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  • The Church and Economic DevelopmentThe Legacy of Populorum progressio after Forty Years
  • Thomas D. Williams, LC (bio)

We commonly associate the idea of progress, and especially the ideology of progress, with the Enlightenment. This is understandable since Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment writers cherished the idea of progress and did their best to arrogate it to themselves as an idea that could only have become possible after Western thought had thrown off the fetters of Christian dogma and classical cosmology.1 Yet in fact the idea of progress has a far more distinguished pedigree than its Enlightenment proponents were prepared to admit.2

The ancients, beginning with Hesiod, and proceeding through Xenophanes, Protagoras, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Thucydides and Plato, had traced an idea of humanity’s progress from primitive origins to an ever more developed civilization.3 It was a Christian, however, rather than a pagan philosopher, who formulated the most complete account of human progress. St. Augustine’s The City of God has been rightly called the first comprehensive philosophy of world history. In it Augustine insists upon the unity of mankind and introduces the conception of human history that, although predetermined by God in the beginning, has unfolded through the activity of forces immanent in humanity itself and its striving for perfection. [End Page 115] As Robert Nisbet has written, “Augustine fused the Greek idea of growth or development with the Jewish idea of a sacred history.”4

As a result, Nisbet further notes, “Augustine sets forth the history of mankind in terms of both the stages of growth understood by the Greeks and the historical epochs into which the Jews divided their own Old Testament history.”5 Thus, in a celebrated and influential passage, Augustine writes: “The education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible.”6

In much of the later history of the idea of progress the basic structure of Augustine’s thought remains intact, with the noteworthy exception of the displacement of God. The Enlightenment’s specific contribution to earlier notions of human progress consisted in a removal of God as the grounding for human progress, followed by outright hostility to religion as the enemy of progress. Whereas Augustine’s idea of progress depended upon God’s providential care for mankind, the French philosophes and later theorists, notably Auguste Comte, posited a progress that stamped out religion altogether. Comte’s famous law of the three stages—the theological (or fictitious), the metaphysical (or abstract), and the scientific (or positive)—supplanted one another successively in an inexorable forward march.7

The nineteenth century was, by and large, a time of naive belief in the necessity of progress. With the passing of time, it was supposed, things necessarily got better. This optimism burgeoned as the fruit of scientific advances, political stability, and the end of the wars of religion seemed to usher in an age of reason and human dominion over nature. [End Page 116]

The Ambiguity of Progress

I begin with these general reflections on progress, since much of twentieth-century magisterial social teaching regarding progress reflects a reaction to Enlightenment Progress as an ideology. This brief background allows us to better appreciate the legacy of Populorum progressio at a distance of forty years, especially as regards the importance of economic progress. The magisterium never speaks in a vacuum, and especially where ideologically charged concepts come into play, some familiarity with the cultural context is essential. This is decidedly the case with the Church’s relationship to “progress.”

Thus Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Spe salvi evidences deep skepticism concerning progress. He notes that in Francis Bacon “progress” not only proves incompatible with a vigorous Christianity; it threatens to assume the place of God. Bacon exhibits a hitherto unknown “faith in progress” according to which he is convinced that “through the interplay of science and praxis, totally new discoveries will follow, a totally new world will emerge, the kingdom of man.”8 With Marx, the ideology of progress adds...


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