If humanity takes the wrong path, said G.K. Chesterton, he who heads back to find the right path is the most avant-garde. CNS photo/John Carroll University

Sr. Helena Burns: True progress takes us closer to our goal

  • April 7, 2021

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True progress takes us closer to our goal

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

Progress is a myth. What?! Progress is non-existent? No, but “progress,” if it is to be embraced with enthusiasm, must truly be progress.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the noun “progress” means (in UK usage) “the process of changing or developing toward an improved situation or condition.” And who, pray tell, is the arbiter of what constitutes an improved situation or condition? Ay, there’s the rub. Surely, most everyone looks forward to and is grateful for true progress.

The Catholic Church — basing herself firmly in both faith and reason, as well as desiring and working for the betterment and well-being of mankind under many facets — has historically been in the forefront of education, health care and scientific discoveries. A new book entitled Brilliant! 25 Catholic Scientists, Mathematicians and Supersmart People is enlightening young and old to this oft-forgotten fact. (Full disclosure: the book was printed by my Sisters’ publishing house, Pauline Books and Media.)

According to the Oxford Dictionary, progress is “a forward or onward movement towards a destination.” As Catholics, our definition of progress would be more akin to this one. True progress should bring us closer to our goal. And we know where we’re going.

We know where humanity is headed: into eternity, to the house of the Father. Therefore, we must question every new idea, the current zeitgeist and every proposed piece of legislation as to whether or not it’s in conformity with God’s design for human flourishing here and hereafter. But in the same manner, we must question old ways of thinking, engrained customs, etc., to see if they truly express love of God and neighbour. What do we want to “conserve” because it’s good just the way it is? What do we want to let go of in order to make “progress” towards something better?

And let’s never forget, progress — in God’s plan — doesn’t always look like success. The crucifixion looked like the uttermost failure. The only true progress in a Christian’s life is becoming more like Jesus, taking up our cross and following Him.

Unfortunately, too much so-called “progress” today is change for the sake of change, the new for the sake of the new. The rather astonishing line of thinking is simply: anything old — the status quo — is automatically bad, anything new is automatically good.

Whatever happened to: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Leave well enough alone? How many politicians have run on the vacuous, innocuous slogan: “It’s time for a change”? Um, from what to what? Since this column is turning out to be a string of clichés and quotations, let me add one more from Shakespeare: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” and let’s let Confucius have the last word: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

I believe that feminism in North America should have turned its attention to countries where women are still considered chattel — rather than pursuing more and more radical, unnecessary and even harmful “rights.” The problem with “progress” is that once the momentum gets started, the funding pours in and the infrastructure is set up, it’s hard to stop.

Being overly cautious is not a virtue either: “Better the devil you do know than the devil you don’t.” How about no devils? Sometimes we just don’t know if something will be better until we try it, take an educated risk, and we can always be guided by experiences of the past as well as solid, unchanging principles and ethics for future action.

Aimless ideas of progress are a kind of distortion of salvation history. It’s the Judaeo-Christian ethos that has pointed humanity toward a glorious fulfilment and renewal: the Kingdom of God, but brought about by God Himself, not man. “Salvation we have not achieved for the Earth, the inhabitants of the Earth cannot bring it forth” (Isaiah 28:16).

G.K. Chesterton noted that if humanity takes the wrong path, the man who heads back to find the right path is actually the most avant-garde. If we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water, we need to go back and get the baby, but definitely not the bath water!

The Catholic faith — with all its implications, personal and social — is more about being faithful to something, to Someone, than realizing an impossible utopia on our own terms. “If anyone is so progressive that they don’t hold to the teaching of Christ, they have not God” (2 John 9).

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. www.HellBurns.com  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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