Vatican Says Computer Hackers Are More Saint Than Sinner

By Patrick Morgan | April 8, 2011 10:18 am

I like the habit because it makes me
look like the Linux penguin.

From elite hackers, to white-hat hackers, to hacktivists, hackers don’t generally have sterling reputations as upstanding citizens—at least as far as the general public is concerned. That’s why it may come as a surprise that the Vatican has published an essay that redeems computer hackers and even compares hacker philosophy with Catholic theology.

In his article published in the Vatican-vetted Civilta Cattolica, technology expert, literary critic, and Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro draws similarities between hackers and Catholics (via TechWorld):

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.

In addition, hacker philosophy fosters creativity and sharing, and is both committed yet playful. “Under fire are control, competition, property. It’s a vision that is … of a clear theological origin,” writes Spadaro. He argues (rather vaguely) that many of these characteristics are also, as odd as it may seem, characteristics of Catholic philosophy.

Lest ye think that this priest is praising Anonymous and the like, he cautions that hackers are very different from crackers, and even quotes technology writer Eric S. Raymond: “Hackers build things, crackers break them.” Spadaro says that Christian hackers see their work as “a form of participation in the ‘work’ of God in creation,” echoing  J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of sub-creation: That humans can’t help but create (in Tolkien’s case, tell stories) because we are ourselves created beings, echoes of a much larger creator. And Spadaro cites the words of California’s Homebrew Computer Club member Tom Pittman too: “I as a Christian thought I could feel something of the satisfaction that God must have felt when He created the world.”

Spadaro does acknowledge that hacker and Catholic philosophies aren’t entirely congruent: Hackers reject hierarchical authority, and the Catholic Church is founded on it. I guess that’s why we’ll probably never see a hacktivist Pope.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Sinned Lately? There’s a Vatican-Approved App for That
Intersection: The Vatican Supports Genetically Modified Crops
Discoblog: Vatican Science: Pope Blames Male Infertility on…the Pill
80beats: Vatican to E.T.: Hello, Brother

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Essjay

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • adamant

    [Comment erased from the universe]

  • Aleksandar Kuktin

    I’m afraid a (common) mistake is flirting with this post.

    Spadaro uses the term “hacker” in it’s original form, as it is described in the Jargon File and used by the likes of Raymond, Stallman, Torvalds and others. It means “A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.”

    This is in stark contrast to the meaning that the ignorant public and practically all of its media use which is properly described by the term cracker (meaning “One who breaks security on a system.”).

  • Brendan

    Spadaro here is using the old definition of hacker, as a hobbyist or open source developer.

    Hacker is now synonymous with what Anonymous does – SQL injection, stack overflows, basically breaking computer security.

    The church should not be interpreted as endorsing this type of behavior (and additionally, it’s a little irresponsible to be misusing the term hacker now)

    Hey, Brendan. I think we made it pretty clear in the post that Spadaro was not talking about Anonymous—we even called them out by name. There are multiple definitions of “hacker”—the context of the post makes it clear what he meant.

    —Amos Zeeberg, Online Managing Editor

  • Jumblepudding

    This sounds like the starting point for some really bad cyberpunk fiction about the catholic church employing a secret cabal of hacker-monks in the year 2031

  • Dan


    I remember back to my days of programming in BASIC lo those many years ago, in the days of Commodores, Tandy 1000s, and the Apple II, a neat solution to a difficult technical challenge was referred to as an elegant hack.

    Yes, I’m that old. I also speak a little bit of UNIX Basic C, Pascal, Ada, and did engineering programming on an IBM 36o using FORTRAN IV on punch cards.

    I’m now as obsolete as all of them.

  • Vebyast


    I know that he’s using an old definition of “Hacker”, but it’s the right word to use. I can’t think of another term that captures the same combination of dedication to elegance, instinctive attraction to hard problems, and sense of playfulness.

    It’s really a shame that the word has been generally misinterpreted, too, because it leaves the public without a way to acknowledge and admire our contributions to the world. I think that the biggest thing this article could do is to get that original definition back out into the public consciousness.

  • Lorena

    @1: what’s that? catholics like the pedobear????
    I am catholic.
    that comment should be removed

    Ed: Done

  • Terry

    @ Lorena (7):

    NVM, the comment was indeed deleted.

  • Idlewilde

    Hackers are saints? Wait until one of them gets into your credit card account or gives you a virus that makes every f*cking page you search into an advertisement. These people aren’t saints, they’re greedy shmucks. I have zero respect for them, and the vatican’s approval isn’t going to change my mind.

  • Vebyast

    @Idlewilde: You’re using an incorrect definition of “hacker”. Please see for the intended one.

  • jld

    Nobody not having “hacked” on a DEC10/DEC20 can claim the name of hacker!
    ; -)

  • A Clicktivist

    Some of the hacktivists aren’t perfect, but they do have systems of accountability within the Anonymous group. I’ve seen them as do-gooders is for a while now. Families have nothing to fear from V et. al.. A little transparency goes a long way. (=

  • Q. Ites

    devout semantics

  • Anonymous

    Jesuits are the worse, aren’t they?

    This pedo-cocksucker (who looks like he might be a hottie) is trying to make parallels between the Church’s own dogma and white hat hacker values, while disparaging the darker side of web hacktavism (ie. old school crackers).

    Seriously. You’ve got to love the worlds oldest corporation’s style – trying downplay their own “target viability profile” while beefing up their commonalities. The transparent line reads: “Please Anonymous, don’t hack the Vatican. We’re just like you… except we’re greedy, closed-minded, super rich bastards with a massive archive full of dirty little secrets that would blow your mind… but other than that, we’re the same.

    *cough* I think I have a little throw-up in my mouth.

    Aside from this guile-smothered attempt at rapprochement, in the grand scheme of things, I suppose that this is a far less laughable attempt to handle a thoroughly modern issue unlike the Pope when he suggested that condom use could possibly be acceptable with respect to sex with male prostitutes.

  • Radagast97

    I, like many of the old-timers, really hate that the term hacker has been hijacked and redefined.

    “In the Day”, hacking had nothing to do with breaking into computer systems nor anything else illegal. It merely referred to the way people solved programming and computer system issues. It was a term proudly worn and accepted.

    I will still program in that way but I would never call it hacking, due to it’s common use definition.

    @Dan, yes, I also speak a bit of UNIX Basic, C, Pascal, Ada, (and I hate to admit it, FORTRAN IV), with a litte LISP and APL thrown in for eclectic measure. It’s possible some COBOL was in there too, but that’s not an admission for polite company. As fun as the old days were, I much more enjoy working in C++ or Java.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

See More

Collapse bottom bar