Progressivism and Power

“Know thyself.”  These were the words written above the temple doors of the oracle at Delphi. They are words that have remained a counsel of wisdom through the ages. They were the words with which Pope St. John Paul II began his great encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”).

In that encyclical – an intellectual tour de force that should have inspired a renaissance in Catholic education, but sadly hasn’t – John Paul II spoke of the “fundamental questions” that “have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart.”  The answers people give to these questions, he says, will “decide the direction they seek to give to their lives.”

But what if a person has never considered these questions? Then it’s likely that his life is being determined by the implicit, unreflected-upon-answers given to him by others. He’s likely “living out a script written by someone else.” Hence the importance of “knowing oneself” and of living “the examined life” – becoming aware of the presuppositions that animate one’s beliefs and actions and then having the courage to subject those presuppositions to an appropriate critique.

For Christians, the ultimate touchstone for such a critique would come from divine revelation and the truths of faith.  This is what it means to scrutinize the signs of the times – not merely be subject to them, but scrutinize them – “and interpret them in the light of the Gospel,” as a famous passage from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes goes on to say.

Among the great gifts that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI gave to the world was their profound understanding of modernity, both its strengths and weaknesses, and their ability to critique it wisely “in the light of the Gospel.”  And one of the great insights of Fides et Ratio is John Paul II’s warning that it’s not unimportant the kind of philosophy one seeks to incorporate into one’s theology. Indeed, all philosophy, whatever its source, must be subject to critique by divine revelation. Divine revelation should not be held hostage to the vagaries of whatever happens to be the latest philosophy in vogue, whether it’s Platonism, Aristotelianism, or German Idealism.

In a previous column, “A Means of Disowning the Past,” I spoke about how the modernist, “historicist” presupposition that human nature changes over time has infiltrated itself into the mainstream of modern moral theology, causing many modern moral theologians and their disciples in ecclesiastical circles to conclude that long-standing Church teaching, even principles found in sacred Scripture, can and should be revised to be brought in accord with trends in contemporary cultural self-understanding.

But there is another interesting feature to this story involving American cultural and political “progressivism.”  As Ronald Pestritto and William Atto write in the introduction to their reader on American Progressivism, the “coupling of historical contingency with the doctrine of progress” – shared by all progressives to one degree or another – is how German historicism, with its assumption that human nature changes according to historical circumstances and culture, was imported into the American political tradition.  Most progressives were either educated in Germany in the nineteenth century or had teachers who were.

John Paul II and a young friend (1998)

American progressives took from the Germans, especially Hegel, the “living” notion of the nation-state, from which they developed the idea of a “living” constitution. While early American conceptions of a national government had carefully circumscribed state power, progressives argued that history had brought about changes in the human condition that required new approaches.  A whole new host of economic and social ills seemed to call out for governmental remedies, requiring a sharp increase in the scope of governmental power beyond those permitted in the Constitution. Eventually, one of these “changes in the human condition” was a new, “progressive” view of sex.

Achieving the goals and meeting the challenges of the modern world would, it was assumed, require a new “progressive” approach to educating the young, one emphasizing their freedom to define themselves within a “progressive” culture rather than formation in the time-tested principles and traditions of their forebears.

American religious institutions also felt the need to respond to these new “scientific” and “cultural” challenges.  The result was the Social Gospel movement, which dictated less emphasis on personal holiness and more on social problems, a shift that made them less resistant to the new “progressive” view of sex.

What few seemed to notice is who would be empowered by these progressive political and social projects. Who would have the technical know-how to be the engineers of “progress”?  Who would have the high-level vision necessary to sum up the class or cultural consciousness of the age in order to determine the new rules?

It wouldn’t be the poor and uneducated who had always depended on the stable and easily understood principles of the Decalogue and the natural law. Henceforth we would depend on a highly-trained avant-garde – a new intellectual clerisy – to make the rules and run the ever-evolving, ever-progressing modern bureaucracy according to the rules they themselves have made.

All to benefit “the people,” of course. Because you know the “will of the people” not by actually talking to them, but by reading the latest articles on “the culture” and “cultural consciousness” in an elite university.

In this light, consider contemporary American “progressive” clerics such as Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, among others, whose respect for the Church’s moral teaching seems no greater than progressivism’s respect for the limits imposed on their will-to-power by the American Constitution. They are the unreflective products of their age.  One finds in their formation a “perfect storm” of American political and social progressivism – and revisionist Catholic moral theology, both blowing the same toxic intellectual winds borne aloft from German idealism’s fever swamp.

As Pope John Paul II warned, it is not unimportant what philosophy you incorporate into theology.  And this is why Fides et Ratio remains the essential complement to Veritatis splendor, John Paul II’s decisive word on moral theology. Perhaps it’s time for our bishops to revisit both – preferably before the next synod.


You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s Progressive Christianity: The Same Old Tides

Paul Kengor’s The Pope Francis Progressive Set-Up

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.