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Progressives and Church history

Our stance towards the Catholic past just cannot be to point and laugh at how ignorant they were and how enlightened we are today.

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, England. (Image: Anna cicicic/

I gave a talk recently on Catholic Church history – an overview, a quick hits kind of tour. Instead of trying to actually go through a lot of dates and events, I focused on the Catholic understanding of history, contrasting it with the secular view – which is the view most of us, Catholic or not, assume is the normative paradigm.

What is that secular view? That the human journey on earth is one of progress and advancement.

It makes sense, in a way, for one of the major features of human life, especially since the Enlightenment is obvious technological and material progress and betterment. And expansion of our sense and experience of human rights and civil liberties. It is not surprising that this has become our dominant paradigm for comparing past and present.

Given spice, of course, since Marx and through to the present, with the paradigm of class and now identity struggle and conflict.

But that’s not the Catholic paradigm. I really can’t do better than to quote this from Timothy O’Donnell:

It is important to note that the Christo-centric view of history is fundamentally different from the ideology of the progress of man. Those who exclude the Incarnation from the story of man preach a different gospel: that man, through his continued “enlightenment,” will eventually make sense of suffering—or even eliminate it. On the contrary, in this fallen world there will always be sin, sorrow and suffering, and only through Christ do these mysteries find meaning. Christ, the Prince of Peace, turns the human story upside down by defeating sin and death on the Cross, and by sanctifying suffering.

And then Benedict XVI, from Spe Salvi:

That is, Church Fathers such as Eusebius and Augustine understood God as speaking to his people through history, and not simply Church history proper. The rise and fall of nations were to be understood in terms of God calling his people to himself.

At the same time, two categories become increasingly central to the idea of progress: reason and freedom. Progress is primarily associated with the growing dominion of reason, and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good. Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency—it is progress towards perfect freedom. Likewise freedom is seen purely as a promise, in which man becomes more and more fully himself. In both concepts—freedom and reason—there is a political aspect. The kingdom of reason, in fact, is expected as the new condition of the human race once it has attained total freedom. The political conditions of such a kingdom of reason and freedom, however, appear at first sight somewhat ill defined. Reason and freedom seem to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community. The two key concepts of “reason” and “freedom”, however, were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church as well as those of the political structures of the period. Both concepts therefore contain a revolutionary potential of enormous explosive force.

On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world. (Emphasis added)

And now to apply this to Church history specifically: Our stance towards the Catholic past just cannot be to point and laugh at how ignorant they were and how enlightened we are today.

No, our paradigm is to recognize that we all – past, present and future – share a common stance: on our knees before the Cross.

The Catholic view of our own history is one of humility and openness. We can learn, and we must learn – it’s required, since our faith is rooted in both Revelation and Tradition, of course.

But we can take it in another direction, as well.

To engage with the past means to engage with human beings who might live in material circumstances, and social, political and economic landscapes that are quite different than ours, but who are still, at the beginning and end, human beings who were born, suffered, struggled, were in communion, and faced mortality under the same mysterious stars.

Encountering their traditions, ways and thoughts, we would do well to engage, rather than scoff, to dig deeply and ask why did they do this? What moved them? What do I share in common with those motivations? What do I do in the present that meets those same needs? Do my actions and choices make any more sense, in the end, than theirs do?

In other words, our instinctive reaction to some Catholic moment from the past might be: Wow, that’s pretty crazy. And it might have been! But we might consider a follow-up as we consider our own lives: Wow, that’s pretty crazy, too, to be honest.

As I said, ours is not to point and laugh and bask in our superiority. Because we don’t have anything to brag about.

That is not to argue that the past is golden, ossified, and preserved in amber for our devotion and emulation. The Catholic past is a riotous dynamic which includes moments worth reverencing and moments worth critiquing.

For the history of the Church may not be properly understood by the secular definition of “progress” but it certainly has the dynamic of reform baked into it. That is indeed, our history: Establishing a thought or practice or other reality that is faithful to the Gospel, and then, invariably, that moment of drifting, corrupting and being an example, no longer of love, but of human pride and folly. And so we pray, discern, perhaps painfully tear down what have become idols, and begin again.

Again and again: rooting ourselves in the beauty and truth that has sprouted in the past, and then being completely open to the needs of the present moment, and then discerning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what that moment calls for.

But never, ever laboring under the hubristic assumption that that our awareness of that Spirit represents any sort of necessary “progress” just because it’s now and that was then.

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About Amy Welborn 33 Articles
Amy Welborn is the author of over twenty books on Catholic spirituality and practice, and has written extensively on gender issues at her blog, Charlotte was Both.


  1. During a pro-life talk I was giving to students at a “Catholic high school” where, in the intro, the students knew I had worked with particle accelerators as a physicist, I had occasion to challenge them with the question, does progress actually exist? It drove them bonkers when they saw I was serious, one straight A science student asking how I could say that since I had actually witnessed atoms split apart in ways that might have been so unique that no one had ever witnessed it, in that exact pattern, before, ever. To which I responded that there is no such thing as a new perception or new idea or a new thought or new concept or new way at “looking at things” or new anything at all.
    I kept driving them crazy to undermine their most cherished belief before I finally got to the point that God has thought of everything already, that God knows everything already, has always known everything from eternity to eternity, and has always known how and when we will discover what we will discover about His creation exactly how and when He desires that we do so. And further, God is not, and can not be, an idiot. God can use a former atheist idiot like me to have an insight, but God can not be an idiot. And an idiot is exactly what God would have had to be to have denied the peoples of the past the innate moral insights necessary to lead lives where they would be capable of a willful virtue and willingness to avoid sin during the nobler moments of their lives. God can grant graces in order that we might articulate and give witness to truth, but if we are honorable, we know that truth, not some truth, not a lot of truth, not most truth, but all truth is a reflection of the mind of God and His mind never changes. In this very real sense, progress does not exist.

    • Author Amy Wellborn and Edward Baker’s comments hit the nail on the head. So much of the political forms of ‘progress’ expressed in popular thought and trumpeted from the media are really hubristic expressions of the avatars created by wounded or frightened people, who cannot face objective truth. We see this escapism in so many young people who embrace pop gender theories. One point of light recently shown through in an interview of a twenty-something RCIA inquirer answering the question: “Why the Catholic faith?” Her answer was “stability.” She said that in her environment at university, her friends, and in social media, there are many voices competing for a claim to truth. It is a turbulent and dangerous sea out there, and she has found that the Catholic Church offers unwavering doctrine which has withstood challenges over centuries. The Church alone offers her objective truth.
      We need to pray for the conversion of the confused and lost, but also that our Church will uphold its doctrine and traditions and continue to be that rock of truth through the many storms ahead.

    • Yes, but not quite, this: “[First] A science student asking how I could say that since I had actually witnessed atoms split apart in ways that might have been so unique that no one had ever witnessed it, in that exact pattern, before, ever. To which I responded that [second] there is no such thing as a new perception or new idea or a new thought or new concept or new way at “looking at things” or new anything at all.”
      On the first point, at the human level there is scientific progress between splitting heads with a stone ax and splitting human history with atomic bombs. But (your point) the advancing science is always ambivalent against the permanent things.
      On the second point, there will always be a deepening of human insight into the truth of Revelation, but as St. Augustine puts it: “we can say things differently, but we can’t say different things.”

      St. John Henry Cardinal Newman lightens the path with his “Development of Christian Doctrine”–how insights are deepened but never displaced by propositions that are contradictory—as is implied by the current adulteration of moral theology with the ambiguities of “anthropological-cultural change” or a “paradigm shift” (an idea malappropiated from the legitimate domain of the natural sciences). Instead, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:6).

      The new hermeneutic of discontinuity seems to advance the notion that “good” and “evil” are cultural-bound and expendable assertions, and that all real contradictions are really only a pairing of positions and counter-positions that can be harmonized or flattened into what is “permissible” and “inadmissible.”

      The smoke of Satan, the Father of Lies.

      • Of course you are correct, and if I had more time and space to reflect… My only intention when speaking to the young is to discourage their tendencies for a naïve faith in inevitable progress. Perhaps I will try to compose a lengthy essay one day on the proper distinctions between truth in itself and how our finite minds struggle to find and express what the Lord allows us to grasp, reflecting on your suggestions. And yes it is a faithless modernity that submits to the fallacies of dialectical processes that allow for unlimited sophistry and relativism.

    • The branches of science or engineering (for example) are from God. We discover what He has done in creation, in the fullness of time.That you pointed out the true authorship is the noble way.

  2. Too true! And so adult in this time of self-appointed judgment (at an adolescent reactionary emotional level) that you suggest one actually step back and assess from a non current bound, location bound perspective. It’s a gift. Thank you for the umpteenth time, Amy Welborn.

  3. Has anyone said it any better than Qoheleth? Except, perhaps, alluded to by Amy Welborn Timothy O’Donnell’s “Christ, the Prince of Peace, turns the human story upside down by defeating sin and death on the Cross, and by sanctifying suffering”.

  4. Thank you for an insightful article, dear Amy Welborn; plus some nice supporting comments.

    Australian Aboriginal Catholics would resoundingly concur with your critique of so-called progress. For about 65,000 years their hundreds of ethnic groups lived lawful, healthy and culturally rich lives that deeply respected God and every human being, encouraged strong & independent women and men, and cared for the ecologies of our vast and diverse continent. They despised greed and selfishness and respected sharing and generosity. I think of them in terms of Genesis chapter 1: “God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.”

    From 1788, ‘enlightened’ and technologically sophisticated Europeans arrived, and in a span of 200 years have seriously degraded the ecologies of Australian land and ocean, with hubristic greed and a ‘civilized progress’ that has produced millions of seriously deprived people and an exponentially-growing tally of psychologically disturbed, murderously violent, and self-harming people. And, of course, this is not just Australia, but is a current global default reality.

    What makes it even more tragic to a Catholic Christian, like me, is that this massive regress that we’ve chosen to call ‘progress’ often operates under a veneer of public devotion to Jesus Christ.

    Fredrich Schelling wrote in his ‘Of Human Freedom’: “The good is to be raised out of darkness to actuality in order to dwell with God everlastingly; and evil is to be separated from goodness in order to be cast out eternally into non-being. For this is the final purpose of creation.” What is pertinent to Amy’s article is that Schelling understands evil HAS to be exhaustively and freely actualized for our just God to shrive it permanently. As Jesus informs us: all these offences HAVE to take place (e.g. Matthew 18:7; Luke 17:1), but not by us His disciples.

    So the sort of progress that we are all rightly descrying is, in New Testament terms, truly progressing towards that God-ordained, just, shriving, judgement. All evil possibilities must be historically actualized so as to be comprehensively eradicated. Something to be joyfully anticipated: “Come soon King Jesus Christ!”

    There’s much more on this application of Schelling, free on the web:

    Ethical Encounter Theology: An Inter-Disciplinary Consonance (

    (7) (PDF) Ethical Ontology Harmonises Science, Revelation and Human Lives: Physical Temporality Yields Supra-Universal Ethical Distillates (

    The serious student of these matters will also find superb analyses in: John W. Cooper (2006) ‘Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers. From Plato to the Present’. Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, Mich.

    • On the other hand, the technocratic modern world is actually following (!) and improving on the unrecorded history of the past 65,000 years. Synthesis!

      Yea verily, where Australian aborigines sometimes practiced ritual cannibalism (not known to victimize the living: link below), in the advanced and decadent West we now have the more blended approach of composting human cadavers for application to, what, backyard tomato plants, or whatever! In bellwether Washington State a sort of primitive and high-tech, back-to-the-land ethic (link below).

      And then, of course, in the spirit of “states’ rites”, we also have synomex in California! The exploitation of fetal remains (and reportedly living fetuses in the 1970s) to flavor our favorite foods and drinks (link below).

      Rice’s points are well-taken—-technocratic modernity does seem a race into a box canyon. But how to harmonize with hunter-gatherer nativism without genuflecting to Pachamama or, alternatively, mimicking modernity’s gnostic efforts to “immanentize the eschaton” (Eric Veogelin)?

      Not to be minimized is our primordial and universal fallenness, always together with a sacral universe, but also–since/in Christ–with a sacramental and gratuitously graced and personal Presence–now and at each moment even before any hypothesized evolutionary or dialectical (?) apocalypse. (Rice’s above-linked dissertation does grapple with this…)

      • Thanks, dear Peter, for engaging in the issues raised by our increasing scientific knowledge of humankind’s very long pre-history, that preceded the invention of broadacre farming, monetization of harvests, city building, unjust social stratifications with pseudo-religious justifications, confinement of women to breed serfs for the farms and soldiers for the armies, cruel exploitation, never-ending sequences of wars and genocides; and consequent progressive destruction of so much of the ecology of our one and only home planet!

        You question whether we can learn from our growing understanding of tens of millennia of ecologically balanced human living and its contrast with the much shorter human dalliance with destructive, hubristic over-exploitation, and its inevitable, looming threat of nemesis?

        There are indications of a growing perception that greed is NOT good, and that so much of what we think of as progress is, in the larger picture, actually regress. The big question is whether enough of humanity is willing to pull back from our addiction to Darwinian greed and dominance. It is such a highly infectious meme, enshrining the lie that human value rests on possessions.

        Yesterday’s Gospel reading at Holy Mass was from Luke 18:9-14, with Jesus instructing us in the way God approves: that is, repentance and humility. Can humanity learn to follow that way? Increasingly, Christ’s Gospel is not only THE way to eternal life but also the way for our species to successfully live on this planet. Encouragingly, Pope Francis seems to be making that vital connection.

        Always under the loving wisdom of Jesus Christ; blessings from marty

        • Thank you for your Marxist faith in the inevitable insights of an elite class of humanity less prone to deception than all those who preceded it. I’m sure God can suffer less pain knowing that assumptions about social Darwinian motivations cannot possibly be displaced by any other crimes against humanity by wine sipping sophisticates, evolving away from original sin long enough to give their blessing to such enterprises as ridding the world of surplus humanity by forced abortions or mandatory euthanasia, values not completely at odds with an “enlightened” Pope who brushes aside the eccentric practice of burying children alive among primitive peoples when venerating their idols are prioritized.

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