“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.
Come a Long Wayat 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.
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
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).
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
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.