Backwardism and Progress


It is remarkable that an Argentinian from Italy can think of a neologism that is translated “Backwardism,” proposed evidently as an antonym to progress, which is what the pope endorses and encourages. 

The dynamic of Backwardism versus Progressivism manages to obscure several important and highly relevant topics.   One is the doctrine of the Development of Doctrine, which proposes to unpack the original revelation given in Scripture and Tradition to create a body of intelligible and interrelated truths.  Christian doctrine has been developing from the original sketch through the mill of popular piety into careful consideration and promulgation by wisdom, the theological schools, and authority, the Church.  It is the specific claim of the Church that in the process nothing has changed in the sense that the end was implied by the beginning.   If this is progress it is progress of a particular and narrowly-based kind.  Examples of this process abound.  The teaching of the Apostle Peter intended to relieve the pressure of fervent expectation of the Lord’s return with the teaching that God of his mercy might delay winding up history for a long time is a fine early example of development.   The development of the doctrine or dogma of the Trinity is the classic example.   Belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit required resolution in a doctrine which acknowledged the equality of the three while recognizing the Father as the origin of all.  Development is not progress as post-modernity understands it.

The concept of progress was implied if not invented by the secularizing movements of the eighteenth century, with the enlightenment claiming to bring civilization out of the dark past into the clear light of secularism and science, to leave behind the regimen of priests and kings, and to establish perfect liberty.  “The term “dark ages” was widely used by 19th-century historians as  in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt in 1860.    “Progress was assumed in early-19th-century social theories, especially social evolution as described by Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.”  It was present in Enlightenment’s philosophies of history, as, for example, in  Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. As a goal, social progress has been advocated by varying realms of political ideologies with different theories on how it is to be achieved.   The Whig theory of history as progressive has become a common trope.   

It remained for the nineteenth century to make progress in the presupposition of thought and life.   The general conviction that the world was moving from inhuman conditions into a better world,  fostered by John Ruskin and Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Dickens, was caught up in the more systematic Hegelian myth and in the popular myth of  “March of Mind,”  which saw such things as the settling of the American West, undoubtedly an acquisition of land and an extension of power, as progress.   In the United Kingdom the reforms that enlarged the franchise were assumed to be progressive.   In politics in the United States progress blossomed as the Progressive Era (1896–1917),  “a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States focused on defeating corruption, monopoly, waste, and inefficiency.”  Begun in the United Kingdom, and derived ultimately from Robert Owen and from the Rochdale group, “the cooperative movement, based on mutual assistance rather than competitive individualism, proposed a  ‘New Moral World’ whose superiority, once established through the working of communities in which labor was the unit of currency, would drive out the irrationality of capitalism.” The First World War was a speed bump in the progressive movement, in its various manifestations but its advocates might have lived to see the era of Roosevelt progressivism.  But political change is no better than Francis Bacon as an interpreter of the moral meaning of human experience. 

Viewed as the fruition of Francis Bacon’s project for the utilization of nature, progressivism has been a stellar success.   If 1830 is taken as the base line, everything subject to the ingenuity of humanity has improved.   Average life expectancy was then 37; now it is in the eighties.  It took Andrew Jackson three weeks to travel from the Hermitage near Nashville to Washington in 1824. By 1860 the trip might have been made in a day.  After 1849, with the invention of the telegraph, information traveled at the speed of an electron moving along a copper wire. By 1880 slums were considered an urban embarrassment and the attempt to build better has been begun, often with the imposition of building codes. By 1940 life in the United States was not perfect. But the ‘ ‘standard of living” had reached a height heretofore unknown.   The history of the next century is the story of Baconian science triumphant, with belief that nature could be mined and controlled, which had characterized the world before 1940 incorporated in a much larger project involving ambitious goals:  fusion and fission, population control by state fiat and propaganda, Chemical sterility for the majority, scientific-medical determination of gender, universal instantaneous communication, imitation humans who are better than the  original, and finally control of the climate.  To the degree that the goal has remained the control of nature, who could deny that the Baconian project has been a great success.   In Baconian terms the world is much improved, even if more dangerous.

The difficulty with the scene of improvement I have set before you lies in the fact that the inheritors of the Baconian project have not themselves made progress, being the same creatures who started a war over a woman at Troy in the eighth century BC; the same creatures who will wreck the system as Brutus did when their opponent, Julius Caesar,  seems triumphant; the same creatures who will in England in 1520 destroy the religion of a people through pusillanimity and  fear and sycophancy; the same people who will not happily consent to the reduction of Social Security  benefits or an increase in taxation to save the system, which absent such measures will surely go bankrupt; the same people who stubbornly refuse to understand that the collapse of private morality will be reflected in the failure of public morality and vice versa.    

The tradition of the wise men, Confucius and Cicero, with Epictetus, to say nothing of the tradition of the Hebrews,  in one form or another provide  a kind of theoretical check on the folly of fallen mankind, with what Christians call “the fall” being a doctrine accepted across the world in one form or another; the Greeks knew all about hybris, which threatened all human projects from the smallest to the greatest.  The greatest moralists in the classical world, Aristotle and Epictetus, gave good advice, sometimes followed, but the wise men of the ancient world did not propose to renovate human nature.  There have been modern attempts.  Rousseau and Voltaire believed that there had been a kind of cosmic misunderstanding, which they proposed to clear away.  The belief in God, the moral tradition they had inherited, the regime of kings and priests, had imposed a morality of guilt and obedience that had warped human nature, which, once freed from this destructive past, would blossom.   A century later Sigmund Freud proposed another revision:  we had been mistaken in believing that conscious life defined personality. The disciples of Rousseau have their modern disciples aplenty Whether these proposed revisions in fact advanced knowledge of human nature is contentious, a matter of argument.   That they changed it is even more in doubt.   

That was reserved for Christianity, which came not only with laws and counsel but with power, the power to open the soul toward God and to fill it with the divine life itself through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. We are, says the Apostle Peter, called to participate in the divine nature, given the Holy Spirit as a living presence in Christian life.  

The reign of grace does not change human nature; it heals and elevates, producing the only condition that looks like progress, but is in fact restoration.  The difficulty with religious progressives is their tendency to draw an analogy between the success of the Baconian project and the illusion that human nature in itself has improved.   This in turn reinforces the progressive moral illusion that there could be such a thing as progress that would render some part of the moral canon moot.   For example, in moral theology this might mean that the two-thousand year old prohibition denying access to the Eucharist to those in mortal sin has been a mistake, or, alternatively, that the understanding of what constitutes mortal sin is a mistake.

Pope Francis obviously considers this, to mention only one of the proposed moral revisions, to be progress and progress, improvement, silently construed on the Baconian model,  to be self-evidently good.  Doctrine on this model does not so much develop, it progresses, so that it is possible that actions uniformly considered wrong can be right,

The word “backwardism” aimed at American Catholics could equally well be aimed at conservative American protestants.  Perhaps is has to do with the existence of a preference for the traditional Latin mass among some American Catholics.  But this is a small group; perhaps the Pope thinks the troublesome Bishop of Tyler represents American Catholics.   Would that this were true.   In any event, the progressive model has been progressively destructive, removing, among other things in the name of progress (and kindness, the only progressive virtue) the legal structure that supported marriage and piety. The only salvation lies in supporting and defending backwardism.  The Baconian model, in none of its forms,  is suitable for understanding the moral universe.    If Backwardism means fighting to preserve the great moral and moral-theological tradition, long may it live.

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