Wednesday, September 2, 2015

When "Progress" Isn't Progress

The beginning of another school year seems a good time to republish this Worth Revisiting post, an earlier version of which was first posted June 22nd, 2014To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

 A thoughtful friend recently lent us a book called DisOrientation: The 13 “isms” That Will Send You To Intellectual  “La-La Land”.  It is a collection of essays edited by John Zmirak with contributions by such luminaries as Jimmy Akin, Robert Spencer, and Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (a.k.a. “Fr. Z”), among others.  Its purpose is to prepare prospective college students for the various intellectual traps that await them, such as Relativism, Hedonism, Utilitarianism, etc.  One of my favorite essays in the collection is Peter Kreeft’s contribution on Progressivism.  He starts out by clearly delineating what it is to be a “progressive”:

The opposite of Progressivism is conservatism or traditionalism. A conservative, by definition, is a happy person, one who is happy with what is.  It is only for that reason he wants to conserve it.  A progressivist, on the other hand, is by definition an unhappy person, one who is unhappy with what is.  It is only for that reason he wants to change it . . . Adam and Eve were conservatives until the Devil made them into progressives.  For the Devil himself was the first progressivist.  The other angels were happy with God and His will, but the Devil wanted to progress to something better.

Now, Kreeft may be having a bit of mischievious fun with his argumentum ad Satanam, but his point is nonetheless valid.  Satan’s chief sin was Pride, a belief that he knew better, and isn’t the belief that one’s self knows better than the unenlightened rubes of the past and the ignorant and/or evil-minded boobs of the present the driving force of progressivism?

Progress? I think not . . .
     Kreeft notes various “justifications” for the assumptions of Progressivism: evolution, technological progress, etc., and he uses the term “chronological snobbery” to sum up the attitude that something is undesirable simply because it is not new.  The progressive’s dislike of “what is” is not the result of any actual qualities of what is, but is based solely on when what happens to be ising. That’s why the progressives rely on “justifications”: they need to persuade others who are  interested in the actual situation on the ground. While Kreeft doesn’t put it quite this way, a consequence of all this is that the positions and policy prescriptions of progressives very often are not rooted in reality but in feelings, the felt need to be “progressing” to . . . well . . . who knows? 
     The progressive tendency is not simply a political view, it is really a mindset, and one that finds expression not just in politics, but also in culture, and in the Church. It is particularly problematical in the Church, because the Church is founded on the unchanging revelation of an eternal God. While there is a place for “progress” of a sort,  here progress consists in faithfully applying the eternal principles to new situations (development), in making the Church more fully what it has always been, rather than “progressing” to something new. We should keep this combination of principle and practice in mind.  Despite its Divine source, there’s something very down-to-earth and human about Catholic Doctrine: Christians have found it not only possible to live by that teaching, but have flourished through it: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
     That’s why I find it odd that those who advocate “progressing” beyond the magisterial teaching of the Church claim that they are drawing on the “lived experience” of Christians.  That’s nonsense, of course, because as we saw above Church teaching has always been the lived experience of Christians. In its place they would put things that have never been, such as homosexual marriage, or things that have been tried and failed, such as the panoply of ecclesial innovations that can be found in the rapidly declining “mainstream” Protestant denominations.
     In the end, “Christian Progressivism” is an oxymoron, and a double-irony.  First, progressives advocate moving away from any signs of the Transcendent (Eucharistic Adoration, Ad Orientem worship, incense and bells, etc), and from Biblical and magisterial moral teaching; for a Christian, however, progress means precisely moving closer to the transcendent God.  Not only that, they fail even on their own terms: they reject the 2,000 years of human experience embodied in Sacred Tradition, all the while claiming to align themselves more closely with experience.  Progressivism for its own sake is problematic in any context, but in the Church it is impossible.  Instead, we should follow St. Paul’s advice: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

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