Moral Progress and Regression

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

“We didn’t stop burning witches because we stopped reading scripture, we stopped burning witches because we kept on reading scripture.”

Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, wrote those words and they teach a lesson that we would be wise to learn as we debate whether morality is progressing or declining today within secular culture.

What Bailie’s axiom suggests is that history should be written carefully: The past wasn’t all golden and the present isn’t all bad, just as the past wasn’t all bad and the present isn’t all good.. Our age, like every other, has brought moral advancements in some areas and moral decline in others. Mostly this is not acknowledged in our debates about morality..

Conservatives too easily idealize the past and demonize the present. In their view, secular culture is generally seen to be morally decadent, soft, hedonistic, shortsighted, and superficial, a fall from a better time, from a golden moral age wherein people believed in God more strongly, were more generous, more community- minded, more committed to church, and more responsible sexually. Conservatives tend to look at certain moral indicators within our culture (abortion, euthanasia, family breakdown, declining church attendance, sexual irresponsibility) and see the whole culture as “a culture of death”.

Liberals too easily do the opposite: They tend to see secular culture precisely as an “enlightenment”, a huge moral advance over many former moral blind-spots, racism, superstition, sexism, narrow fundamentalism, unhealthy fear, and intolerance in the name of God. Secular culture is then seen as possessing the moral high ground and this achievement is itself seen as the result of secular culture shedding the narrowness and restraints of religion. For many liberals, we have stopped burning witches precisely because we have stopped reading scripture, or at least because we have stopped listening to organized religion.

What Bailie’s comment does, among other things, is expose both these views as being too selective in their reading of history.

Conservatives are right in pointing out that secular culture’s too-easy acceptance of abortion, family breakdown, euthanasia, faith without church, pornography, and sex outside of marriage are major moral blind-spots, a regression that does make for a certain “culture of death”. But, as Bailie’s comment also makes clear, that’s not the whole story. The same culture, so blind in some areas, is progressing morally in other areas. It has stopped burning witches. In what way?

Christianity and the cross (which lies at its center) can be compared to a time-released moral-capsule that is dissolving slowly in history. We can trace, historically, some of the more salient moments in this process: It took us, the Christian world, eighteen hundred years to accept, unequivocally, that slavery is wrong, but eventually we learned it. We kept reading scripture long enough. It took us two thousand years, and the last pope, John Paul II, to accept that capital punishment is wrong, but, like slavery, eventually too we learned that. We kept reading scripture long enough. And it has taken us two thousand years and we are still, slowly, learning and accepting more and more of the implications of the gospel in terms of social justice, equality for all, and respect for the integrity of creation.

The good news is that we are, slowly, getting it and it is no accident that, for instance, Holland, the most secularized culture in the world, takes care of its poor better than any other country in the world, has perhaps the highest status for women in the world, and is a culture of high tolerance. These are major moral achievements inside of a culture that is at the same time regressing morally in terms of its acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, prostitution, pornography, and drugs. Moreover its moral achievements have come about not because Holland or secular culture has stopped reading scripture. What’s best morally inside of secular culture issues forth mostly from its Judeo- Christian roots. Liberalism’s reluctance to admit that stems more from an adolescent grandiosity than from any honest reading of history, akin to a seventeen-year-old who sees only her parents’ faults and is unable to acknowledge that the very moral guns she now has trained on her parents were given to her by those same parents.

What all this highlights is that our moral judgments may not be simple: The past we sometimes idealize, for all its moral strengths (its faith in God, in church, in family, in sacrifice, in self- renunciation, in sexual responsibility) was, because of racism, sexism, and dogmatic intolerance, less of a golden age for some than for others. We once too had our “Taliban” that declared that error had no rights and killed people in the name of God and of purity of doctrine. Conversely, today, our secularized liberal culture, for all its heightened moral sensitivity within the areas of race, gender, justice, tolerance, and the integrity of creation, has its own glaring moral blind-spots in the areas of abortion, end of life issues, church, family values, and sexuality.

And so, no doubt, we need, all of us, to keep on reading scripture.