Is There Such a Thing as 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.
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