article for the fortnightly magazine Civilta Cattolica, the text of which is vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State prior to publication.
Hackers should not be confused with crackers, Spadaro wrote, citing a definition penned by technology writer Eric S. Raymond: "Hackers build things, crackers break them."
Hacker philosophy is playful but committed, encourages creativity and sharing, and opposes models of control, competition and private property, Spadaro observed approvingly.
The Jesuit priest, a literary critic and technology expert, also cited Tom Pittman, a member of California's Homebrew Computer Club, as an example of someone seeking a creative fusion of Christianity and technology.
"I as a Christian thought I could feel something of the satisfaction that God must have felt when He created the world," Pittman wrote of his work. Christian hackers, Spadaro said, viewed their work as "a form of participation in the 'work' of God in creation."
Hacker mentality implies a joyful application of intelligence to problem solving, rejecting the concept of work as repetitive, burdensome and stupid, Spadaro wrote. Hacker ethics rejected a capitalistic, profit-oriented approach to work, eschewing idleness but favoring a flexible, creative approach that was respectful of the human dimension and natural rhythms, he said.
"Under fire are control, competition, property. It's a vision that is ... of a clear theological origin," Spadaro observed.
Spadaro emphasized hackers' ingrained distrust of authority and preference for information sharing over horizontal social networks.
He had particular praise for the collaborative knowledge-sharing model of Wikipedia, an example of networked intellectual collaboration that was capable of transforming the very idea of cultural production.
"To create the biggest collaborative encyclopedia of Internet it is estimated that it took around 100 million hours of intellectual work, which is the equivalent of the time the citizens of the United States spend watching advertising on TV in a single weekend," Spadaro wrote.
For all the common ground between Christians and hackers over the concepts of sharing, creativity and idealism, Spadaro acknowledged there were problems of compatibility between the Catholic Church's hierarchical organization and its focus on a "revealed truth" and the hackers' rejection of authority and of any hierarchy of knowledge.
Spadaro's learned article even sparked an ecclesiastic spat between his Jesuit-run magazine and the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, after the Vatican daily published a comment under the title "Doubts about the doubts of Civilta Cattolica."
In it, journalist Luca Possati summarized Spadaro's position but expressed an even more optimistic view of the common ground between ethical hackers and truth-seeking Christians.
Possati's article prompted a sharp riposte from Spadaro, who accused his colleague of turning his Civilta Cattolica article on its head while adopting many of Spadaro's arguments as though they were his own.
"In substance Possati attributes what I write in my article to himself and presents me as one of those experts who, with learned and refined analysis, have raised the alarm about the limits and the risks of hacker culture," Spadaro replied.
Possati had repeated some of Spadaro's errors and then added more of his own, the Jesuit priest wrote. "This is not the way to conduct a critical debate. It's not correct."
In this case it seems that it was easier to sympathize with ethical hackers than with a fellow Catholic.
The debate reflects a growing attention within the Catholic Church to the evolution of modern communications technologies, which Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged his followers to harness for the dissemination of the Catholic faith.