Whenever we hear the word “progress,” it is a good reason to be suspicious. The question to ask immediately is: “Progress towards what?” You cannot have progress, you cannot have improvement, unless you first identify where you are coming from and where you are going. In order to measure progress, you need to know the starting point and the goal. Then you can determine if you are farther along from the starting point than you were before and closer to the goal. But there are those who call themselves “progressive” and have never bothered telling us where exactly their progress is taking us. Their starting point seems to be tradition and the truths handed down to us through the centuries. They consider themselves to be making progress the farther they move away from these truths and traditions. They throw out the time-honored forms of worship, the prayers, the music, the art, the architecture, the moral teaching, the ancient wisdom, the faith of our fathers, but they have nothing to offer in its place. Their churches are bare, their art is formless, their prayers are vague, their music is ugly, their teaching is full of doubt. And they don’t know where they are going.
G.K. Chesterton recognized the false cult of progress in the early 20th century. He said that among the thousand forms of thoughtlessness that make up what is called free thought is the claim that the world is always advancing step by step, but the free thinkers can never say where the next step will be. The only thing they are absolutely sure of is that the next step will not be “a step on to sacred soil, or what we should call solid ground.”
So far from saying that all roads lead to Rome, they lay it down as a fixed infallible dogma that no roads can possibly lead to Rome, even while as loudly asserting that they do not know where any of their own roads lead. Their own roads, by their own description, go winding about with every conceivable or inconceivable new curve or deflection; but they cannot possibly point to the central city of our civilization even when thousands who have traveled on those new roads have actually already arrived at that ancient place.
They always assert that nothing is final, that nothing must be accepted as absolute, but ironically, there are some things they absolutely reject. They reject the past. They accept everything in the future, even though they don’t know what it is. Though they call themselves “progressive,” there is actually something rather backwards about their philosophy of insisting that our fathers were wrong but our children are right. They will listen to anything, but “they refuse to listen to reason if it requires them to listen to Rome.”
As Chesterton points out, the false cult of progress is directly connected to the theory of evolution. Whatever the merits of the biological evidence to support that theory (merits which are debatable, though the debate on the subject has been pretty much forbidden), the problem was that the theory utterly infected social and religious thought in the 19th century. T.H. Huxley seized on Darwin’s ideas in order to justify his own agnosticism, and he was singularly responsible for popularizing Darwinism throughout the world, especially among the other skeptics like himself. The great intellectuals who somehow doubted that God had created the heavens and the earth suddenly put all their faith in the heavens and the earth basically creating themselves. They weren’t sure how it worked and how it all started, but they were quite sure that everything has been constantly getting better and will keep improving. We will evolve higher and higher. Towards what, we do not know. But the practical application of this idea was a strange form of determinism: the idea that whatever happened in the world was simply a necessary step to whatever else happened. It was part of the process, part of the progress. And it was used to justify slave labor, starvation, horrendous poverty and even more horrendous wealth. The big will keep on eating the little. Progress.
Chesterton called this idea “a rather curious variation of nature worship, which is not so much the worship of the sun or the worship of the thunder-cloud, but rather the worship of the fog.” The progressives cling to the vague mists of the future.
In the 20th century, birth control and then abortion were considered signs of progress. Then euthanasia. Now, homosexual marriage. And so on. The supporters of these ideas always call refer to them as Progress. Towards what?
And what has always been accused of being the obstacle to all this progress? The Catholic Church, of course. Yes, the Church has stood in the way of poverty and starvation. The Church has stood in the way of the slaughter of the unborn. The Church has stood in the way of misguided souls who would destroy themselves through acting out their perverse desires.
It is the Catholic Church that has always stood for real progress. We have a real goal in mind. It is heaven. The works of devotion are designed to help us get to heaven. The works of charity are designed to help others get to heaven. The works of praise and adoration are simply practice for heaven. Real progress is easy to measure. Does it bring us closer to God or not? Does it bring the world closer to God or not?
Chesterton says that sometimes in order to go forward we have to go back, that is, in order to get back on to the right road we have to turn around and return to it. It is called repentance. Repentance is the most progressive thing we can do.