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The Cult of Truth, the Cult of Progress

The word “cult,” as applied to a person’s life-orienting beliefs, has two very different but nonetheless indissolubly linked meanings.  There is the common negative meaning, as is applied correctly to the Branch Davidians, the Church of Scientology, and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, in which a number of people are bound together by common self-subjection to an unquestionable premise.  There is also the positive meaning – most notably used by St. Thomas Aquinas in the phrase, “the cult of latria,” (see Chapter 120, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3) – which describes the totality of the practices or objects associated with some object of veneration or worship.  Thus, the cult or cultus of a saint – the Blessed Mother, for instance – would contain all of the relics, devotions, and prayers associated with that saint – such as the Rosary, the Salve Regina, the Angelus, so on and so forth.  Where this cultus of a saint is bound up within and for his veneration, it is elevated to the cult of worship, or latria, for the Divine, which then naturally subsumes all that goes into the veneration of the saints, as His servants; it is the totality of praise.

The former sort of cult, the negative type, is not entirely different from its noble opposite, if such a paradox may be excused for the moment; for the cult that demands unquestioning obedience, in a pale and hollow parody, also accumulates the totality of something within and for the sake of another something.  Instead of symbols and signs within and for the veneration of a person or the worship of the Divine, however, it accumulates the totality of a person’s behavior within and for the veneration and praise of symbols and signs that have no true referents.  This empty sort of cult has a persistent and uninterrupted monolocution of calcified ideological rhetoric, which bears no regard for the truth.  It is the authoritative unreasoned word, which attempts to crowd out all other voices.

There is a popular lie amongst those who are intractably committed to the idea of “progress,” by which is meant something indiscernible for its vagueness, that Traditionalist Catholics, the worst of all superstitious and backwards cults in the negative sense, would like to see every modern innovation, from the personal computer to the contraceptive pill, completely and entirely obliterated, crowded out of the consciousness of mankind by the authoritarian voice of unreasoning propaganda issued from the pulpit.  Such innovations, in the eyes of these progressives, are indivisible from one another, for both are the result of Progress, that which has made man’s life so much better, that which has saved lives, given people freedom, that which is responsible for the Declaration of Independence and the airplane; that – to be perfectly frank – undefined, unlimited, unrestrained, and completely fictional god of modernity, Progress.  If there is a monological cult of unreasoning submission in the 21st century, it is that of Progress, its god of the same name.

Like the deities of all cults, Progress is a figure of smoke and mirrors; an insubstantial vapor enlarged to a seemingly divine magnitude.  In what does Progress result: woman’s suffrage, the personal computer, the contraceptive pill, a coffee pot that brews 12 cups in 3 minutes, systematic euthanasia?  These proponents of Progress, who sometimes proudly and sometimes discreetly postulate these inventions as children of the prodigiously procreating god, describe Progress as itself born of contention, and dissatisfaction, of rejecting that which is Old in favor of that which is New.  In the words of H.L. Mencken, American critic of the early 20th century, “the world gets ahead by losing its illusions, and not by fostering them.  Nothing, perhaps, is more painful than disillusion, but all the same, nothing is more necessary.”1 Thus, according to the doctrine of the progressives, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, the forerunners of the French Revolution (glossing over the murderous Robespierre, of course), Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger (a eugenicist long before Justice Ginsberg, but in the same vein), Martin Luther King Jr., and all such men and women are champions of Progress, because they challenged the institutions before them, because they, against the illusions of their predecessors, invented by virtue of their disillusion new devices and methods, and made men (and women!) so much freer; revolution praised for the sake of being revolutionary.  Truthfully, however, the most progress was created by those who did not revolt and merely reformed.  The scientists, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, had genuine progress (though Galileo was impudent and disobeyed the Church’s exhortation to teach heliocentrism within scientific circles as theory, instead promoting it as definite fact, and thus was put under comfortable house arrest by the office of the Inquisition), not based on rejection of older work for the sake of rejection, but based, as Newton himself said, upon the work of their forebears: “If I have seen a little farther it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  Likewise, the men who revolutionized the technological age, from the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs, did so not out of disillusion, but out of fantasy, out of dreaming for something that was not yet but was not so far off as to be impossible.  Such men had true progress because they did not insist upon knocking the whole totem of tradition down, but by climbing it; they progressed because they had a goal towards which their efforts aimed: the true and the good.

H.L. Mencken, Progressive Ordinaire

H.L. Mencken, Progressive Ordinaire; bad philosophy, bad hair

In contrast to Progress, and in accord with the motivational sentiments of the truly progressive, the cult of Catholicism, which is the cult of latria of the Divine, is the most truly dialogical cult that ever has been.  From the transcendence of the Divine to which it appeals comes not only one Voice, only one Word, but Three that are yet mysteriously One.  This transcendental dialogue furthermore permeates the earthly Church; and though the minds of Her members can receive such voiced Truth only by a limited channel, that which is received may unfold infinitely, may be discussed, debated, be broken into an infinite number of disagreements and yet, so long as they are resolved correctly, never err.  Thus the univocal speech of the Catholic faith, to those who refuse to engage it in dialogue, who refuse to introduce to the Church their doubts, their qualms, their reasons, and even more sadly refuse to listen to what She has to say and consider it, seems a monologue aged into a hard, brittle, fossil and vainly protected by a veil of illogical reverence for an illusory eternity.  But like those who affect real progress, men like the guy who invented the wheel, Ebers Papyrus, Ibn al-Nafis, William Harvey (oh those backwards pre-moderns! Papyrus and al-Nafis lived in 1600 BC and 1242 AD, respectively), Albert Einstein, and so many, many others, the Church has always been genuinely progressive, not in spite of its illusions, but because of them; because She has always sought that which She cannot see, but which She knows is there, can be discovered, articulated, can be spoken.  The Cult of Catholicism is the Cult of Truth.

The Cult of Progress, it must finally be noted, in contrast to the actuality of progress, is built not upon contention, but upon a logical fallacy.  Since two events occurred in the same era, the Cult says, they must be part of some unified chronologically linear cause; since both are desired by a certain number of people, since both claim to make man’s life better, they must both do so.  A occurs in X; B occurs in X; therefore X is the cause of A and B.  As with all logical fallacies heavily and obstinately relied upon, that of the Cult of Progress is grown out of a frustration: the desire to deny that anything is truly and objectively good, that men accomplish more by virtue of their dreams than their disillusions, and that man achieves the most progress not by floating along with the stream of a historical inevitability, but by his own efforts; and most especially, the Cult of Progress is frustrated with just how many of those men who have done so have done it within the teachings of the Holy Catholic Church.

1 Mencken, H.L, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) 100.

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