• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Is There Such a Thing as Moral Progress?

by  
Filed under Morality

Moral Progress

One of the questions that comes up from time to time in the blogosphere is the problem of moral progress. It happens in a number of ways. For instance, a favorite trope of the atheist fundamentalist is the “Ha! You call Thomas More a saint? He burnt heretics at the stake!” shout of triumph. (Of course, atheist fundamentalists don’t like to think too hard about the achievements of Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot, and seem uncommonly hurried in their attempts to identify their atheist regimes as specimens of “religion” in the single most implausible piece of prestidigitation in their rhetorical arsenal.) Meanwhile, some Catholics, having a deep suspicion of modernity, and eager to defend the Home Team, will attempt to mount defenses of Thomas More in which it does come out sounding like they think burning people at the stake isn’t so bad and that, because we live in the Age of Abortion, we’d really be better off, morally speaking, if we just returned to 16th-century morality. In short, there seems to be a rather easy assumption among some Catholics that human morals have done nothing but degrade.

This attitude can inform all sorts of discussions. For instance, I have talked to people who seriously asserted that the words of the good thief about “receiving our just punishment” (Luke 23:41) shut the book on the question of whether the death penalty is an evil that God permits or a positive good he wills. For them, this proves that in the Good Old Days, God loved the death penalty. What they never ever discuss is whether this means we should reinstitute crucifixion as a “just” form of capital punishment today.

And that pretty much shows you that, in our heart of hearts, we all know that there really is such a thing as moral progress. We know that (abortion culture aside for a moment) it really is better to live in a world where it is not regarded as a form of public entertainment to nail a man naked to a cross and watch him gasp out his last breaths for a couple of days, covered in his own excrement, caked in his own blood, and surrounded by buzzing flies and jeering spectators. We know that covering a man with honey and staking him to an anthill is cruel and unusual punishment. We know that flogging somebody 90 times is a sign that Iran is a backward culture (though our Catholic ancestors did it). And, quite frankly, we know that though Thomas More is a saint with many virtues to emulate, burning heretics at the stake is not one of them.

In short, we intuitively grasp (most of us, anyway) that it’s not the case that history is just a steady slope of Progress from savagery or a steady decline into post-Christian barbarity. Different ages—including our own age—have different places where they see some things clearly and don’t see other things. Antiquity could see clearly that some things were an offense against God that our age cannot see. Conversely, antiquity perfected such forms of cruelty as crucifixion or burning at the stake. We live in an age that cannot see the sinfulness of, say, fornication or blasphemy, but does grasp that disembowelling and drawing and quartering is evil and not public entertainment.

The Church, which conserves and develops the Tradition, disregards the “improvements” about fornication and blasphemy, while preserving real insights into the good which our ancestors grasped (namely that chastity and the worship of God were good). Conversely, the Church also perceives real improvements in contemporary culture, such as our rejection of slavery or of roasting people alive on griddles as a form of capital punishment. The world, being foolish, simply declares that whatever we happen to be doing right now is obviously superior, even if it’s ripping a baby apart in its mother’s womb. This is what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”: the irrational conviction that the present age is the final and permanent platform from which to look down on all previous ages, coupled with marvelously naive subscription to the Darwin Mythos that we are the summit of all Progress.

When you point out the insanity of that, the world refers you to what everybody was doing and thinking 500 years ago, says Catholics were stoopid for not vaulting over the characteristic blindnesses of the era in which they lived, and pats itself on the back because dumb medieval Catholics or Bronze Age Jews had not figured out how to rid themselves of a universal institution like slavery, or not overcome the violence in their culture perfectly, or not invented the transistor or the Hubble telescope. It’s a curiously magical view of human advancement for a subculture that prides itself on rationalistic realism. Essentially, the complaint is that people a long time ago were not Us.

In contrast, the Church climbs the ladder of human progress with sympathy for the fact that human beings are weak and fallible, but with gratitude that God’s grace really does perfect nature. She sifts and weighs according to the signs of the times, and when a real advance is made (such as the rejection of horsewhipping or crucifixion as means of punishment), she affirms that and real moral progress is made. It does not follow that the progress is perfect. A culture (such as ours) that rejects genital mutilation of women can still embrace the murder of children. But it does mean that, over time, the Church’s understanding of her own moral teaching can deepen and, in turn, enrich our culture.

It also, by the way, means that Catholics can appreciate what is good about our treasury of saints while not embracing their mistakes. Saints are saints, not perfect. We don’t have to make the arrogant atheist’s blunder of holding St. Thomas More to 21st-century standards of justice. But neither do we need to sprinkle holy water on the ashes of the people he burnt and say that he did the right thing. In short, a Catholic can have sympathy with the fact that our ancestors, like us, struggled with the limitations of sin and defend them according to the standards of their time, while the arrogant modernist always arraigns everybody for the crime of not being himself. But at the same time, Catholics don’t have to engage in the ridiculous attempt to say that the standards of the past were perfect. In short, we can give an account for why Thomas More is a saint while also affirming that burning heretics alive on the Washington Mall today is a bad idea. This is but one of the many gifts that comes to us through a living magisterium that both conserves and develops the Tradition.
 
 
Originally posted at the National Catholic Register. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Reynold's Blog)

Mark Shea

Written by

Mark Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. He has written more than ten books including his most recent works, The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Re-Discovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ (Servant, 2012). Many of Mark's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Mark currently lives in Washington State with his wife, Janet, and their sons. Follow Mark through his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • The articles' argument, in brief:

    1. There has been clear moral progress in some matters.
    2. There's overwhelming historical evidence that the moral progress came from outside the Church and that the Church was slow to adopt said moral progress.
    3. The fact that #2 is strong evidence against divine guidance of the Church should be ignored.
    4. But hey, since the Church changes so slowly, sometimes it gets things right that present day culture has forgotten! Yippee for the Magisterium!
    5. The fact that the historical sources of moral progress are also still around and we can get guidance from them instead of the Magisterium should also be ignored.

  • Susan

    For instance, a favorite trope of the atheist fundamentalist is the “Ha! You call Thomas More a saint? He burnt heretics at the stake!” shout of triumph.

    Yes. That's how it always goes. Pointing out Aquinas's three strike policy when it came to setting "heretics" on fire is arrogant and childish.

    (Of course, atheist fundamentalists don’t like to think too hard about the achievements of Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot, and seem uncommonly hurried in their attempts to identify their atheist regimes as specimens of “religion” in the single most implausible piece of prestidigitation in their rhetorical arsenal.)

    I don't think people who make this connection like to think too hard about what a stupid and insulting connection it is. I am unable to believe in incoherent, unevidenced assertions. Therefore, I am on the same team as psychopathic dictators.

    Extra points for sliding in "Age of Abortion", "ripping a baby apart in its mother’s womb", and "embrace the murder of children" dishonest rhetoric used to score emotional points. .

    Also extra points for "militant atheist", "arrogant atheist", and "arrogant modernist".

    Nice violation of the site's terms.

    When you point out the insanity of that, the world refers you to what everybody was doing and thinking 500 years ago, says Catholics were stoopid for not vaulting over the characteristic blindnesses of the era in which they lived, and pats itself on the back because dumb medieval Catholics or Bronze Age Jews had not figured out how to rid themselves of a universal institution like slavery, or not overcome the violence in their culture perfectly, or not invented the transistor or the Hubble telescope.

    How immature of us. I don't recall anyone saying that catholics were stoopid, just that the church was an institution then that claimed to be morally enlightened and history doesn't show that. There I go patting myself on the back again.
    As far as the transistor and the Hubble telescope, superstitious thinking didn't get us those. Please don't someone say that the catholic church gave us science. It didn't.
    Here I thought I was trying to have a nice dialogue but it turns out that my words are triumphant cries of derision.
    This is just nastiness, Mark Shea. Unsupported, unnecessary nastiness.
    How are we supposed to respond to this?

    • epeeist

      This is just nastiness, Mark Shea. Unsupported, unnecessary nastiness.

      Yep, breaks the commenting guidelines in a fair number of ways. Worst of all it breaks the motto at the bottom of the page "Come now, let us reason together."

      How are we supposed to respond to this?

      Dunno, there doesn't appear to be a "Flag as inappropriate" button for articles.

    • "Please don't someone say that the catholic church gave us science. It didn't."

      >> The Catholic Church gave us science.

    • Michael Murray

      Also extra points for "militant atheist", "arrogant atheist", and "arrogant modernist".

      Yes I love the way the rules only apply to the commentators. Never the writers of articles.

      • Max Driffill

        Too right MM, too bloody right.

    • Michael Murray

      How are we supposed to respond to this?

      WWJD

      If the people in the town will not welcome you, go outside the town and
      shake their dust off of your feet.

  • Corylus

    We live in an age that cannot see the sinfulness of, say, fornication or blasphemy, but does grasp that disembowelling and drawing and
    quartering is evil and not public entertainment.

    Mark, have you might considered the possibility of a causal connection between the two clauses in your sentence?

    In a world where condemnation is strongest against causing pain and hideous distress to living, breathing beings it may be that condemnation of actions that cause no harm are rather less of a priority. (No, sex qua sex does not cause harm, even if one poisons the well by talking of 'fornication').

    In fact, if we look the reasons (both historical and unfortunately current) for unpleasant public executions we have see that being found guilty of
    blasphemy or non-allowed fornication feature rather highly.

    You know, it may be that if you want to live, and love, in a world in which public execution is not a reality, giving up the moral condemnation of things that do no harm (other than offending your sensibilities) may assist with this. I am not saying that this is the only thing that is needed: merely that this might help.

    • Michael Murray

      What is fornicating anyway ? Is it like the f-word but longer ?

      I do think it's a word we should revive

      Scene 1. Monday morning at the office. Bruce enters stage left.

      "What'id yu do on the weekend mate ?"

      "Not much cobber, sank a few pots at the barbie, a bit of fornicatin' with the missus and watched the footy on the telly".

      • Corylus

        I do think it's a word we should revive.

        Yes, it has a ring. I'd vote for a revive of libidinous as well. Ooh, and lascivious and licentious also.

        I do like the smell of alliteration in the morning.

    • Max Driffill

      I would ask why it is that two consenting adults who, over wine, or video games, realize an attraction exists and would like to have sex with each other for sheer joy of the act becomes an immoral thing. So long as no lies are told and people don't get hurt. How is this immoral? Why should friends, if they wish to avail themselves of this pleasure, avoid it?

      • Michael Murray

        Hang on, hang on, I know this one.

        Natural reason tells us this would be an intrinsically disordered act.

        How did I do ? Outstanding, Exceeds Expectations … ?

        • BenS

          You forgot to shriek "You can't put the wee wee where the chomp chomp is! Ewwwwwww!!!!!!"

          But apart from that, have some points!

      • Sample1

        How is this immoral?

        It's not.

        Just junk memes from superstitious sexual taboos of old. Big Faith could use a defrag and a clean install.

        Mike

  • primenumbers

    "We live in an age that cannot see the sinfulness of, say, fornication or blasphemy," - blasphemy may be seen as "sin" in the eyes of the Catholic, but to everyone else it's a fundamental human right. Would the author seek the death sentence for blasphemy? Christianity through it's basic commandments to have no other Gods, to not blaspheme is fundamentally against freedom of religion of belief and of speech.

  • Sage McCarey

    How could a man who burned people at the stake become a saint? Sure he was human and made "mistakes". The RCC is following the will of god? Who made Thomas More a saint?

  • severalspeciesof

    Of course, atheist fundamentalists don’t like to think too hard about the achievements of Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot

    So very true. They never actually followed the atheist book on how to subvert entire populations. If they had they would have been more successful. It's right there in black and white... in the book of II Vladimir, 2:12-30...

    *rolls eyes*

    Glen

  • severalspeciesof

    We don’t have to make the arrogant atheist’s blunder of holding St. Thomas More to 21st-century standards of justice.

    We should, else how would one know about moral progress...

    Glen

    • I think this is the one part of the article that is wise. I don't want to judge people in the past by our present standards, for the same reason I don't want to be held to some future standard.

      At the same time, I don't want to follow the examples of all the old saints. And some old saints, like Constantine, were moral failures even in their own time.

      • epeeist

        I think this is the one part of the article that is wise. I don't want to judge people in the past by our present standards, for the same reason I don't want to be held to some future standard.

        No, you can only judge people's behaviour by the standards of their time. Was Thomas Moore's burning of heretics regarded as moral at the time or was it considered as reprehensible? My knowledge of this period of history is minimal and I would be interested to see contemporary material that presents either view.

        At the same time I take Glen's point. Should we regard that behaviour as acceptable now or should we, in the name of moral progress, move on from it? Are there any here who would still burn heretics?

        • Michael Murray

          You might also hope that someone you canonise might show some moral principles rising above the standards of the time. But apparently he was canonised as "heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians" so maybe high moral principles are not required.

        • BenS

          No, you can only judge people's behaviour by the standards of their time.

          Well, you can still judge them by current standards, you just have to accept that they would no doubt consider it a little unfair.

          People can always take a wild stab at how future generations will judge them as well. I can easily conceive of a point in a couple of hundred years (or even a scant few decades) where I'm looked back on as some kind of savage because I wasn't vegetarian and I drive a vehicle that pumps filth into the atmosphere that everyone else has to breathe.

          But perhaps that's just because I do recognise that morality is subjective and socially shifting. I suppose if you don't realise that moral viewpoints shift then you wouldn't consider what future generations would think; you'd just assume they'd think the same.

          As you can tell, I don't really have a point in this post, I'm just mulling things over in my head and vomiting them onto the internet.

        • I'm not talking about judging behavior. I'm talking about judging the people. Burning heretics is immoral. Infanticide is immoral. It would be just as much a mistake to say Thomas More was a moral monster because he burned heretics as it would be to say that Peter Singer is a moral monster because he advocates infanticide.

          We should judge people by the standards of the time. We can judge their actions by a broader, and hopefully, a more enlightened standard. To do otherwise is not only unfair. It's frightening to me, because I know pretty-much where I would end up.

          • severalspeciesof

            I should have been a bit more specific and indeed point out that the belief/behavior behind the person is what should be judged, yet in this particular case, that very person (Thomas Moore) has been elevated to the status of sainthood AND is still considered a saint, because of...

            wait for it...

            because of that person's overall behavior and belief system... So maybe it's possible that my troubles with all this is the sainthood part even more so than what ever that person believed in...

            EDIT: I'll add that, since he's still regarded as a saint, those that STILL regard him as such are judging him by today's standards, are they not?

            Glen

          • I don't think he's being judged one way or the other any more by the Catholic Church. The Church doesn't have a system for self-correction. Decisions like who is or isn't a saint are permanent, I think.

          • severalspeciesof

            Decisions like who is or isn't a saint are permanent, I think.

            If that is the case (and I think you are), then that's too bad. It further places the church to the medieval mindset in a negative manner...

            Glen

          • Yes, Glen, all of the breathless anticipation that the Catholic Church will, at long last, cease to be Catholic and instead adopt the views of anti-Catholics, is a complete waste of time.

            The Catholic Church is, by the decree of God Almighty, indefectible from the Faith She has been constituted to hold until the end of the world.

            This ought to have sunk in by now......

          • severalspeciesof

            Yes, Glen, all of the breathless anticipation that the Catholic Church
            will, at long last, cease to be Catholic and instead adopt the views of
            anti-Catholics, is a complete waste of time.

            Now how did you get ^THAT from this:

            [Decisions like who is or isn't a saint are permanent, I think.] then that's too bad. It
            further places the church to the medieval mindset in a negative
            manner...

          • Vicq_Ruiz

            So do you hold with the burning of heretics, or not?

          • If you come see my movie you will have the answer to that question.

            But just so you don't feel like I'm trying to hold you up for the price of a ticket, the answer is:

            "No."

            Some of my Traditionalist friends are very uncomfortable with the section of the film that deals with Giordano Bruno.

            It is one of the most powerful sections of the film.

            I always tell them the same thing:

            "If there is a syllable in there that isn't true, tell me and I will take it out."

            There is always a long silence, usually followed by comments about "balance".

            "Christians being fed to the lions".

            Etc.

            My answer is:

            Not my story.

            Hope this helps.

            PS: You should see my movie.

            It is really, really good.

            Called "The Principle", looks like it will get at least a limited theatrical release sometime early next year.

        • Vicq_Ruiz

          Was Thomas More's burning of heretics regarded as moral at the time or was it considered as reprehensible?

          Certainly there were those who More called "heretics" who would have been only too willing to kill him in his turn.

          In my opinion, western civilization gradually came to its senses about this in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War. One finds the desire to kill one's fellow man (or fellow Christian at least) over doctrinal differences gradually disappearing during the late 1600's and early 1700's.

  • robtish

    "...and pats itself on the back because dumb medieval Catholics or Bronze Age Jews had not figured out how to rid themselves of a universal institution like slavery."

    Because slavery is such a tough call? Because stealing things is clearly wrong, but stealing people is more of a gray area?

    The problem with saying your ethical teachings are divinely authored is that they shouldn't then fumble around for centuries before getting one of the most fundamental moral questions right. Humans err, universally. An omniscient God who hands us an "inerrant" document should not.

  • Michael Murray

    coupled with marvelously naive subscription to the Darwin Mythos that we are the summit of all Progress.

    Mote ? Beam ? Eye ? Nobody who understands evolution will tell you that it has a direction towards improvement or built into it progress in it with man at the pinnacle. That is the theist's arrogant claim: Man, for whom God created a universe of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars reigns over the lower animals.

    • "Man, for whom God created a universe of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars"

      >> Boy howdy, is that one coming back to bite y'all:

      http://magisterialfundies.blogspot.com/2013/07/new-paper-in-astronomy-and-astrophysics.html

      • Vicq_Ruiz

        Hey Rick, I was gonna ping you to this thread due to this line in the article:

        Catholics don’t have to engage in the ridiculous attempt to say that the standards of the past were perfect.

        • Standards?

          Assuming you mean practices, dress, penances, etc.......

          Heck, those are as fallible as discipline or canon law.

          Dogma?

          Never.

  • Michael Murray

    In short, a Catholic can have sympathy with the fact that our ancestors, like us, struggled with the limitations of sin and defend them according to the standards of their time, while the arrogant modernist always arraigns everybody for the crime of not being himself. But at the same time, Catholics don’t have to engage in the ridiculous attempt to say that the standards of the past were perfect. In short, we can give an account for why Thomas More is a saint while also affirming that burning heretics alive on the Washington Mall today is a bad idea. This is but one of the many gifts that comes to us through a living magisterium that both conserves and develops the Tradition.

    If you strip away the straw manning and insults the Church's dilemma is clear. If you have a living magisterium then your current moral preachings may not be correct. Contraception, sex outside of marriage, marriage equality, homosexual sex, children born out of wedlock, women Popes, abortion, maybe these are all misunderstandings that will be resolved as the Church progresses. You can't argue that the Church stands for eternal values unaffected by the latest fashions.

    • Vicq_Ruiz

      Yep, it's similar to the Mormons' continuing revelation. Although the First Presidency may pivot like Michael Jordan while the Popes turn like a supertanker, it's a difference in degree not in kind.

  • BenS

    atheist fundamentalists don’t like to think too hard about the achievements of Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot,

    Strawman

    coupled with marvelously naive subscription to the Darwin Mythos that we are the summit of all Progress

    Strawman

    It’s a curiously magical view of human advancement for a subculture that prides itself on rationalistic realism.

    Strawman

    Essentially, the complaint is that people a long time ago were not Us.

    Strawman

    A culture (such as ours) that rejects genital mutilation of women can still embrace the murder of children.

    Strawman

    Another article consisting largely of strawmen. Rule #3 clearly does not apply to articles. In fact, I'm getting the feeling it simply doesn't apply to Catholics. If an atheist misrepresents Catholic teaching it's a Bad Thing and the atheist is clearly being naughty. If a catholic utterly and deliberately misrepresents atheism or views some atheists hold in order to score empty points... well, that's fair game and absolutely acceptable.

    Is it too much to ask for a little intellectual integrity?

    • epeeist

      Is it too much to ask for a little intellectual integrity?

      Seemingly.

      And you are right, to use a phrase I have used before "Enough straw to contain an infinite number of Edward Woodwards".

  • Religion is a great source of inspiration. It is powerful, and that power can be for good or for evil.

    Good people do good things and bad people do bad things, Weinberg says, but for good people to do bad things, that takes religion! Maybe religion is necessary for bad people to go good things, too.

    If all the evil (e.g. homophobia, sexism) and all the nonsense (e.g. miracles, divine authority) were removed from religion, I worry that religion would lose its ability to inspire. Decaffeinated religion doesn't seem to move mountains. Would losing the inspiration be worth getting rid of the evil and nonsense? I don't know. It probably does not matter, because it is unlikely that the caffeinated religions will go anywhere anytime soon. Can we learn to live with the caffeinated religious people?

    Something that bugged me about the artcile: Catholics canonized Thomas More and Constantine. Very few atheists would canonize Stalin.

    • epeeist

      Very few atheists would canonize Stalin.

      A number of people might wish to canonise Stalin in some way, but their primary reason for doing so would be because they are Stalinists.

      • And that number is hopefully very small.

        • epeeist

          And that number is hopefully very small.

          Smaller than it used to be. While there was some obvious progress during Stalin's time it took longer for his atrocities to come to light.

    • Michael Murray

      Something that bugged me about the artcile: Catholics canonized Thomas More and Constantine. Very few atheists would canonize Stalin.

      So apparently did the CoE according to wikipedia:

      More was added to the Church of England's calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church,

  • epeeist

    This is but one of the many gifts that comes to us through a living magisterium that both conserves and develops the Tradition.

    Re-reading this brought to mind a passage from "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix":

    Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgement. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.

    This is of course the speech by the dastardly Professor Umbridge at the start of the school year.

  • Eli Kuzmić

    butter