The Papacy Against the False Gospel of Progress

Benedikt XVI Regensburger Rede

In the 1930s Evelyn Waugh could suggest that the idea of Progress was out, but alas the idea  proved much more resilient than one might expect. Confidence in progress might have become a bit more cautious after Auschwitz and the Gulag, but it persists.

A remarkable example of this cautious confidence is President Obama’s  Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech. Consider the following passages:

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass. […] We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Obama does not see progress as the automatic, inevitable process parodied by Waugh– there can be setbacks–but he sees it something for which we can and must hope. Note how religious his language is here. Progress is presented as the hope of the world. In effect what he is presenting here is a rival Gospel to that of redemption through Christ: redemption through human progress. This is precisely what Pope Benedict sees as the root of the crisis of Christian hope and therefore of Christian faith in the modern world. In Spe Salviafter describing how Francis Bacon developed a knew program for human knowledge ordering it to power over nature, he writes:

[The] new correlation between science and praxis would mean that the dominion over creation —given to man by God and lost through original sin—would be reestablished. […] up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay “redemption”. Now, this “redemption”, the restoration of the lost “Paradise” is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world. This programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope. (16-17)

If the modern crisis of faith has been shaped by the dominance of the false gospel of human progress, with its displacement of the faith of the Church, then it is not surprising that one of the main concerns of the Church, and particularly of the papacy, has been the struggle against this false Gospel. The various “phases” that the Church has gone through since the Reformation can be understood as different strategies in this struggle.

In Spe Salvi 18 the Holy Father notes that to key categories for the ideology of progress are reason and freedom. Progress is identified with the advance of the dominion of reason (understood in a particular way) and the the overcoming of all forms of dependency. In the Regenburg Lecture Pope Benedict shows how the separation of reason and faith, the genesis of Enlightenment “secular reason,” was prepared by late medieval voluntarism and nominalism and, in different way, by the Protestant Reformation.

I have just been reading Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation which gives a richly detailed historical account of how the secular Enlightenment was an unintended effect of the doctrinal disagreement caused by the Reformation, and how the Weberian “dis-enchantment” of the modern world was partly due to the univocist metaphysics that the Enlightenment shared with the Reformers.

The Church’s response to the Reformation at Trent was one that was to provide the model for its response to the ideology of progress as well– an emphasis on strict discipline within the Church, with defensive measures aimed at preserving Catholics from the influence of Protestant propaganda, as well as offensive measures aimed at inspiring devotion. The initial elan of the the Counter-Reformation petered out somewhat in the 18th century, but just how serious a foe secular Enlightenment was became clear at the end of the century with the French Revolution and Napoleon’s taking the Holy Father into captivity. The Church and the Papacy were in rather desperate straights, and everywhere things seemed to be going down hill, but then with the long reign of Bl. Pius IX a kind of revival began that can be seen as a sort of second Counter-Reformation. This was ultra-montane movement which emphazised devotion  to the Holy Father (encouraged by personal sympathy with “the prisoner of the Vatican,” and then by the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I), to Our Lady, the Blessed Sacrament, and St Joseph. The ultra-montane movement was an authentically popular movement with a huge effect on the revival of Catholic life, and also on conversions to Catholicism.

Under Leo XIII the policy of ralliement was supposed to make it easier for faithful Catholics to influence public affairs, by distinguishing the false principles of the new order from some of the novelties it had brought, which were to be re-interpreted in the light of the philosophy of St Thomas. Ralliement was not an acceptance of the ideology of progress, but merely a recognition that the particular form of the late 18th century acien regime was not the only acceptable form of society.

The situation of the Church vis a vis modernity was profoundly changed by the experience of the World Wars. After the Second World War the Church had a new prestige in the secular world. “Public opinion” in “the world” tended to regard Pius XII not as the sort of backward reactionary that Pius IX had been regarded as, but rather as a visionary, a courageous voice of morality amidst the horrors of totalitarian modernity.

This was one factor in the tremendous optimism in the Church after the Second World War. It was thought that the World was ready to recognize that purely secular progress was an illusion, that to prevent a recurrence of the disaster of National Socialism it was necessary to see every human person as a child of God endowed with dignity, that religion was necessary for true humanity. The moment seemed right for a massive re-conversion to the faith. The 1950s however did not quite live up to these hopes. The Church was strong, but it did not grow in the way many anticipated. Thus many saw the Second Vatican Council as the great chance to allow the Church to find the role that seemed to await her in the post-war world. Last week the Holy Father recounted the feeling at the time as follows:

There was an incredible sense of expectation. […] we were hoping […] that the Church might once again be a force for tomorrow and a force for today. And we knew that the relationship between the Church and the modern period, right from the outset, had been slightly fraught, beginning with the Church’s error in the case of Galileo Galilei; we were looking to correct this mistaken start and to rediscover the union between the Church and the best forces of the world, so as to open up humanity’s future, to open up true progress.

What exactly was meant by “true progress”? The attitude of the conciliar documents toward progress is rather ambivalent. Recall the following passage of Gaudium et Spes:

Sacred Scripture teaches the human family what the experience of the ages confirms: that while human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with it a strong temptation. […] That is why Christ’s Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man’s true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle’s warning: “Be not conformed to this world” (Rm 12:2).

This could seem like an attempt at having one’s cake and eating it, but the idea is that there is a sort of progress (technological, cultural) that is not a rival to the hope of the coming of the Kingdom, but rather an effect of that hope:

Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself (cf. Lk 9:25), the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age. Hence, while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God. (GS 39)

In these texts the Council seems to be trying to realize the hopes of theologians such as Ratzinger who wanted the idea of progress to be (as it were) subverted by the Church. Unfortunately, as we know, in many cases the opposite occurred – the Faith of the Church in redemption through the Lord was itself subverted in many souls and turned into a kind of metaphor for secular progress.

The second major theme of Vatican II, ecumenism, was meant to address the problem at its roots, ending the scandal of Christian dis-unity which had contributed directly to the rise of a secular alternative to the Christian hope. Unfortunately this emphasis was too often misinterpreted and lead among many people to a relativization of the truth claims of the Church, thus playing into the hands of those who would see the Gospel of Christ as a kind of symbol of the Gospel of Progress.

Pope Paul VI was confronted with the new allegiance to Progress in a particularly painful way when he published the Encyclical Humanae Vitae. For those Catholics who took the Council as the acceptance of the Gospel of Progress HV was the ultimate betrayal: since it rejected the Baconian promise of man’s complete domination over nature.

Bl. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both tried in their own teaching to correct the false interpretation of the Council, and revive the Council’s actual ambivalent approach toward the question of progress. Thus in the Regensburg Lecture, after his strong critique of secular reason, Pope Benedict ends with a renewal of the Council’s invitation to a modification of the modern view of reason (and thus of progress):

This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. […] The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.

One wonders how the strategy of the Holy See will developed in the coming decades. One can’t honestly say that the Council’s strategy was an unqualified success. Given the increasing hostility of a modern world which is ever more committed to violations of the natural law under the names of “reproductive rights,” “gay-rights,” “gender mainstreaming,” “the right to die,” and so on, one wonders whether future Popes will not return to a strategy more similar to that of Bl. Pius IX, who simply condemned the following proposition: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”


21 thoughts on “The Papacy Against the False Gospel of Progress

  1. I wonder what the Pope meant in the Regensburg lecture by ‘the positive aspects of modernity’. I should guess: greater technological domination of nature, granting of full civil rights to all independently of race, sex or creed (and thus at least by implication the exclusion of ‘confessional states’ except in a much weaker sense than in the middle ages); mass literacy; abolition of physical torture as a generally accepted official means of interrogation.


    • That sounds about right. In Spe Salvi 24 he talks about how strictly speaking incremental progress is only possible in the technological domination of nature, but that there can also be a kind of precarious progress in social structures, which “can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before, and they can draw upon the moral treasury of the whole of humanity.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Is any social moral campaign a kind of progress? Or just one of many battles of good verses evil? (I am thinking of things like the abolition of slavery, civil rights movement, pro-life movement, fight against human trafficking and the like.)


  3. The interesting thing about things such as the abolition of slavery is that there appears to be a kind of “ratchet effect”: it is difficult to imagine slavery being legalized again in anything like its antebellum South form anytime soon. I wonder whether part of the reason for this is the power of the idea of progress itself. That is, since people see such developments as part of “Progress” they can’t imagine changing them. Of course such developments are good, but they don’t necessarily imply that “civilization” is progressing on the whole, since it seems that for evil that is abolished, a bunch of others rise up right away.

    (By the way: great to see your name show up in the comments, Rose.)


    • So is there such a thing as “civilization?” Of course I agree that man cannot progress beyond evil, because we cannot rid ourselves of original sin. Are some social sins more “barbaric” than others? Can a Christian nation become more civilized?


      • That’s an interesting question. With technological progress one can see that gain in one respect almost inevitably involves loss in an other (cf. Plato’s point about writing destroying memory); but with the influence of Christianity on a society there does seem to be the possibility of gain without concomitant loss. I’m not sure whether thinking about this in terms of civil vs. barbaric is the best way though. What do you think?


          • Sorry, it’s an annoying habit that I picked up from an old Latin teacher of mine, who answered every question by saying “You tell me.”

            I’m not really sure about this, but I’m inclined to say that while there is no such thing as “civilization” in the singular there are civilizations, and there can be times when a given society becomes more civilized in some respects (though this almost always involves becoming in some respects more decadent).

            And I don’t think this is even limited to the supernatural influence of the gospel. Think of the “hellenization” of Asia through Alexander the Great. Plutarch tells us:
            On the other side, take a view of Alexander’s discipline, and you shall see how he taught the Hyrcanians the conveniency of wedlock, introduced husbandry among the Arachosians, persuaded the Sogdians to preserve and cherish—not to kill—their aged parents; the Persians to reverence and honor—not to marry—their mothers. Most admirable philosophy! which induced the Indians to worship the Grecian Deities, and wrought upon the Scythians to bury their deceased friends, not to feed upon their carcasses. We admire the power of Carneades’s eloquence, for forcing the Carthaginian Clitomachus, called Asdrubal before, to embrace the Grecian customs. No less we wonder at the prevailing reason of Zeno, by whom the Babylonian Diogenes was charmed into the love of philosophy. Yet no sooner had Alexander subdued Asia, than Homer became an author in high esteem, and the Persian, Susian, and Gedrosian youth sang the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. Among the Athenians, Socrates, introducing [p. 480] foreign Deities, was condemned to death at the prosecution of his accusers. But Alexander engaged both Bactria and Caucasus to worship the Grecian Gods, which they had never known before. Lastly, Plato, though he proposed but one single form of a commonwealth, could never persuade any people to make use of it, by reason of the austerity of his government. But Alexander, building above seventy cities among the barbarous nations, and as it were sowing the Grecian customs and constitutions all over Asia, quite weaned them from their former wild and savage manner of living.

            Of course Maccabees gives you the down side of Alexander’s labors…


          • Those are the kind of things I had in mind. (Esp. monogamy. I thought of the American indians converted by the priests.)
            Here is a liite more of a theory. Man has an ideal, towards which he can strive. He can attempt, not only as an individual, but also as a society, to live more rationally. This would be, I think, more “civilized”, that is, less bestial, and more upright. Reason and Christianity can improve a nation. A nation can “progress” towards this ideal of Man. At the same time, SIN can never be eliminated by man’s efforts. And I do think it is true that a more “civilized” society develops new forms of evil. (decadence, contraception, drug use, despair, loss of faith, depression, etc.) Well, not new forms perhaps. But some sins seem more prevalent than others in a certain age.


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