Sunday, September 27, 2009

Progress Rightly Understood


I do not consider myself a progressive. Progressivism is too often bent on changing man's nature, overcoming by pseudo-science and human effort problems which are far bigger than that. Put another way, progressivism usually involves redeeming man from the Fall through the proper application of politics. Sorry, but I don't go for that.

However, my rejection of progressivism has recently been tempered by reading Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate. He does not, of course, fall into the kind of errors I just sketched out. But he does remind us that a certain kind of progress is not merely compatible with, but integral to, Christianity. This is an important reminder for those of us - like myself - who have become jaded about "progress" and tend to ignore the term whenever we hear it.

Benedict's starting point in Caritas in Veritate is an encyclical by Pope Paul VI (pictured left), Populorum Progressio. Quoting the earlier encyclical, Benedict writes:

It is the primordial truth of God's love, grace bestowed upon us, that... makes it possible to hope for a “development of the whole man and of all men”, to hope for progress “from less human conditions to those which are more human”, obtained by overcoming the difficulties that are inevitably encountered along the way. (Section 8, quoting PP 42 & 20.)

Notice what they are talking about: "conditions", the physical circumstances, as well as the social and the spiritual, in which human beings live. However, that which gives us cause for hope with regards to these conditions is not our own willpower or technological might, but God's love. Elsewhere he writes:

Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him. (Section 11.)

Moreover, Benedict points out that this is not simply the improvement of material circumstances, building bigger, faster and stronger gizmos. There is a kind of progress to that sort of thing, but it is not quite what Benedict is interested in. He writes:

If man were merely the fruit of either chance or necessity, or if he had to lower his aspirations to the limited horizon of the world in which he lives, if all reality were merely history and culture, and man did not possess a nature destined to transcend itself in a supernatural life, then one could speak of growth, or evolution, but not development. (Section 29.)

Thus, human progress (or development, to use Benedict's preferred term) must be oriented towards our true human nature and our ultimate end. Any kind of progress which ignores the fact that we have been made in the divine image and are created for heaven is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: perhaps a nice gesture, even interesting or meaningful in its way, but woefully missing the bigger issue at stake.

How are we to bring about this kind of progress? As with most aspects of the encyclical, Benedict avoids most details, preferring to make sure we have the principles sorted out first. However, he explains:

It should be stressed that progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient. Development needs above all to be true and integral. The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement.... Human knowledge is insufficient and the conclusions of science cannot indicate by themselves the path towards integral human development.... The exclusion of religion from the public square... hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity. (Sections 23, 30 & 56.)

This is no paltry project of social engineering, conducted by technocrats and ignoring the transcendent.

Finally, Benedict, following Paul VI, explains:

Progress, in its origin and essence, is first and foremost a vocation: “in the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation”.... The vocation to progress drives us to “do more, know more and have more in order to be more”. (Sections 16 & 18, quoting PP 15 & 6.)

Thus, progress is not simply about a political ideology or a philosophic arguments: it is a part of the call given by God to mankind, redeemed by Christ and now eagerly pressing on toward the fullness of glory.


Photo credits: The picture of Benedict XVI comes from a mass in Paris, courtesy of Ammar Abd Rabbo. The image of Paul VI was ganked from the Per Christum blog, which no doubt ganked it from someone else.
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