Pope Francis and the Cult of Progress

You all know by now that I don’t like to contradict the Holy Father.  And I’m not going to do so now.  Not quite.

But my friend Mike from Ireland just emailed me, pointing out something funny in Francis’s recent comments to a group of Slovakian S.J.’s:

“We are suffering this today in the church: the ideology of going backward.  It is an ideology that colonizes minds.  It is a form of ideological colonization,” the pope told his Jesuit confreres September 12 during a meeting at the apostolic nunciature in Bratislava.

He also said the purpose of the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family was “to make it understood that couples in second unions are not already condemned to hell.”

Today, he said, many in the church are afraid of accompanying people “with sexual diversity.”

“That is why today we look back to the past: to seek security.  It frightens us to celebrate before the people of God who look us in the face and tell us the truth.  It frightens us to go forward in pastoral experiences,” the pope said.

“This is the evil of this moment: namely, to seek the path in rigidity and clericalism, which are two perversions,” he said.

Mike from Ireland wants to know: “Since when was the Church ever concerned about ‘going forward’?” 

That seems like a fair question to me.

Now, I think Pope Francis is trying—trying—to make a valid point.  He’s saying that the Church has to adapt its strategy to the crises she faces in the modern world.  We can’t discuss divorce-and-“remarriage” (adultery) or homosexuality (sodomy) in 2021 the same way we did in 1921. 

Why? Because we’re no longer reifying a Christian consensus: we’re fighting against a progressive one.  We have to bear in mind that many of the folks who oppose us aren’t rebels. We’re the rebels now.  Our countrymen aren’t actively defying Christian orthodoxy, which is a view now held by a tiny minority. No, they’re actively conforming to the new secular orthodoxy, which they’ve been force-fed since they were tots. They’re not wolves: they’re sheep

That means we Christians have to be a little meeker, a little humbler.  We have to be more generous in our efforts and more forgiving in our failures.

I believe that is the point Francis is trying to make.  I sincerely believe he’s trying to formulate a viable game-plan for Christians living in a post-Christian West.

However, it also seems clear to me that the Holy Father has been conditioned by the Cult of Progress, which John Crowe Ransom described so powerfully:

Progress is the concept of man’s increasing command, and eventually perfect command, over the forces of nature; a concept which enhances too readily our conceit, intoxicates us, and brutalizes our life.  I believe it is demonstrable that there is possible no deep sense of beauty, no heroism of conduct, and no sublimity of religion, which is not informed by the humble sense of man’s precarious position in the universe.

Progressives are always the same, whether they call themselves Jacobins or Modernists.  Their first error is their most fundamental: they look to mortal reason for solutions that only God can provide. 

Still, this is where the Holy Father and I part ways. He and I both recognize that the world has changed, and Christians need to adapt to those changes.  The difference is that he seems to blame the Church’s traditions for dragging us down and looks to human wisdom for the solutions.

For instance, he would do away with the Tridentine Mass, which evolved over centuries, in favor of the Novus Ordo: an “updated” version of the Mass assembled by bureaucrats, who openly sought to make liturgy more “accessible” to modern Christians. As Ransom might say, the Novus Ordo is a highly rational, un-beautiful “solution” to the problem of declining Mass attendance. 

The reactionary’s solution is the one given by Christ Himself.  It’s much older and much simpler.  It’s heroic, though (like all heroism) truly arduous.  The solution is simply this: to win souls for Christ.  Pray, preach, and propagate.  Tell everyone about the Good News of Jesus Christ: your family, our friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, the lady on the bus, the man on the gutter.  Perform the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.  As St. Paul said, “Do what is good, and you will receive his approval.”

If Christians aren’t turning non-Christians into Christians, all of our other efforts to advance the Faith will be a huge waste of time.

Progressives always believe they’re in control.  Most, like Robespierre, relish that power.  For others, like Francis, it seems to come as a terrible burden. 

The good news is, we’re not in control.  God is. 

As St. John Henry Newman said, “There are ten thousand ways of looking at this world, but only one right way”:

It is the way in which God looks at the world.  Aim at looking at it in God’s way.  Aim at seeing things as God sees them.  Aim at forming judgments about persons, events, ranks, fortunes, changes, objects, such as God forms.  Aim at looking at this life as God looks at it.  Aim at looking at the life to come, and the world unseen, as God does.  Aim at “seeing the King in his beauty.”  All things that we see are but shadows to us and delusions, unless we enter into what they really mean.

It’s like what Mike from Ireland said. What do “forwards” and “backwards” mean to God?  To Him, everything is new and everything is old.  Everything is fresh and everything is familiar. 

To God, backwards is as good as forwards.  In fact, He sent dozens of prophets to Israel, calling His people back to Himself.  That’s what Chesterton meant when he said, “For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.”  That is what revolution means: to turn back again.

We are the prophets now, sent to call the West back to God.  And if we’re not putting in the hours, all our other efforts are for naught.

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