Friday, December 18, 2009

Pope Benedict on "Faith in Progress"

First, a confession: I've had a copy of Pope Benedict's second encyclical, Spe Salvi (Latin for "Saved In Hope"), on my nightstand largely unread since I bought it shortly after it's release in November of 2007. It wasn't due to lack of interest, of course. My nightstand, at any given time, is normally groaning under the weight of several stacks of new books, books I want to reread, magazines and printouts of articles I've downloaded and printed out from the Internet. It's only since I've self-imposed a moratorium on buying myself new books that the top of the nightstand has begun the see the light of day.

Anyway, I've finally been able to begin seriously reading this (when I first got it I did do a perfunctionary scan). It's not an especially arduous or voluminous work (my copy is 105 pages), but like most worthwhile reads, it is one that takes a while to read if you want to do it justice by pondering and praying over it, and mining the text for nuggets of insight. As one might surmise from the title, the topic is about the Christian virtue of Hope (which is distinct from our common use of the word hope, as in "I hope my team wins the game"). The Pope's first encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, you may recall, was about the Christian virtue of love (or, "charity").

I'm around page 51 of Spes Salvi now, and Pope Benedict is in the midst of a discussion about the virtue of Hope, and it's relation to the virtue of Faith ("Transformation of Christian Faith-Hope"). This discussion revolves around the contemporary meaning of the word "progress" and how it relates to authentic Christian Hope. Here is a passage, from section 22 of the encyclical, which I found striking:

First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world. (Emphasis added)

The idea of the incompatibility of man's technical progress with his ethical progress is not original to the Holy Father, of course. Many people in the last century (including, most famously perhaps, Albert Einstien speaking specifically about atomic weapons) have lamented that we have have put the tools of mental giants in the hands of moral midgets. What struck me (albeit not for the first time) was the characterization of "progress" as something a person might tend to put their faith in, i.e. as a type of religion.

On his final studio album, Double Fantasy, the late John Lennon had a very nice song about his young son Shaun called Beautiful Boy. One of the lines in the song goes something like this:

Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer:
"Every day, in every way, it's getting better and better."

This lyric is not merely a reflection of hopeful sentiment; it reflects a worldview popular in the 1970's that you can will positive thoughts into a situation and it will actually make those positive things happen (this is also a premise of the recent New Age book, The Secret, promoted by Oprah Winfrey). In the 19th century among some Christian groups there was a popular doctrine called post-millenialism. Very simply put: looking around at a relatively peaceful time with a great flowering of literary and technological marvels (this was the so called "Gilded Age" of the Industrial Revolution) Christian post-millenialists believed that man would progress and society would improve in a fairly linear manner eventually reaching the point that mankind would reach such a perfected level, it would precipitate (and presumably flow into) the Second Coming of Jesus. After the horrors of two World Wars, the sheen on this particular view dulled quickly, and hardly any mainstream Christians believe it today.

While today you won't find many post-millenialists around, and pop-spiritual fads like The Secret are only taken seriously by the spiritually immature and the flakey, there is an underlying (and I believe pervasive) belief in our culture in the "spirituality of progress." How I would describe it would be as the assumption that most people seem to hold that, since man has progressed in his technological achievements (and they seem to us to be most impressive), the fact that he has devised these things by rational means is de facto license to apply them at will without adherance to objective moral norms.

There are a number of examples I could mention but let me give just one: stem cell research. There is no denying that the technology behind this procedure is truly amazing and that the potential benefits for saving and improving lives is probably immeasurable at this point. However there are numerous ethical problems when the issue of embryonic stem cells is thrown into the mix. These cells, as you may know, are created by fertilizing an egg in a laboratory so that a human embryo is created. The stem cells are then extracted and the embryo is discarded---a clinical euphemism for: a human baby is created, it's useful parts harvested, and then he or she is killed and thrown away.

Apart from the fact that embryonic stem cells are as yet unproven in curing or treating anything (in contrast to adult stem cell and even placental cells which have displayed remarkable promise), what is the moral dilemna here? Is this the killing of an innocent human life, or is it not? If it is, can it be justified in appealing to a "higher good"? And more to the point of the present argument: Just because we are able to do something, does that make it moral to do so?

I would say, generally speaking and apart from any one issue, that every situation having arguable moral implications is worthy serious examination in the light of objective moral norms (what constitutes "objective moral norms" is concurrently under attack in our culture and itself may have to be clarified before one makes a decision. Unbelievably, many people if pressed, cannot articulate a defined set of objective norms). The most basic norm, of course, is the protection of human life -- especially innocent human life. When man arrives at an acheivement that touches upon this most basic of human rights, the default position should always be to do what is objectively moral; to not do evil in the name of good, and at all times to choose life. Then, perhaps we can reach the point that "everyday, in every way, things are getting better and better..."

1 comment:

  1. Stem cell therapy is set to become a major part of ATS, cancer, hearing loss treatments and of course plastic surgery. The need is however, is to ensure that these are stored in perfect condition before actually getting transplanted to the receiver’s body. This has made the industry of 'controlled rate freezers' to grow at a fast pace to keep up with the demand. I am doing a paper on ‘The Uses of Stem Cell Therapy and the Techniques of Storing Them’ and found your post valuable.

    Cynthia Beattie Mcgill