Who Are the True Progressives?
By Deacon Keith Fournier © Third Millennium, LLC
The American Presidential campaign is in fourth gear. The “labels” abound; “liberal”, “conservative”, “neo-conservative” and…the one being bandied about more often lately, both in a disparaging way and as a sort of badge of pride, “progressive”. The term, at its root, implies progress toward something better. Like most terms used in an effort to divide groups and set them against each other, these political terms have made their way into our common discourse. They have also crossed into the parlance of theological conviction. Let me give an example.
Shortly after the elevation of Benedict XVI to the Chair of Peter, Joan Vennochi, of the Boston Globe, wrote an editorial entitled "Orphaned by the Church".It was based upon a premise that is being repeated in many places these days. In an age where the mere repetition of a mistaken idea can be confused with accuracy. Ms. Vennochi was unhappy with the selection of Pope Benedict XVI. She simply did not like that he stood for the unchanging faith handed down from the Apostles; the faith which actually paved the way to true progress. She tried to claim the moniker “progressive” to describe her dissent from the teaching of the Church and set up her claim that she was a "progressive" Catholic" and that all "progressive" Catholics would be unhappy with the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. She began her article by making a statement and asking a question:
"With news of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's selection as the new pope, the phrase ''progressive Catholic" sounds more and more like an oxymoron. Can you be one during the reign of Benedict XVI?"
I wrote a responsive article and disagreed with the statement. The phrase "progressive" Catholic is not an oxymoron. Then, I answered her question with an enthusiastic "Yes". I argued that one could be a truly "progressive" Catholic under the dynamic and forward facing leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. I feel even more firmly about this today.
Let’s begin by simply examining the word “progressive” with reference to the dictionary. It defines "progressive" as an adjective, meaning "Moving forward; advancing." That is precisely what happened to the Church under the wonderful dynamic leadership of Pope John Paul II and continues under the faithful service of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Of course, in making this claim, I totally rejected Ms. Vennocchi’s definition of the phrase "progressive" Catholic. That is because I disagreed with her over a more fundamental question, the nature of true progress. Let’s consider the artful and strategic misuse of words, then the historic evidence of true progress brought about by the influence of the Christian Church. Both lead to the same conclusion, Faithful Catholics, and other Christians, are the true “progressives” of our age.
We have lived through the use of word games too many times in the last few decades. For example, I, as a faithful Catholic Christian, have been very actively involved in promoting legal recognition of the inalienable right to life at every age and stage for decades. I have sought to inform my political and social participation by the values derived from my faith. I simply try to live a unity of life. I am pro-life, pro-family, pro-freedom and pro-poor. I oppose the killing of innocent children in the womb, which is always and everywhere wrong because it is the taking of innocent life. I oppose euthanasia, period, no matter how it is disguised. It is never compassionate to kill someone. These strong positions have often led to efforts to label me "conservative", and, in some instances, to marginalize me further by connecting me with the "religious right."
However, I also oppose Capital Punishment. I always have. It is no longer justifiable because bloodless means are available to punish the malefactor, to defend society and to serve the common good. Therefore mercy should trump justice. I opposed the initial foray into Iraq as morally wrong, unable to be justified under any effort at applying the "Just War" Theory. Now, I am deeply concerned for what could occur in the aftermath of a precipitous withdrawal and am evaluating the best prudential path toward peace.
I have long been deeply concerned about - and written extensively concerning - our obligations in solidarity to the poor, calling for economic reform including a family wage. I believe that the market economy must always first be at the service of the person, the family and the common good. In these matters, even some who agreed with my unqualifiedly pro-life bona fides, began to insist that I sounded "liberal" or used the term "left" in reference to some of my articles concerning these subjects.
I have regularly called for moving beyond "liberal" and "conservative", insisting that faithful Catholics who understand, believe in and seek to apply the full palate of Catholic Social teaching, in order to effect genuine social justice, are not "left" or "right", "liberal" or "conservative", in the political sense of those limiting words. They are simply being faithful Catholics.
The same kind of political terms have been mistakenly applied in the realm of theological fidelity to the Magisterium of our Catholic Church. Those who believe that the teaching office is a gift from God; who embrace the full teaching of the Catholic Church and believe that it should be followed by Catholics, are regularly called "right wing" or "conservative", or, even "traditional". I have also rejected all of these labels. I have long insisted that "Catholic" is the noun. To be a Catholic is to accept the fullness of the Christian faith as handed down to us from the Apostles and to follow the teaching office of the Church which is a gift from the Holy Spirit.
If anything, the more accurate question to be posed in examining how an individual professing Catholic approaches living their faith is whether they are being faithful or unfaithful. What the Catholic Church teaches on matter of doctrine, faith and morals is clear, consistent, cut from a whole cloth, can be known and must be followed by Catholics. That is because what the Church teaches has been handed down by the Lord and passed on through the "Tradition", with a capital "T". I believe it is true and I embrace it with a full assent of intellect and will. I also try to live it, to the best of my ability.
I am a Catholic Christian by continuing personal choice. My faith is the source of deep fulfillment in my life. Yet, I do not use the term "traditionalist" to describe my faith. I believe it too has been co-opted at times. I value the faithful "traditionalists" who are in full communion with the Catholic Church and believe they are a gift. However, the term “traditionalist” has sometimes been stolen by some in schism, such as integrists and sedevacantists. Finally, there is another objection I have to using the term. It sounds as though one wants to go backward to some other time in history. I do not.
I love the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood, correctly taught, properly and faithfully applied. That is what was done throughout the extraordinary Papacy of John Paul II and this true progress continues under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. His commitment to continuity is a beacon of light at a time of confusion and darkness. He shines the light of the true faith on the way of the Third Christian Millennium. Just as it was in the first and the second millennium, it illuminates the way of true progress.
Though I do not like most adjectival descriptors, if I had to use some to describe myself I guess I would say that I am a dynamically orthodox, Magisterium following, Catholic Christian. To be dynamically orthodox is to recognize the progress the Church makes as she journeys through time to eternity. She is not static. In fact she is the agent of real change, real progress and calls persons, cultures and Nations to conversion. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she proclaims ageless truths in fresh and new ways, calling all men and women forward and toward progress.
The "Tradition" of the Church is very different than "traditions" of men and women. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It guides us forward to the future. Christianity proclaims a linear view of history. There is a timeline to history; it has a beginning and an end, a fulfillment, which is, in fact, a new beginning. Time is heading somewhere. That is true of the history of the world, the Church and our own personal histories. Christians mark time by the great events of the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are always progressing toward His loving return. In that sense, following the Tradition is about following the path to the future, while standing on the shoulders of the past. The truths that the Tradition preserves pave the way to authentic human fulfillment, true liberation and real human and social progress for every age. They are not dusty remnants of the past but shining tutors for the future.
The misuse of the word "progressive" is simply more example of what I have called "verbal engineering" and what the late, great C.S. Lewis in his "Studies in Words" called "verbicide." There is a concerted effort to paint those who adhere to faithful, classical, orthodox Christianity and, most particularly, faithful Catholic Christianity, as "backward." Increasingly, we are deluged with efforts to portray faithful Christians as theological "Neanderthals" committed to a kind of return to some perceived "dark age". Christians are presented as unenlightened, forcing "our view" on others. While those who engage in this kind of word game are the ones who are intolerant of any view other than their own. In fact, they engage in propaganda campaigns.
The truth is that it has been the contributions of Christianity throughout modern history, such as its’ insistence on the inherent and inviolable dignity and worth of every human person, that have set so people- and cultures- free from the bondage of totalitarianism and produced true human progress. It has been the truth proclaimed by the Church that has exposed and brought down errant philosophies that have enslaved whole Nations. It has been a Christian world view and anthropology that have helped to achieve true liberation. It will be the Church that leads the world to a future of real progress. She is its champion.
A PAGE FROM OUR PAST
The current hostility we face as Catholics is not an unfamiliar one. We need to see it within the light of two thousand years of Christian history. I do not care how "advanced" some contemporaries think they have become, or how "modern" the "current" issues purport to be, we humans do not really change all that much, at least without grace. The struggle we are engaged in today still concerns a clash of worldviews, personal and corporate, and competing definitions of human freedom, flourishing and progress. In the circles of some contemporary cultural and social revolutionaries who like to call themselves "progressive", the positions being espoused and lifestyles being affirmed as "progressive" are anything but. They turn the clock back.
It is the Christian vision of faithful, monogamous marriage, family, authentic human freedom, the dignity of every human person; indeed the very insistence that there even are objective truths that can be known and unalienable rights that are endowed on all men and women such as the right to life, which have guided true progress, by freeing people from the bondage of disordered appetites and unshackling them from the tyrannies rooted in sin. It has been Christian contributions to history, to political, social and philosophical thought, that have helped to overcome the slaveries that have arisen from flawed ideologies and superstitions that have treated people as property to be used and manipulated.
It is the Church that has spoken truth to power, condemning the lies that elevate power and function over the primacy of the person, suppressing the deeper and higher values that civilize and set people and Nations free.
From its birth, the Church has been sent into cultures and societies filled with people who thought they were "advanced" in light of the arts and sciences of their day. Some of the most barbarous of peoples and Nations saw themselves as "progressive." They resented the Christian teaching because it challenged their claim and upset the order. The early Christians went forward in time into a world enslaved. Many of those cultures, like contemporary western culture, practiced primitive forms of abortion and even "exposure", a practice of leaving unwanted children on rocks to be eaten by birds of prey or picked up by slave traders. To those folks, as to their modern contemporaries, "freedom" meant having power over others who were weaker. They were threatened by those who kept them from doing whatever it was that they wanted to do by challenging their claims of "progress".
One has only to read the ancient Christian manuscripts such as the Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve) or the accounts of Justin Martyr or other early historic sources to read of cultures not unlike the one in which we live today, cultures of "use" where people were treated as property - cultures of excess where "freedom" was perceived as a power over others and unrestrained license masqueraded as liberty. The word "pagan" was not used as a disparaging term in those accounts, but actually represented a pseudo-"religious" worldview. I use it the same way in referring to our contemporary age as increasingly pagan and not progressive at all.
Many of the "gods" and goddesses" of this pre-Christian worldview promoted lifestyles of selfish excess, homosexual practices, and hedonism masquerading as freedom. The myths concerning them had them acting in much the same way. Their lies have simply been reintroduced today, only the myths and statues are different. They still purport to be "progressive" when, in reality, they are regressive.
The early Christians did not point the finger and rail against the "pagans" of their age. They did not present a "negative" message. They proclaimed the freedom for a future of hope founded in Jesus Christ to all who would listen. They demonstrated it in their compelling witness of life. They lived in monogamous marriages, raised their children to be faithful Christians and good citizens, and went into the world of their age, offering a new way to live. This "way" (which is what they first called the early Church) presented a very different worldview than the one that the pagans embraced.
The early Christians, with joy and integrity, spoke and lived a different way in the midst of that pagan culture. As a result, they sometimes stirred up hostility. Some of them were martyred in the red martyrdom of shed blood. Countless more joined the train of what use to be called "white martyrdom", by living lives of sacrificial witness and service in the culture, working hard and staying faithful to the end of along life spent in missionary toil.
Slowly, not only were small numbers of "pagans" converted and baptized, but eventually their leaders and entire Nations followed suit. Resultantly, the Christian worldview began to influence the social order. The "clash of freedoms" continued, but the climate changed significantly. It was the Christian faith and the practices of these Christians that began to win the hearts of men and women. The cultures once enshrined to pagan practices, such as plural marriage, active homosexuality, exposure and abortion began to change dramatically and this dynamic continued for centuries.
It was Christianity that taught such novel concepts as the dignity of every person and their equality before the One God. The Christians proclaimed the dignity of women, the dignity of chaste marriage and the sanctity of the family. It was Christianity that introduced the understanding of freedom not simply as a freedom from, but as a freedom for living responsibly and with integrity.
The Christians insisted that freedom must be exercised with reference to a moral code, a law higher than the emperor, or the sifting sands of public opinion. It was the Christians who understood that choice, rightly exercised, meant always choosing what was right and that the freedom to exercise that choice brought with it an obligation and concern for the other and a belief in truths that were true for all, not relativism.
The Christian faith presented a coherent and compelling answer to the existential questions that plagued the ancients, such as why we existed and how we got here. What was the purpose of life? Questions like how evil came into the world and why we could not always make right choices? What force seemed to move us toward evil and how we could be set free from its power? Christian philosophy began to flourish and the arts also flourished under the Christian worldview. Philosophies of government and economic theory began to be influenced by these principles derived from a Christian worldview
Now, we live in a post modern age. Some would say a "post Christian" age. I do not. If anything, it is pre-Christian. The future belongs to the Church and the gifts that she holds for every age. The contemporary re-emergence of ancient paganism is not the path to authentic human freedom and flourishing but to misery. The Christian understanding of marriage and family is not some outdated notion of a past era but the framework for a future of true freedom.
In 1996, a professor of Sociology and comparative religion named Rodney Stark wrote a compelling book entitled "The Rise of Christianity." Rich in sociological and empirical data it details the growth of Christianity at the beginning of the first millennium. The book chronicles the rise of the Christian faith from a small Jewish sect in the first century to extraordinary cultural dominance 300 years later. Using historical documents, the author demonstrated how the early Christians lived in faithful, heterosexual, monogamous marriages in the midst of a pagan culture, claiming to be "enlightened" while they decayed from within. The lifestyle of the Christians had an extraordinary affect over time.
During the first millennium, in the pagan culture of ancient Rome, fidelity between a husband and wife was uncommon. Sexual promiscuity and "hetero" and "homo" sexual aberrant behaviors were very common. Women (and some men) were considered to be property and used as sexual objects. Abortion, infanticide, and exposure (placing children on rocks to die by the elements or be picked up by slave traders) were not only commonplace practices but also "lawful".
Epidemics began to multiply, apparently related to the lifestyle of sexual excess, causing civic and (Pagan) religious leaders to flee the cities, leaving the sick to die.
In contrast to this old pagan culture, the Christian way of life stood out as an alternative. It proclaimed a truly progressive message, offering a future of hope and true freedom. The emphasis of the Christians was upon marrying once. Husbands and wives remained faithful to one another. Children were welcomed, cherished and seen as both gifts from- and the means of serving - the God whom they proclaimed in both word and lifestyle. Christians did not abandon the sick, but cared for them, even the sick pagans, to the point of sacrificing their own health.
According to Stark, Christianity helped to explain, "why bad things happen to good people," through the proclamation of the suffering and Cross of Christ. The Christian faith answered the existential questions that were unanswered in classical paganism. The Christians lived the love they proclaimed and had a strong family system that was increasingly attractive to the pagans. This lifestyle also allowed the Christians to live longer.
The author writes: "Christian values of love and charity, from the beginning, had been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger and larger percentage of the population even without new converts."
Stark notes that Christianity in the first millennium brought a new culture: "To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services."
In short, the Christian Way of Life transformed Christianity from a sect into the major dominating faith. It also transformed the world of the First Millennium…and the Second. It can and it will do the same in the Third Millennium.
It is the fullness of the Catholic faith, as taught by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church that is truly progressive. It presents a vision for the person, the family, society and the common good that moves us forward and not backward. That is why I insist that Ms Vennocchi’s basic premise was wrong. Faithful Catholics, the ones who embrace all that the Catholic Church proclaims, are the true progressives of this age. We need to challenge the lies of the current age with the truths revealed by our faith. It is not “progressive” to call the killing of children in the first home of the whole human race a “right”. It is simply the reemergence of a new form of infant exposure. It is not “progressive” to undermine the first society of lifelong monogamous marriage -and the family founded upon it- then redefine the word by judicial fiat and put the force of the State behind this new cultural revolution.
Ms. Vennochi, made at least one accurate assessment in her article. She wrote: "The mainstream US media grant elevated status to Catholics who hold liberal views about gay marriage, married priests, birth control, and choice." In fact, it has been the media that has propelled the idea that those who want to change the teaching of the Catholic Church in order to promote practices and lifestyles that push us backward to a "new" paganism are "progressive." I say that is nonsense. Their claim to be “progressive” fails by definition and is disproved by the witness of history. Progress is propelled by the Tradition of the Church and she leads humanity forward to authentic freedom…not backward to neo-pagan resurgence.
The real question that must be raised concerns whose vision for the future will prevail. I have no doubt. The truly “progressive” movement of our age is Christianity. The faith handed to us from the apostles, the Catholic faith, is the path to authentic human freedom, flourishing and liberation. Contrary to Ms Venocchi’s claims Catholics, other Christians, people of other faiths and people of good will have flocked to Pope Benedicts visits and hung on his words.They show such respect toward Pope Benedict XVI because he speaks prophetically to the lies of the age. The Good news he proclaims still sets the captives free. It is the only path to true progress.
When he recently left Austria Pope Benedict proclaimed to a crowd that Christianity not just a legacy for Europe, but the path to the future. It is time for the true progressives to rise up and build what his predecessor rightly called a “Culture of Life” and “Civilization of Love”.