The Christian Sense of Progress

Interview With Father Thomas D. Williams

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ROME, FEB. 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A key point of Pope Paul VI's social encyclical, "Populorum Progressio," emphasized that the measure of human progress cannot be limited to just the material or technological.



So observes Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, professor of Catholic social doctrine and dean of theology at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Williams talked about the significance of "Populorum Progressio," which marks its 40th anniversary next month.

Q: Why was "Populorum Progressio" so important?

Father Williams: Not only was "Populorum Progressio" the first social encyclical promulgated after the Second Vatican Council, it was also the first ever to address head-on the topic of human progress and development.

Paul VI drew on many of the insights of the Council to distinguish an authentically Christian idea of progress from other ideologies.

Q: What ideologies?

Father Williams: The Enlightenment had taken the idea of progress as its leitmotiv, preaching a secular humanism that would usher in an age of reason, where religion would be replaced by science.

Along with the positive contributions of the Enlightenment, such as a healthy separation of church and state, the balance of political powers and the promotion of the natural sciences, it also had a marked materialistic and anti-religious dimension as well. Man became his own savior, able to resolve his own problems, and no longer needful of a transcendent and personal God.

Nineteenth-century ideologies built on many of the aspects of the Enlightenment, and came to see progress as a necessary and inexorable phenomenon, an expression of Darwinian evolutionism. This existential optimism held that things were necessarily getting better as human beings gained dominion over the natural world through the application of the natural sciences.

Add to the mix Hegel's philosophy of dialectical progress, whereby society necessarily progresses through conflict -- thesis, antithesis and synthesis -- and we had the perfect setup for the tragic totalitarian experiments of the 20th century, which sought to bring about an earthly paradise without God. By excluding God, they also wound up trampling on the human person as well.

Q: How does the Christian idea of progress differ from these ideologies?

Father Williams: First, as Paul VI taught in "Populorum Progressio," the Christian idea of progress is not merely material or technological. It necessarily embraces the whole human person in his social, moral, cultural and spiritual dimensions as well.

Paul VI wrote: "The development we speak of here cannot be restricted to economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and of the whole man." If a society doesn't advance in goodness, in justice and in love, it doesn't truly advance.

Second, Christians do not see human progress as a necessary phenomenon. Just because we now have iPods and microwave ovens doesn't mean that we are morally or culturally superior to previous generations. Moving forward in time doesn't guarantee that we are moving forward in virtue. Not all change is an improvement, and regression is just as possible as progress.

Third, because progress isn't automatic, all of us must take responsibility for the direction our society takes. We are not simply swept along by the winds of change; each of us also influences the direction our culture takes. Our choices for good or evil have a bearing on all of mankind.

As Christians we believe that each of us has a specific vocation and a mission to fulfill. In this context, progress means doing our part to bring about the Kingdom of Christ in human society.

Finally, the progress of the earthly city does not exhaust the human condition. No matter how much human society progresses, our temporal existence will come to an end. We are called to eternal life in Christ. True progress must take into account man's spiritual dimension and transcendent vocation as a child of God destined for heaven.

Q: But isn't there a danger of over "spiritualizing" development and forgetting about man's real material needs?

Father Williams: Thankfully Paul VI didn't fall into this trap. Though he warned against a reductive materialism that understands progress and development in an exclusively material way, he likewise insisted on the importance of economic development, especially for the poorer nations.

He emphasized the need for a concerted effort on the part of all to lift underdeveloped nations and peoples out of their poverty as an essential part of their integral development.

Q: How can one gauge the real progress of a given culture or society?

Father Williams: A society progresses by becoming more human. Paul VI spoke often of a new Christian humanism, which focuses on the dignity of the human person.

The real progress of a culture can be measured by its achievement of the common good, that is, the conditions of social life that allows persons, families and groups to attain their true and integral good. Material prosperity is one element of this true progress, but it is not the only one, nor the most important.

Q: You have recently published a book entitled "Spiritual Progress." Where does the idea of spiritual progress fit into the picture of human development?

Father Williams: Spiritual underdevelopment is even more common that economic underdevelopment in the contemporary world. Many find that while their material, intellectual and social lives have grown continually over the years, their spiritual lives are still very much where they were as children.

The purpose of this book is not to offer a theoretical treatise on the spiritual life, but a more practical, hands-on text for growing in one's personal relationship with Christ.

It lays out the ABC's of the spiritual life: where we are going and, perhaps more importantly, how to get there. Many concepts such as holiness, God's will, faith and humility seem very ethereal to people today, and this book aims to bring them down to earth and make them tangible and attainable.

For years I had been looking for a book that combines meaty spiritual content with accessible language. I wanted to be able to offer good material to people who are starting to take their spiritual lives more seriously. Since I couldn't find what I was looking for, I decided to write it. I hope it fits the bill.