And the Idea of Progress

The philosophical foundations of America are built upon the Idea of Progress, which has since given rise to Faith in Progress. This philosophical school, while having some merit, eventually resulted in calling people to change for change sake. This school particularly took a turn in the era when eugenics and evolution theory were on the rise. At the core, it saw nature, including the nature of Man, as a progressive, evolving reality that is moving toward an end they know not what. Rather than accepting the nature of things as being what they are and seeking perfection through the proper fulfillment of their ends, the nature of things has become ever changeable entities that have no definitive end -- which means that all manipulations and alterations are permissible. All changes that bring about desired results must be good, albeit the results desired may not be anchored to a proper end. The Idea and Faith in Progress marks the greatest challenge to Natural Law and the understanding of morality as it relates to Salvation.

Previous to the dominance this school of thought, the end of Man was clearly understood as God and Eternal Life. By disconnecting spiritual and salvific progress from its proper end, change becomes the credo although what has to be changed becomes unclear. And so with change as the nature of all things and the constant of existence, everything must be changed or changing all the time. When reading spiritual masters like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John of the Cross, repentance and conversion are not linked with a change of being or even change for change sake. Rather, they speak of change with regard to conforming one’s being to its ultimate End, that is, God. In the spiritual life, and especially in Lent, we are not talking about progress for progress sake or change for change sake but change in regard to our ultimate end and progress toward eternal life with God.

Through the Idea of Progress, as the separation from ultimate ends gradually occurred, change was transferred to more immediate ends. In this regard, penance and mortification became trite actions that help correct undesired behaviors. Rather than striking at the roots of Sin, most Catholics now choose actions that are formed by the social engineers of the modern world. And many priests and deacons have fallen prey to this way of thinking. Thus, today we hear preachers proposing as Lenten activities things such as, “be nice to your siblings,” or “say something nice each day to your spouse,” or “work on losing a few pounds by giving up sweets.” These fall into the realm of the social engineering in which the central claim is that the “good can be constructed” rather than the Good being a fixed reality established by God. We must always remember that we do not change ourselves in an attempt to be “better” but are called to conform our beings to the Good, which is God. Everything we say or do, every Lenten practice, must be ordered to conforming our beings to the Divine Will, which is beyond all relative perspectives.

Only by breaking from the errors of the modern world can one truly understand what the word “repent” means. We cannot truly express the regret we have for sins committed until we fully understand the Good we have violated. We cannot truly begin to change or progress in the spiritual life until we understand the Good toward which we are progressing. Lent is more than an opportunity to change… It is an opportunity to conform oneself to the Good.