In our culture, there are many abused terms, but perhaps the most abused is “progress.” The word comes originally from the Latin for “going forward.” The Renaissance gave the word a distinctly subjective meaning – new ideas about person and government that preceded their application in concrete terms, for example. The Industrial Revolution added the expectation that technology was going to solve the world’s problems. It did not, of course; it just created a world of machines, without the necessary human moral development.
Historically, the greatest misuse of the word started when progress began to be understood simply in terms of ideas. When this or that elite constructs an idea of progress, their visions may or may not have anything to do with reality. Karl Marx, for example, may have been moved by the harsh conditions of workers, but all he proposed were alternative ideas about ownership and government. And not very good ones as it turned out, as we can see quite well in the 200th anniversary of his birth this year.
There was no guarantee (except in his mind) that Marx’s ideas would lead to the “progress” that he envisaged. Forcing the complex dynamics of the world to fit his ideas caused the deaths of tens of millions. That is a verifiable fact – and does not constitute progress. Yet surveys show that many philosophy departments in America still teach Marxism as a serious subject.
The Church has long shown the flaws in ersatz “progressive” ideologies – Pope Leo XIII already knew where socialism would go in 1891 – which is why those who embrace such ideologies hate the Church.
But let’s consider progress and the Church more closely. Joseph Ratzinger reminded us, decades ago, that our faith in the Divine Trinity comes out of the concrete historical experiences of Jews and Christians.
God’s covenant with the Jewish People started with a little bit of heaven in the Ten Commandments. Then, in the land of those Commandments, a real living person is born who constitutes the New Covenant, Jesus Christ.
Belief in – and a covenant with – a person possessing both a divine nature and a human nature, that is progress. As is knowing the truth about the Creator and his Creation. That is why Catholic teachings constantly refer to concrete reality, either from the Old Covenant or the New. Christian minds are regulated by our direct experience of the world, a world created by God. Such experiences do not lead to unreal ideologies, but to a world that images the divine – and that can be grasped by our thinking.
This is the best use of the human mind, to go back to the sensible world to check out whether our concepts have validity. As Aquinas put it: “Although the intellect is superior to the senses, nevertheless in a manner it receives from the senses, and its first and principal objects are founded in sensible things.” It is real progress to help human minds to develop in a consistent way and to keep them intellectually grounded in the world around them.
So, for example, Catholics say no to contraception. Intercourse involves both body and spirit. Using a contraceptive damages the real-world experience of an embodied spirit in numerous ways. Similarly, on casual sex: it irreversibly diminishes the participants. They are avoiding the fullness of their personhood, which is to say, they are regressing.
Protecting the humanity of individuals, every individual, from conception to natural death; that, too, is progress. Especially in a world where so many nations are not doing it, even think it inhuman.
The Church is not only an intellectual corrective, however. It is a sacrament and celebrates the sacraments. The sacraments are visible concrete signs drawn from the natural world, of what they achieve in grace and truth. Each sacrament changes people progressively – properly understood – to being more and more part of the Kingdom of God.
This is progress towards the concrete created reality of sharing in divine life where “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
We need to understand this and proclaim it boldly: Catholic life is a life of progress, but not in an arbitrary sense decided by someone at the water cooler or in a library (the British Museum, in Marx’s case). Catholic progress is divinely ordered progress that deepens the humanity of the individual involved and elevates him/her up to spiritual union with the Almighty and with others.
In the Church, progress is towards sainthood, the ultimate in human progress. It is the fullness of human development in grace and truth, so much so that Saint Irenaeus described the situation as: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” A person fully alive is someone who was not aborted (a “progressive” obsession) and who uses human freedom to relate to God, even when the prevailing ideology is trying to stifle faith (another common “progressive” obsession).
Progress in the Catholic sense is about promoting the union of human beings with God and each other. Since God Himself empowers this union, it is not utopian but real. Catholic progress has a concrete goal that is both positive and transcendent – the only true progress.