Society’s progress must be enlightened by faith in God

Father John A. Kiley

The repudiation of Christopher Columbus as discoverer of America and his vilification as conqueror, exploiter and slave owner have become regular autumn events on some campuses and in certain cities.

And to add insult to injury, now Roger Williams is being scrutinized for having tricked, misled and abused the Native Americans he found in Seekonk and along Narragansett Bay. The Italian Columbus and the English Williams number among the legion of white European men now held in contempt for the exploits that attended the great age of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. No doubt this week the Pilgrims and the Puritans will be demeaned for having usurped the territorial rights of the North Atlantic coast’s native populations.

Every era of history has witnessed its excesses as well as its successes. The Bible testifies to the slavery, war and exile that plagued the Near East in ancient times. Barbarian invasions transformed the Roman Empire. The Crusades left lasting ill-will in Eastern Europe and throughout the Middle Eastern world. And perhaps Columbus and Cortez and Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh and Roger Williams and even the Mayflower voyagers left a lot to be desired in their dealings with the indigenous populations they encountered here. But these men (and some women, too, if Queen Isabella and Queen Elizabeth are included) made a significant contribution to world history which is very worthy of celebration. A discussion of their faults, however valid, must not diminish their momentous legacy to later generations. In his encyclical on the nature of hope, “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict XVI highlights the epochal contribution made by these men and women to history and to Western civilization.

Pope Benedict insightfully contrasts the medieval world, the age of great faith, with the modern world, the age of great progress. The Middle Ages placed all their hope in religious faith. They looked for fulfillment in the next world. Their cathedrals, their theology schools, their monasteries, their preaching orders, their pilgrimages, their exaltation of the papacy, their holy wars — these all indicated hope in God, hope in religion, hope in prayer. On the contrary, men like Columbus and his fellow explorers, men like Leonardo de Vinci and other inventors, and in particular men like Francis Bacon whom the pope singles out by name, were fascinated with the possibilities of this world. The pope suggests that instead of hoping in faith alone, these men began to also hope in progress. These men were the first to break out of the medieval mindset and usher in the modern perspective that society enjoys today. Without the experiments they risked, life would be the same now as it was in the day of Bernard of Clairvaux or Thomas Aquinas or Giordano Bruno. Columbus and his contemporaries introduced calculated risk and the possibility of progress into history. The pope wryly observes that some people dismiss progress as the advancement from the sling shot to the atom bomb. But if the explorers and the inventors and the astronomers and the thinkers did not have hope in a bigger and deeper and loftier world around them, humanity would still be living in walled cities. Continuing hope in progress has encouraged experiments in technology, in exploration, chemistry, medicine, government and education. Columbus was even more than the discoverer of America; he was a pioneer in man’s vision of progress. Because he and his kind helped broaden the narrow medieval focus, this article for the RI Catholic is being composed on a computer instead of being penned as a manuscript.

Pope Benedict correctly laments the fracture that occurred between hope in faith that marked the Middle Ages and hope in progress that distinguishes the modern era. Too much hope in human progress crowds out God in modern times just as exclusive hope in faith left little room for progress in the earlier era. Clearly, the two hopes are not incompatible. The God who made the spiritual world also fashioned the material world. Both heaven and earth are certainly worthy of investigation and exploration. Hope in progress alone sadly does lead to atom bombs and abortion procedures and corporate expansion. But progress enlightened by faith can fashion this world into a fuller reflection of the goodness and kindness of God himself.