The past month or so has seen the deaths of two men associated with progressive Catholicism in this area. One was a priest, one was a deacon. I had a slight personal acquaintance with both of them, a bit more so with the deacon, and on the basis of that and of their reputations know them to have been good and thoughtful men who loved God and the Church, notwithstanding the fact that they were on what is, from my point of view, the wrong side of the struggle that has been going on within the Church since Vatican II. I once heard the deacon call for a Third Vatican Council which would carry through what he regarded as the clear implications of Vatican II with regard to the Church’s teachings about sex and hierarchy and so forth. And my opinion of the priest as a shepherd—he was also a theology teacher—was forever lowered by a remark he made in a homily when the Catechism was published: that the best thing about it was the pictures. I, on the other hand, regarded the Catechism as a gift from God, sorely needed by the Church for precisely the reasons the priest objected to it: its clarification and re-emphasis of traditional teachings.
Progressive Catholicism has suffered a good many setbacks since it flourished ca. 1965-1980, and so I suppose these two men died disappointed on this score—disappointed, and perhaps somewhat puzzled that the progress they had witnessed when they were young had not continued. That is certainly not to say that they died unhappy or embittered, because I don’t think they did, but I don't think things had gone as they had hoped and expected.
In 1975 or so progressives had pretty much vanquished the old order liturgically and made strong inroads in every other aspects of the church’s life, and it must have looked as if the transformation they looked for was well under way. But then came the papacy of John Paul II, and at the same time a host of younger Catholics who rebelled against the revolution, and the tide began to turn. It has been a source of amusement (not very charitable amusement) for me to see certain features of what had been a youth movement slowly become associated with grey hair and complaints about the younger generation. (Although sometimes it’s not amusing at all: I have seen more instances than I would have thought possible of younger Catholics expressing the hope that the baby boomers, having ruined the world, would die as soon as possible. That’s not only nasty but mistaken, as the baby boomers were too young to have any responsibility for anything that happened in the first ten years or so after Vatican II.)
Progressives envision a movement toward a very specific goal, an end point in which some kind of perfect freedom and equality are the rule. This direction of movement is seen as natural, right, and inevitable—right because it is inevitable, and inevitable because it is right. For religious progressives, it’s God’s will, or the will of the Spirit. For secular progressives, it seems a vague idea vaguely connected with the idea that evolution is always an advance. And yet there seems no serenity in this knowledge. Progress is constantly under threat from the forces of reaction, which must be fought constantly, and so it isn’t truly inevitable. Change in general is presumed to be change for the better, or at least expected to be, but evil forces may interfere.
That picture makes sense at the revolutionary moment. But what of the day when the revolution has assumed power, and new forces arise which were not part of the old defeated order, but which for reasons of their own oppose the revolution? When there is rebellion against the rebellion? It becomes more difficult to assert that the revolution is the vanguard of an inevitable future, to speak of changing with the times as if that could only mean change in the direction considered desirable by the progressives. The usual response to the new rebels is to associate them with the efforts of the old regime to maintain its order, but this often falls apart: no one under the age of fifty or so can now be accused of wanting to bring back the Latin Mass because he’s resistant to change.
Of the people I knew in my youth as political leftists and still have contact with, most appear not to have changed their views very much. I, on the other hand, moved to the right. Which of us then is truly progressive, and which conservative?
I often wish we could do away with the whole vocabulary of progressive and conservative, with their focus on the movement of history. They have their place, but it’s a fairly small place, and we make them serve in contexts where they make little sense. Strip away the confused notions of historical progress tending toward the earthly paradise, and of evolution tending toward what man considers progress—a notion draped in the authority of science, but completely unjustified from a scientific point of view—and all the progressives have left is This is what we want. The lazy association of “change” with “good” falls apart.
It’s not only more honest but in the long run a better argument to say that what you want is right and good. Say you want something to come about because it is right, not because progress demands it. Progressivism is a sort of wishful thinking about the future course of history, and history has a bad way of taking us where we never wished or expected to go. But the modern world is in flight from first principles, and that argument requires a willingness to assert them. It’s much easier to say that something is the wave of the future, if you like it, or a relic of the past, if you don’t.
I often hear people say that the argument from authority is the weakest argument. Well, that depends entirely on the authority. But in all except its very weakest forms it’s still stronger than the argument from progress. It makes more sense to argue that a certain notion is to be disregarded because your neighbor down the street said so than because you think it’s outmoded. Your neighbor may know something about the question, but to say that the idea is outmoded is usually no more than to say it’s unfashionable. And what does fashion have to do with truth? It’s nonsense, but people talk this way all the time. We hear it especially about social changes. Those of us who believe that many of the changes of the past forty years or so have been for the worse and ought to be reversed are frequently told that our views are out of date and therefore of no consequence. This is just a way of saying “Shut up.”
The thing is to pursue and embrace the true, the good, and the beautiful. We have no guarantee whatsoever that earthly history is headed toward a goal any of us would regard as desirable. It is true, an article of faith for Christians, that earthly history will end with the triumph of God. But it is not promised that the triumph will take place within history. It is not even promised that things will get better.There has certainly been material progress in human history, but I sometimes wonder whether there has been, on balance, moral progress. Our ancestors did things that shock us, and did them in good conscience. But we would shock some of them, too. Perhaps there has been some net progress; let’s say for the sake of argument that there has. It can only be preserved by keeping a clear grasp of what genuine progress means, which is a movement toward the good, not merely toward the new. It must mean that when we achieve something good we must work to preserve it, not throw it back into the stream of history.
Having invented the wheel, we did not forget it. But in our moral and spiritual life it is not so. Every person and every society has to labor constantly to preserve any progress there, and that labor is the only thing that’s truly inevitable, as far as human vision can see. To regard progress as inevitable is probably a way of insuring that it won’t be.