Interview With Father Thomas D. Williams
ROME, 8 FEB. 2007 (ZENIT)
A key point of Pope Paul VI's social
encyclical, "Populorum Progressio," emphasized that the measure of human
progress cannot be limited to just the material or technological.
So observes Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, professor of
Catholic social doctrine and dean of theology at Rome's Regina
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Williams talked about the
significance of "Populorum Progressio," which marks its 40th anniversary
Q: Why was "Populorum Progressio" so important?
Father Williams: Not only was "Populorum Progressio" the first social
encyclical promulgated after the Second Vatican Council, it was also the
first ever to address head-on the topic of human progress and
Paul VI drew on many of the insights of the Council to distinguish an
authentically Christian idea of progress from other ideologies.
Q: What ideologies?
Father Williams: The Enlightenment had taken the idea of progress as its
leitmotiv, preaching a secular humanism that would usher in an age of
reason, where religion would be replaced by science.
Along with the positive contributions of the Enlightenment, such as a
healthy separation of church and state, the balance of political powers
and the promotion of the natural sciences, it also had a marked
materialistic and anti-religious dimension as well. Man became his own
savior, able to resolve his own problems, and no longer needful of a
transcendent and personal God.
Nineteenth-century ideologies built on many of the aspects of the
Enlightenment, and came to see progress as a necessary and inexorable
phenomenon, an expression of Darwinian evolutionism. This existential
optimism held that things were necessarily getting better as human
beings gained dominion over the natural world through the application of
the natural sciences.
Add to the mix Hegel's philosophy of dialectical progress, whereby
society necessarily progresses through conflict
thesis, antithesis and synthesis
and we had the perfect setup for the tragic totalitarian experiments of
the 20th century, which sought to bring about an earthly paradise
without God. By excluding God, they also wound up trampling on the human
person as well.
Q: How does the Christian idea of progress differ from these ideologies?
Father Williams: First, as Paul VI taught in "Populorum Progressio," the
Christian idea of progress is not merely material or technological. It
necessarily embraces the whole human person in his social, moral,
cultural and spiritual dimensions as well.
Paul VI wrote: "The development we speak of here cannot be restricted to
economic growth alone. To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must
foster the development of each man and of the whole man." If a society
doesn't advance in goodness, in justice and in love, it doesn't truly
Second, Christians do not see human progress as a necessary phenomenon.
Just because we now have iPods and microwave ovens doesn't mean that we
are morally or culturally superior to previous generations. Moving
forward in time doesn't guarantee that we are moving forward in virtue.
Not all change is an improvement, and regression is just as possible as
Third, because progress isn't automatic, all of us must take
responsibility for the direction our society takes. We are not simply
swept along by the winds of change; each of us also influences the
direction our culture takes. Our choices for good or evil have a bearing
on all of mankind.
As Christians we believe that each of us has a specific vocation and a
mission to fulfill. In this context, progress means doing our part to
bring about the Kingdom of Christ in human society.
Finally, the progress of the earthly city does not exhaust the human
condition. No matter how much human society progresses, our temporal
existence will come to an end. We are called to eternal life in Christ.
True progress must take into account man's spiritual dimension and
transcendent vocation as a child of God destined for heaven.
Q: But isn't there a danger of over "spiritualizing" development and
forgetting about man's real material needs?
Father Williams: Thankfully Paul VI didn't fall into this trap. Though
he warned against a reductive materialism that understands progress and
development in an exclusively material way, he likewise insisted on the
importance of economic development, especially for the poorer nations.
He emphasized the need for a concerted effort on the part of all to lift
underdeveloped nations and peoples out of their poverty as an essential
part of their integral development.
Q: How can one gauge the real progress of a given culture or society?
Father Williams: A society progresses by becoming more human. Paul VI
spoke often of a new Christian humanism, which focuses on the dignity of
the human person.
The real progress of a culture can be measured by its achievement of the
common good, that is, the conditions of social life that allows persons,
families and groups to attain their true and integral good. Material
prosperity is one element of this true progress, but it is not the only
one, nor the most important.
Q: You have recently published a book entitled "Spiritual Progress."
Where does the idea of spiritual progress fit into the picture of human
Father Williams: Spiritual underdevelopment is even more common than
economic underdevelopment in the contemporary world. Many find that
while their material, intellectual and social lives have grown
continually over the years, their spiritual lives are still very much
where they were as children.
The purpose of this book is not to offer a theoretical treatise on the
spiritual life, but a more practical, hands-on text for growing in one's
personal relationship with Christ.
It lays out the ABC's of the spiritual life: where we are going and,
perhaps more importantly, how to get there. Many concepts such as
holiness, God's will, faith and humility seem very ethereal to people
today, and this book aims to bring them down to earth and make them
tangible and attainable.
For years I had been looking for a book that combines meaty spiritual
content with accessible language. I wanted to be able to offer good
material to people who are starting to take their spiritual lives more
seriously. Since I couldn't find what I was looking for, I decided to
write it. I hope it fits the bill. ZE07020827