Updated: 3 days ago
Informality is the status quo in a fast-paced world where young talent would rather be building the next industry-disrupting technology than courting social approval. Nevertheless, the crowd of developers filing into the Sheraton Valley Forge in Pennsylvania this past November was notably well-dressed–as much could be expected from a gathering of Catholics. The conference was the first of its kind, bringing together key leaders within the Catholic Church and what is broadly referred to as crypto, blockchain, or web3 to discuss important questions regarding the intersection of faith and the burgeoning industry: How can the Church leverage the new tools provided? What dangers does the new technology provide? What could the future look like and how can the Church secure a seat at the table?
Spurred by a belief that the Church should put a “hopeful ear” to all new technological advancements, Matthew Pinto organized the Catholic Crypto Conference to start the conversation. Pinto is the founder of Ascension Press and has been involved in numerous Catholic initiatives since the early 1990s. In his opening remarks, Pinto pointed out the use of the Alpha and Omega in the conference's logo design and declared that “God is the Lord of All,” and the blockchain is not beyond his reach.
Industry experts brought to speak on the topic included longtime industry advisor Chris Tyrrell (previously of Blockchain.com), Brian Brown, president of the International Organization for the Family (IOF), economist Stephen Barrows of the Acton Institute, and web3 builders such as Ben DiFrancesco, founder of crypto consultancy company Scopelift , and Brantly Millegan of the Ethereum Naming Service. Other speakers represented Catholic and non-Catholic thinkers in the fields of moral theology, church leadership, economic theory, and of course, blockchain technology.
That the emerging industry could be deemed worthy of an intentionally Christian perspective is not insignificant. The current paradigm of web2 has come to define the modern age and, increasingly, the limits of free speech and expression in a world where the de facto public square has moved online. Once envisioned as an open-source platform where information could be shared and accessed without censorship, the world wide web of today is largely monopolized by big tech arbiters who in all respects have shown themselves to be hostile to the Christian worldview.
Web3 and its associated technologies promise to restore a neutral vision to the infrastructure of the internet and may come to define the playing field of the future, and it’s being built today. Christians cannot let this crucial moment find us unprepared. Blockchain technology presents many hopeful opportunities for the Church, but its promises are not guaranteed, and without a strong ethical voice the hopeful vision of a censorship-resistant web could be coopted once again. It was both the hope for a better future and the fear that things could go awry that drove the conversation at the inaugural Catholic Crypto conference.
The Problem with Web2
I was able to sit down with Pinto for a short one-on-one conversation during the busy events of the two-day conference. While open about the fact that he is no subject-matter expert on the technology of web3, Pinto considers himself a loyal son of the Church and has spent the greater part of his life spearheading Catholic ministry and educational efforts. Upon learning about the developing world of blockchain technology, Pinto was struck with a sense that these new advancements could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of society, and that the Church, with its mission to lead, teach, and sanctify in Christ’s name, must have a voice.
Pinto opened our conversation with a prayer before describing his vision for the conference in poignant words: “I've had this image that if someone had grabbed me by the lapels in 1995… and said, ‘you don't understand what's coming with the internet,’ I think the church would have done more. A lot more it's possible.” Pinto hopes the Catholic Crypto Conference can be exactly that: a “grabbing of the lapels” for the Church regarding the new world of crypto. He believes we could be looking at a “sizeable technological shift” with the potential for both great good and great ill. But Pinto’s first instinct, and the instinct he believes all Christians should have towards any new technological advancement, is to have a hopeful expectation that God is doing something new and creative for the good of humanity.
“Anytime there's a new creation, I think we Catholics would say, we Christians would say, it's an element of the spark of the divine…. And so, so I think the proper response of Christians, therefore the Church, is that anytime a new gift or a new creation, comes our way that we need to give at least an attentive ear, and more presumably a hopeful ear” (Pinto)
For Christians with a hopeful ear, the new decentralized technologies made possible through blockchain sound like an answer to prayer. The current playing field of the web is rife with abuse by centralized powers, and conservative Christians have found themselves to be prominent targets. Christian doctrine is considered hate speech, and those who dare submit their beliefs to public scrutiny are punished with social exile – no exaggeration in an age when the global banking and communication systems required for day-to-day life are run through these centralized, digital arbiters.
In addition to his non-profit activities with the IOF, conference speaker Brian Brown runs a for-profit company involved with bitcoin mining in Eastern Europe. Detailing his own experience with the coercive powers of big tech on the Free Speech panel hosted by Lorraine Ranalli, Brown described waking up one day in 2017 to find donations for the IOF were no longer being processed. In a seemingly arbitrary decision, Stripe, the IOF’s payment processor at the time, found the organization’s social views in conflict with Stripe’s terms of service and terminated the contract without warning. To make matters worse, due to regulatory compliance, payment processors maintain sole custody of donors’ personal details. The IOF lost not just a payment processor, but vital information for all their reoccurring donors.
Financial censorship, often referred to as de-banking when including the closure of personal and business bank accounts for non-criminal activity, has quickly become a first line of attack against conservative organizations. There is no way to buy, sell, or receive donations in the traditional digital economy without passing through a payment processor. Loss of this critical function can leave an organization dead in the water for days or weeks until a new processor is sourced. In extreme cases, there may be no alternative solution available as tight regulation in the industry limits competition. According to at least one 2021 census, there were only 66 industry participants and effectively fewer considering the interlacing nature of payment ecosystems (Rej).
Other examples of conservative organizations facing payment censorship have included the Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo, which lost support from Paypal and Visa in early 2016, the NRA, conservative social media platform Gab, and WikiLeaks along with many other, smaller conservative organizations that do not make headlines (Terr). In the IOF’s case, they were able to source a new payment processor and Stripe did eventually transfer their donor information upon threat of a lawsuit, but the fear of financial censorship remains constant, and it’s not the only threat conservatives face in the digital age. Other vulnerabilities targeted for censorship include web hosting services, content delivery networks, domain name registrars, app store listings, and numerous other side services that can immediately impair an organization’s digital operations or remove its presence from the internet at any given moment. “The power they [big tech] hold in something that should be the digital public square is not a digital public square if you punish, repress, and marginalize all of the opinions that you don’t like,” Brown said. “It’s not freedom. It’s an attack on freedom.”
“If the infrastructure of the internet, if cloud computing, servers, are turned off on us, you can’t just go somewhere else. And the market share of AWS, of Azure, of all these big cloud service providers is so huge. Very difficult to find something else” (Brown)
A Hopeful Opportunity: Can the Church Benefit from Web3?
Speaking on the Free Speech panel alongside Brown, Michael Mathison Miller, senior research fellow at the Acton Institute, proposed that our ignorance of the regulatory power of code is what led to our failure to secure critical web2 infrastructure. “…we’ve been operating, understandably, on this idea that code is neutral, and all these things are neutral, and we’re just users of it,” Miller said, “but what we’re finding out is that there’s an underlying philosophical worldview that shapes not just the code but shapes the people who are making the code.” Speaking on Building a Parallel Polis, Miller argued that the Church must now move its interests into securing its own alternative infrastructure. Miller believes that offline associations of banks, insurance, and educational institutions that enshrine Catholic doctrine in their legal status are critical to the parallel polis, but the decentralized ledger technologies of web3 could be a powerful infrastructure play for the online world. “We cannot build functional, autonomous, decentralized associations on centralized technology, because they will shut you down,” Miller maintained. “Google is not your friend.”
In the paradigm of web3, the arbitrary decision-making of current, centralized gatekeepers such as Google will be replaced with autonomous protocols that operate according to the principle of “code is law.” First proposed by Lawrence Lessig in 2001, the regulative nature of code is not a new concept, but the invention of blockchain and smart contract technology introduced a new dimension to the conversation. Unlike web2, code written to a blockchain is by nature open source and cannot be edited or deleted, even by its own creator. Many believe web3 has the potential to provide a more equitable playing field by creating an internet free of human bias and authoritarian gatekeepers.
Conference speaker Brantly Millegan, the former director of operations for the non-profit developing the popular ENS identity protocol, believes web3 is far bigger than the tech industry. “I think web3, crypto, blockchain, this is going to be a massive, massive part of our world going forward,” Millegan said. “The way I think about blockchain technologies, it's like electricity or something. Every company uses electricity. It's just like it's assumed. And blockchain technology I think is going to eventually become like that.”
To the hopeful ear, decentralized ledger technologies sound like they could be highly advantageous to the Church should it embrace them. If web3 fulfills its promises, Christians will be able to act according to the dictates of conscience without impediment from outside regulators. At the very least, it would be remiss for the Church to not at least approach the conversation at this critical stage in the industry’s development.
“We might have a new technology here that that unleashes authentic abilities for personal freedom, in a peer-to-peer type manner, without any mediators who could give a thumbs up or thumbs down, whether it's to one's finances or one’s own messaging” (Pinto)
Critical indeed given the rapid pace at which the industry has been growing. While the market has fallen significantly in the recent economic downturn, crypto adoption has outpaced many other disruptive technologies. Bitcoin alone reached a $1 trillion market cap in 2021 just 12 years after its invention–a milestone that took Amazon 24 years to reach. The industry’s growth is hard to ignore, so it’s not surprising to see major institutions making plays in the space, including Facebook’s investment in the metaverse and Twitter’s investment in decentralized social via BlueSky.
For Millegan, the alignment between the mission of the Church and the opportunities afforded by blockchain technology is too great to ignore. “Blockchains are global organization mechanisms and the Church is a global organization,” Millegan said in his keynote address, Called…Canceled…and Called. “The institutional Church should be making use of blockchain technology. Absolutely they will, in fact, it’s inevitable that they will, it’s a question of just when.”
The Sacred and the Profane
The rapid growth of the industry alone should attract the attention of any Catholic who “cares about the trajectory of culture,” Pinto remarked in a pre-conference interview with Legatus magazine (Roberts). Nevertheless, Pinto did have worries about possible objections to the conference from those who might protest the combining of Catholicism with crypto. “You more often get that with conservative, Catholics and Protestants, that we’re sooner, quicker, to be nervous about the world,” Pinto said. “We are very quick to eschew the world or think that it's totally corrupt.” While agreeing that careful discernment is needed, Pinto ultimately believes that such objections of this kind are ill-founded. “When God became man in the incarnation it was somewhat of an affirmation that the created world is very good,” Pinto explained, leaning on CS Lewis’ idea of the world as being “bent” rather than totally corrupt. “Therefore, if it's not totally corrupt it can be sanctified. It can be used, not simply for pragmatic reasons, but can actually be noble in itself.”
The Church’s comfortability with the created world may have ebbed and flowed over time, Pinto suggested, but ultimately it will, and has, found its proper equilibrium. The sacred and the profane, or the ordinary, are not in opposition to each other, but rather cooperate in the properly ordered world. Nature is marred, but it is not annihilated, and Christians ought not to fear the created world or new technological developments (excluding the overtly evil) so long as we do not uphold created things as idols.
I asked Pinto what he hoped would come out of the conference. “A lot of discernment, first and fertility, second,” Pinto responded. “Fertility meaning projects and initiatives – either secular projects, where the owners of them can then bless humanity with their wealth, or projects specifically within the church.” Regardless of one’s viewpoints on Crypto possibilities for moral good, a conversation needs to happen. It was this need that lead Pinto to host the Catholic Crypto conference despite potential pushback.
A Defensive Position: Providing the Church a Seat at the Table
The question of when the church will enter web3 is not just a question of how far behind the Church might set itself, but a question of what sort of web3 the Church will enter, because a web3 that grows and develops without input from the Church will invariably be a different web3 than one where the Church’s voice is heard. That the industry is in a crucial, developmental stage where it is much more easily molded by environmental influences compounds the urgency of the Church to find a seat at the table sooner than later.
For a case study of the dangers of arriving late to the game, Christians need to look no further than the present failures of web2. While our problems can be partly attributed to inferior technology that relied on centralized server space and other single points of failure that could and have been compromised by powerful players, in greater part, the failure of web2 can be attributed to a failure of its users to demand ethical architecture that preserved individual sovereignty. What web2 and web3 share is the architecture of code; code written by real humans with real values and philosophical leanings. When Lessig warned about the regulatory power of code in the early 2000s he was warning about precisely the situation we now find ourselves in: where the coded architecture of the internet has become so institutionalized in a complex system of overlapping services that we have all but lost the ability to critique our regulators: the code itself (Lessig).
“We should interrogate the architecture of cyberspace as we interrogate the code of Congress. Unless we do, or unless we learn how, the relevance of our constitutional tradition will fade…. The law of cyberspace will be how cyberspace codes it, but we will have lost our role in setting that law” (Lessig).
Web3, with all its promise, is just as much at risk of subversion as web2 was before it. For Pinto, the danger of Christian’s arriving late to the game is not insignificant. “We forfeit a piece of land that Jesus would normally want for himself. He claims every inch of the world and the universe” Pinto said. The forfeiture of a part of creation to the secular world is certainly bad in and of itself as it represents a failure of Christians to properly steward creation, but the results of a forfeiture in what could become a crucial industry should compound concern. Pinto continued, “And so if we do not have, at least a presence, we run the risk of forfeiting something to, potentially as bad as the devil, but at least to people who are just living a secular existence, and not only not contributing to good, but maybe accidentally contributing to the bad.”
Barrows warned in his presentation Sound Money and Society of the danger that blockchain becoming a “globalist project” that “insufficiently respects human freedom and privacy and could be weaponized by the state at the expense of a free civil society.” Tyrrell agreed, making the case that crypto ironically runs the risk of enabling over-centralization through the permanent storage of mass information and needs to be tempered by an “applied ethic of the common good.” “We believe that we’re put on the earth for a particular purpose: to know, love, and serve God with all our minds, all our heart, and all our strength. And that infuses everything. And that needs to infuse these new technologies in order for them to truly lead to human flourishing,” Tyrrell remarked in his keynote address, Blessed Are the Blockchains!?!.
Perhaps the most prominent Catholic in the web3 world, Milligan’s keynote was highly anticipated by conference attendees. It would be the first time the former director of operations for True Names Ltd., the non-profit developing ENS, had spoken publicly since he was ousted in early February 2022 for espousing Catholic doctrine on Twitter. ENS, and the .eth identity standard it maintains, is a major player in the developing web3 ecosystem, and Millegan was its de-facto public face. His cancellation and the ensuing Twitter drama were felt industry-wide. As Millegan relayed in his keynote address, his story became a symbol for many that “the culture wars have come to crypto.”
I was able to sit down with Millegan for a few moments before his keynote to inquire about his thoughts on the industry and what part Christians have to play in it. Explaining his thinking, Millegan described web3 as a stack that includes the code running on the Ethereum blockchain, the people who are writing and maintaining the code, and the communities of people surrounding and influencing web3. “So here's what matters,” Millegan concluded, “the people in those groups of developers and the social climate around them determine what gets built in the first place, and how they're built — with what values. And so, it's extremely important that Christians are involved, particularly in those layers, because it determines what…what gets built in the first place and what trajectory it goes.”
Millegan has been in the industry for many years. Writing for ChurchPOP (a publication he founded that was acquired by EWTN), Millegan was urging Catholics to take Bitcoin seriously as early as 2015. He was also an early adopter of Ethereum and an investor in the notorious project known as ‘The DAO’ that was famously exploited in 2016. Millegan is a firm believer that web3 will reface the landscape of the internet, and as a protestant convert to Catholicism who has done doctoral work in moral theology, Millegan believes Catholics must have a stake in that future.
“We are setting the trajectory for the future of the world right now. It’s happening right now. People are building dapps [decentralized applications], writing code, setting up DAOs [decentralized autonomous organizations], setting up… the voting structures. All these things that will set the world on a trajectory for good or ill,” Millegan explained, “and if we want the future, that future, to reflect our values then now is the time to be involved and make that happen. You can't be like, ‘I'm not going to be involved,’ and then other people build the future, [and then say], ‘oh, I didn't like the future.’ Well, you didn't do it.”
Millegan said that the ousting took him by surprise as he had prior good relations with the ENS team and community. But the events are reflective of a general shift in the culture of web3 that has taken place in the last few years. “Early crypto was very, like, libertarian. Both left and right-libertarian… people were very freedom-oriented,” Millegan explained in his keynote. “But what happened is, as crypto’s gotten a lot bigger, particularly in the last two years, more people have come in and there has started to be some people who are more like woke minded… they’re more authoritarian… It was sort of a generational fight in the crypto industry.”
“I absolutely encourage… lay Catholics who have competency to get involved in the crypto industry; to help shape the future of the world that we are building right now. Because if we don’t, somebody else will” (Millegan)
The generational fight is much bigger than the events of ENS, it is a war over the trajectory of web3 and the values it will embed in code. If Christians shrink from this fight we can expect that, what currently offers the promise of great good, can equally enable great evil. Pinto remarked to me on the idea that “nature abhors a vacuum” attributed to Aristotle. “Voids get filled,” Pinto said. “And the question is, what is it going to get filled with? Is it going to get filled with a purely secular worldview that might actually encroach and be evil? Or is it going to be imbued with the hope and promise that rests in the hearts of believers?”
The Church, Catholic: Networking and Final Conclusions
Over 250 in-person attendees and more streaming online made the first Catholic Crypto Conference a success. For the first time Catholics in the industry had the opportunity to network with industry peers who shared their faith, and the conversations both in session and in the hallways were enthusiastic. In his closing comments, Pinto described his vision that the conference would bring moments of “combustibility,” where putting the right people in the right room would spawn ideas and friendships that would have a lasting impact.
There are many traps laid for those navigating the industry, from financial scams to the ever-mounting threat of big tech, governments, and the “woke mob.” In Tyrrell’s words, “we can’t do this alone. We need a framework of the common good; we need a conversion to fight the enemy, but we also need a community of people to do it with—to hold us accountable, and whom we will hold accountable…. This conference is the first gathering of this community.”
Christians can participate in the conversation in a variety of ways, but one of the most important ways we can contribute is by building. Brown exhorted, “we need a lot of smart people, we need a lot more people who are Catholic, evangelicals, whoever, that realize the importance of this… to get out there and be vocal advocates, and learn about this, and be able to let other people know what great solutions this technology offers for us in the future. And people got to start building. We got to build.”
“We need… Catholics with a deep, rich understanding of the goodness of being, and that we’re embodied, embedded persons to write good code that serve[s] human flourishing” (Miller)
Brown is currently a partner in a venture building AlternCLOUD, an alternative hosting solution for conservative organizations at risk of de-platforming. Other builders who spoke at the conference included Millegan, who continues to advocate for ENS as a top delegate in the ENS DAO, and Ben DiFrancesco who has contributed to multiple decentralized blockchain applications through his company, ScopeLift, including UmbraCash, a privacy protocol for Ethereum.
The crypto industry is wide with opportunities for a diverse range of skills, but for those who are not builders or seeking work in the industry a great way to get involved in the conversation and advocate for Christian values is by participating in online DAOs. A DAO is a form of web3 governance that typically uses a mix of traditional, democratic voting mechanisms and automated features controlled by code. A DAO may be organized when human oversight is required for critical functions or when developers wish to “future-proof” the protocol through ongoing maintenance.
Often in DAOs, voting is tokenized, meaning developers will create a governance “coin” that can be purchased on the open market for voting power. The exact mechanics of a governance token including how tokens are distributed and how voting weight is assigned will vary from DAO to DAO and are hotly debated in the industry. In any case, token holders can influence the development of core protocols directly by participating in DAO conversations and submitting, commenting on, and voting on governance proposals. The enormity of this power should not be overlooked considering a potential future where web3 gains mass adoption and these core protocols dictate the landscape of the internet.
In the current market, many governance tokens have crashed in value from bull market highs and are selling relatively cheaply. Millegan believes this presents a significant opportunity. “There’s this massive reshuffling of governance power over critical infrastructure of the future of the world. It’s happening right now. People are selling tokens, buying tokens, and there are people who are smart enough to know what's going on, and they're saying, ‘hey things are cheap let’s quietly accumulate.’” Millegan believes this quiet accumulation race could set the trajectory of web3 for “decades to come.”
In any case, the future of web3 and the internet will be determined by those who show up. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world, and that calling does not end in cyberspace. If web3 is truly setting the trajectory for the future of the world, the need for Christians who advocate for Christian values in the code is not small. “We know what the human purpose is in the world, and we want everyone to live in and flourish in it,” Tyrrell said.
“…we believe that we’re put on the earth for a particular purpose: to know, love, and serve God with all our mind, all our heart, and all our strength, and that infuses everything. And that needs to infuse these new technologies in order for them to truly lead to human flourishing. That’s what’s different about this conference – it’s not just the suits and the dresses” (Tyrrell)
There will be pushback; there already is. Regarding his own experience with those who oppose Christian values in web3, Millegan described seeing “terror on the faces of grown men” that would have supported him but were otherwise afraid of losing their jobs. “It’s pathetic, but it’s the reality. But if you don't back down there can be a lot of power in that,” Millegan said. Brown similarly exhorted that “the one thing we need, is we need men and women like you who are willing to stand up and have the courage to take some punishment, to not be silent.”
In my final moments with Pinto, I asked if he was primarily hopeful for the industry or fearful that things could go wrong. “I think anytime we have a new, big, tech change that God is doing something creative.” Pinto responded. “His passive will is at least allowing it, but I think maybe even His active will is initiating. If I were to speculate, I think this is a new gift to humanity, and the question is, will we lose it to innocuous or evil purposes? That's the question that remains.”
Pinto, Matthew. Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2022.
Terr, Aaron. “PayPal is no pal to free expression.” Fire News, 30 Sep. 2022.
Rej, Matt. List of Credit Card Processing Companies 2021 | Merchant Cost Consulting, 4 Mar.
Millegan, Brantly. Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2022.
Lessig, Lawrence. “Code Is Law.” Harvard Magazine, 1 Jan. 2000.
Roberts, Judy. “Crypto, blockchain, web 3.0: what Catholics need to know.” Legatus Magazine, 1 Nov. 2022.