In Part III of our series on “The Invisible Schism,” I spoke of Liberation Theology as one of the items rolling around the ecclesial “junk drawer.” I explained that, in essence, the different currents of Liberation Theology are Marxist or Neo-Marxist, and as such, are fundamentally materialistic theories of reality. They aren’t really Christian at all, in anything even remotely resembling an “orthodox” sense, and the Church needs to be freed from those distortions, though they have fairly wide adherence, even among some high-ranking members of the clergy. I also mentioned, however, that there were other variants of Catholicism in the drawer that needed to be tossed because they were incompatible with or at least deleterious to the Faith. In this installment, we’ll be talking about “Progressivism” in the Church.
Progressivism—What It’s Not
There’s certainly a link between Marxism and Progressivism, historically, but the two aren’t exactly the same thing. But before we get into what Progressivism is, I want to talk about what it isn’t—or at least, what it isn’t most essentially.
During the Second Vatican Council, many spoke of a division between two factions among the Council Fathers and periti: the Conservatives vs. the Progressives. Some in the Progressive faction may have been Progressivists incidentally, in the way I mean “Progressivist” here, but I’m not specifically talking about the “Progressive” faction in the conciliar-era Church. Let’s be clear on this distinction. At the Council, there were those who held that older modes of thought and discipline should give way to newer ones—that we should recognize that some aspects of Catholic life and thought, which might have made sense in the past, have since proven themselves outdated and no longer useful. Those were the “Progressives” at the Second Vatican Council and theirs is a complex bit of history involving people all over the doctrinal map, but it’s not what I’m talking about in this post, when I speak about “Progressivists” and the ideology of “Progressivism”.
What is Progressivism?
For our purposes here, what I mean by “Progressivism” is the idea that management of societal affairs, up to and including the global level, should be placed into the hands of an “expert” class. This thesis dates back to the nineteenth century, gaining a great deal of momentum from the 1880’s through the 1930’s. It goes hand-in-hand with the growth of a bureaucratic, managerial structure in society, because, if societal affairs are to be governed by an “expert” class, then the practical mechanism whereby their expert judgments are implemented has to be managed by intermediaries whose job it is to follow directions and make sure everyone else does, too.
In the United States, for example, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson would be classified as “Progressivists.”
The Church hasn’t been immune from the attitudes of the Progressivists. In the Church, over the course of the twentieth century, we saw a massive growth of bureaucracy in the hierarchy. How many congregations, councils, and dicasteries, are there now? How much of what affects the daily lives of ordinary Christians has devolved upward, from their own homes to their parishes, or to the diocesan offices, or to the congregations of bishops, or even to the Roman Curia? The Church teaches that subsidiarity is a good thing—that human agency should always be exercised at the most particular level capable of addressing the goods in question, because human beings are both rational agents and social beings, to whom it’s appropriate that their own acts are immediately connected to their own lives and to the communities in which they live and work—but subsidiarity isn’t consistently reflected in how we do things, institutionally. In practice, everyone is asked to look up for an answer: not up to God, mind you, but up to the next level of bureaucracy.
Practical Manifestations of Progressivism in the Church
At a practical level, the common religion of the people in the pews has, to a great extent, been modified or even, in some cases, supplanted by the religion of these “experts.” Take, for example, the Novus ordo missae—the liturgy the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics pray today. Without getting into a critique on its merits, I wish only to point out the historical fact that this liturgy is the wholesale product of a commission, not an organic outgrowth of custom and tradition. I don’t deny that it borrows from tradition and does so, in many instances, in admirable ways, but it only borrows from tradition. In itself, it’s not tradition.
But, once drawn up, the Novus ordo replaced the liturgy the people in the pews had been praying, with periodic, minor modifications here and there around the edges, for hundreds of years. Let that sink in. This work-product of a committee of “experts” replaced the actual, received, living tradition of the Latin Rite Catholic liturgy.
Now, correlation may not be causality, but it should at least raise the question of causality, and it’s an objective fact that the introduction of the Novus ordo correlates with a crisis of catechesis, faith, morals, and pious devotion in the Church that persists to the present day. Evidently, many ordinary Catholics simply couldn’t recognize the liturgy of the “experts” as meaningful, because what followed was, by any measure, a sociological catastrophe.
And yet, since the later part of the twentieth century, nearly every aspect of ecclesial life has been handed over to “experts”—a term I place in quotation marks because I think it’s a matter of debate whether those we recognize as experts are truly more informed or more aware or better prepared than those bearers of tradition they’ve displaced. In fact, I tend to think they’re not, in many cases. But there they are, nonetheless, because they have “certifications.”
Most notably, here, are the various parish and diocesan officials: the professional catechists, the directors of liturgy, the youth ministers. Nearly everything about typical parish and diocesan life today is programatized and placed under the authority of someone who, in theory, knows how it all works and can organize things the right way so that what we want to have happen actually happens, in fact.
Have you ever been to carefully scripted parish or diocesan renewal program, conducted by a visiting team of trained facilitators sporting professionally prepared materials for distribution to the participants?
This whole way of doing things threatens to crowd out the Holy Spirit. It crushes the spontaneous responses human beings have to his promptings, which, for their own part, come when they come, wherever we may be or whatever we’re doing. “The Spirit moves where he wills” (John 3:8), after all, and God “does not ration the gifts of the Spirit” (John 3:34).
So, when, for example, we try to fit a person’s conversion into an academic calendar, starting in October and ending at the Easter Vigil, we essentially try to put the Holy Spirit in a box. Did St. Paul’s experience of conversion look like that? Did St. Augustine’s? Then why should I expect John Doe’s experience of conversion to look like that?
Indeed, the very idea that we can define the terms on which the Holy Spirit might move should trouble us deeply if we’re really thinking with the faith. Not even the Church can control that movement, because not even the sacraments themselves, which the Church can neither invent nor retire, but only regulate, fully exhaust the range of the Holy Spirit’s activity.
The Theological Error of Progressivism in the Church
More broadly speaking than in religious terms alone, the Progressivists are, for all intents and purposes, synonymous with the “globalists” in secular politico-economic terms. They’re the champions of the UN, the World Economic Forum, and the World Health Organization. The big-tech oligarchies are Progressivist corporate agents, as are many of the global philanthropic NGO’s. Some of these, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, are at least loosely affiliated with the Catholic Church. The Progressivists, in other words, are the global, institutional “Establishment” inhabited by those who could live anywhere, in contrast the common man, who lives in a particular place by default of birth and circumstance, from which he’s essentially unable to move nor wants to do so.
But how does it happen that Progressivism enters the life of the Church? Basically, there are two reasons this happens.
First, Progressivism, remember, is about rule by the “expert” class, and the Church largely invented expertise. This statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much if we remember the historical link between the Church and the major institutions from which experts have emerged, generally, in Western Culture. Hospitals were basically invented by the Church. The University was invented by the Church, as, therefore, whether directly or indirectly, were advanced degrees in a wide range of disciplines. The Galileo affair aside, misrepresented and misunderstood as it was, the Church has, historically, championed the natural sciences and does so even today. So, the Church has a natural affinity for the “expert” class.
The Second reason, though, that the Church has been prone to a Progressivist current is that Christian eschatology tends toward the harmonization of the whole world under the headship of Christ. Given the Church’s understanding of herself in this world as the mediating historical organizing institution by which the emergence of the eschatological reality is advanced and overseen, it’s not hard to see why Catholic thinkers are inclined to favor globalist agendas. Consider, for example, the diminishment of national sovereignty in favor of international federations (like the EU, NATO, and the UN), tending toward increasingly transnational or even thoroughly global economic and juridical systems. Or consider how some in the Church press for free systems of international migration, calling for destination countries to forego enforcement of immigration laws and receive all comers without regard to the economic, political, or cultural concerns of their own citizens.
In theory, it’s not wrong, from a Catholic point of view, to envision the ideal of a one-world government in which all human beings enjoy common citizenship. But the world in which we actually live and the world in which we ought to live aren’t the same thing, nor can they be this side of the Parousia.
While, every year in Latin Rite Catholicism, we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, the reality anticipated in that feast belongs distinctly to the end of time as we know it. It’s not a reality of the fallen world but of the world wholly taken up into heaven, and as we discussed in Part III of this series, we can’t reduce heaven to a future historical condition. It’s foolish, therefore, to attempt in the here-and-now, through the machinations of an “expert” class, to attempt to model this world too closely upon it.
Those who advance such an agenda are too often found prioritizing secular organization above the conversion of souls to Christ—the Kingdom of Man above the Kingdom of God. That’s the very reason Pope Pius XI so vehemently opposed Catholic involvement in false irenicism (attempts to establish fraternal cooperation and even common worship with those divided along creedal, confessional lines without, in fact, resolving the confessional causes of those divisions).
What’s at stake?
Augustine makes clear that the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man can’t actually exist in parallel. One of the two must always be our true concern. So, the tendency, then, when Progressivist thinking enters the Church, is to make the Kingdom of God a means to an end rather than an end in itself; and doing that derogates from the faith. It contradicts what we profess in the Constantinopolitan Creed, wherein we say, quite literally, that, “of his Kingdom, there will be no end-purpose-beyond-itself.”
In the final analysis, the question is whether God or man is the beginning and end of our faith and life. If man, then we can look forward only to the narrowing of our whole horizon of expectations, because man can never, by any power of his own, live and move beyond the frame of the merely material world. Progressivisim is rigid and stifling and incredibly arrogant—in other words, something quite other than the Catholic Faith.
What we need is humility before God and our fellow human beings, recognizing that, “out of the mouths of babes” (Psalm 8:2) can come words of wisdom by the movement of the Holy Spirit. What we need is the flexibility that comes from knowing that God is in control of things, not us, and that we need to be ready to follow his lead, unpredictable as it always is. We need to let God be God and accept that we’re not him. So, Progressivism—that product of the hubris of the Modern Age—actually works against what’s most essential to the life of the Church, and it has to go.
In the next installment, we’ll talk about another great threat to the integrity of the Faith: ideological ecologism.