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Progress: Whose Definition to Use?

  We've Come a Long Way—at a Price

  The Church's Contribution

So What Have We Learned?



“Progress” may be the favorite word of 20th-century citizens in Western Europe and North America. When they use that word, however, the poorest people in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and some parts of Asia often cringe. Why? Doesn’t everyone benefit from progress?

It all depends on whose definition we are using. Even though progress does not have to enrich some at the expense of others, the term is often used in that win-lose way.

How have world events and Roman Catholic teaching, especially in the last 100 years, influenced our understanding of “progress”?

Our 20th-century, technical accomplishments have been outstanding. Some science fiction of the 1920’s had become reality by the 1990’s.

When this century began, Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Italy had colonies around the globe. Of the U.N.’s present 185 member states, only 49 existed as independent countries in 1900.

In that year women could vote only in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho. Nowhere did they have the educational opportunities and legal rights which men took for granted.

Polio and smallpox were once major health hazards. Overall infant mortality per 1,000 live births in the United States has declined from 99.9 in 1915 to 7.6 in 1997.

We've Come a Long Way—at a Price

Many of the words or phrases which entered our vocabulary in this century suggest progress: automobile, space shuttle, fiber optics, organ transplants, television, microchip and Internet.

But the record is mixed. Terms such as genocide, the Shoah, mutual assured destruction and the hydrogen bomb have arisen since 1900. Earlier this century people with mental handicaps were routinely sterilized in some parts of the United States. Asbestos insulation, DDT and high-rise public-housing projects were once considered progress.

Although airplanes enabled Argentinian dictators to have handcuffed, unconvicted prisoners thrown to their deaths in the Atlantic Ocean, planes also allowed Mother Teresa of Calcutta to witness around the world to God’s compassion, touching the hearts and consciences of Christians and others. The Internet has helped save lives halfway around the world but has also enabled racist hatred to proliferate.

The 20th century has a mixed balance sheet. Although much progress has been made, some things which were considered as progress have turned out to be no more real than the emperor’s new clothes.

The best human inventions still require ethical decisions. At mid-century, Albert Einstein had already pointed out that technological advances were outpacing improvements in human decisionmaking.

The Church's Contribution

In this century, the Roman Catholic Church has defended the right of workers to organize and has reminded all of us that genuine peace must be built upon justice. It has used the concept of subsidiarity (decisions and activities naturally belonging to a lower level should not be taken over by a higher level) to oppose tyranny and has supported the United Nations. In his 1967 encyclical On the Progress of Peoples, Pope Paul VI warned that the terms “development” or “progress” could be defined selfishly. Defending life at all its stages, the Catholic Church argues that cloning people is not progress.

In 1991 Pope John Paul II wrote: “Peace and prosperity, in fact, are goods which belong to the whole human race: It is not possible to enjoy them in a proper and lasting way if they are achieved and maintained at the cost of other peoples and nations, by violating their rights or excluding them from the sources of well-being” (Centesimus Annus, #27).

In the name of progress, huge international debts have been run up in many countries, frequently by military dictators. “The principle that debts must be paid is certainly just,” says John Paul II. “However, it is not right to demand or expect payment when the effect would be the imposition of political choices leading to hunger and despair for entire peoples. It cannot be expected that the debts which have been contracted should be paid at the price of unbearable sacrifices” (Centesimus Annus, #25).

So What Have We Learned?

“Progress” never exists in the abstract but only in the lives of men, women and children. What constitutes progress for a small number of people can mean its opposite for a larger portion of the human family.

All progress involves trade-offs—something gained, something lost. The gains of personal mobility because of the automobile, for example, must be weighed against air pollution and urban sprawl. Today we urgently need greater honesty about those trade-offs, especially the human costs. Without that, “progress” will continue to mean radically different things to the world’s richest and poorest people.

If progress means accumulating goods, social influence and political clout, then Bill Gates, currently our country’s richest man, might be our best definition of progress.

If, however, progress means trying to help every person acquire sufficient political independence and enough of this world’s goods to live in the freedom and dignity which God intends, then a saint like Francis of Assisi may offer a better definition of “progress.”—P.M.


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