Editor: This is a summary of the original article by Fr. Donald Paradis. The entire article is available at this link.
In the Introduction to the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World we read:
“The Church must continually examine the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel. Thus she will be able to answer the questions that people are always asking about the meaning of this life and of the next and about the relation of one to the other, in a way adapted to each generation” (n. 4).
Pope St. John XXIII had already used this expression in Pacem in Terris to indicate the direction which the aggiornamento should take. The four parts of this encyclical sum up these signs of the times as so many manifestations of evangelical values which stimulate contemporary historical development from within: the emancipation of the laboring classes, the recognition of women’s place in public life, the emancipation of peoples that once we or still are colonized, universal planning, the unification of the world and the progressive socialization of various aspects of human life – aspects that are economic as well as cultural and spiritual.
Signs of the Times as a Theological Source
It is not much the mere reference to the signs of the times that strikes us in these texts as the fact that they have become a theological source. As Paul VI put it to the theologians gathered in Rome in September of 1966:
“The Council exhorts the theologians to develop a theology which is both pastoral and scientific; which keeps in close touch with the patristic, liturgical, and especially biblical sources; which respects the teaching authority of the Church and particularly of Christ’s vicar; which is related to humanity, as it is lived in concrete historical actuality” (L’Osservatore Romano, September 26 and 27, 1966).
This insistence on the signs of the times is connected with another important factor in the development of contemporary theology: the acute awareness of the Church that she exists and lives within the historical process. She does not exist as a static quantity apart from the dynamic developments around her; she is in the world. Change, history, time, and development are not external phenomena, a kind of changing decor to unchangeable human beings; they are part of our inner reality. There are no two histories, one secular and one sacred. That is why the signs of the times are an integral part of the history of salvation…
The Importance of Vatican II’s Schema XIII
It was only during the debates on Schema XIII that Pope John’s prophetic view of Church renewal came into its own. For it was not just a matter of the Church stretching out a helping hand to the world in order to make it more inhabitable, but rather of the Church’s acceptance of the world’s challenge and of seeing the signs of the times as an integral part of her own nature. And this took place at a time when a scientific and technical civilization was demanding more recognition for the secular world and thereby contributed to the disappearance of the sacralized world of the past.
In this secular world, human beings realize that the key to their earthly existence lies in the humanization of this world. They know that they are responsible for the future of humanity and that, because of their knowledge and technical ability, they are better equipped than ever before to shoulder the responsibility for the future…
What is the Scriptural Background of this phrase?
The German scripture scholar, Fr. Gerhard Lohfink, has pointed out that history can be seen as repetition or as a way toward freedom. A classical culture like that of the Greeks never clearly understood this matter of time and history because it could only see history as an unceasing repetition, a circular process from which nothing new could be expected...
It is the motif of the constant return which permeates even the literary work of Ecclesiastes, the preacher, whose scriptural contribution shows Greek influences: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10).
What does Theology say?
There is a danger that these signs of the times are seen simply as some pious interpretation of events. Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., warned against this:
“When Christians, as a body, a Church, want to interpret events according to God or the Gospel, they cannot subconsciously sever them from their actual, worldly reality; they cannot merely spiritualize them.
“These events are signs in their own full and inner meaning. It is in these events, as they are in reality, that the Church sees something that is crying out for the Gospel. These facts must therefore be respected and are not to be used for apologetic purposes. They must be listened to according to their own nature; they must not be glibly given a supernatural varnish. This leads too easily to mystification.”
The depopulation of churches in the Netherlands and in Western Europe generally, for example, must first be accepted as a fact and studied sociologically. Such a depopulation, as we now well know, was harbinger to the wholesale closing and merging of parishes closer and closer to where we live. To understand signs such as this one, a prophet may be more useful than a professor or a sociologist.
Reading the Signs of the Times – A Challenge to Understand
A few days before he was executed in 1945, Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., a theologian and sociologist, wrote in his Berlin prison cell: “The really great figures of history all had to pass through the solitude of the desert in order to find a new answer to the basic questions which a person faces there. Only they who can face the desert can speak.”
Those who have not gone through the desert can only repeat what they have heard others say; they can find no new meaning for old words and can discover no new words. We are back then in the circle movement of the classics and there will be no exodus toward freedom and the future. There is then only a plundering of the world’s culture, of the “spolia gentium, the treasures of the pagans” (Exodus 12:33-36), but this is not the material with which to build a new altar for the worship of God.
This reading of the signs of the times is therefore in no way an easy matter for theology, particularly since these signs usually retain a certain ambiguity. What Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., said is only too true:
“In some cases there may be several solutions that are valid from the Christian point of view; in others it may be that there is only one that is morally valid and which then becomes morally obligatory in order to lead humankind in certain given circumstances to more human values, while this one concrete solution cannot be derived from the Christian and human norms which the Church has to put before us.
“Schema XIII ought to put this clearly: that the limits of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in connection with the concrete attempts to improve the world on a human basis are not necessarily also limits for the faithful who live in this world. Often it will only be history that can decide whether one or other 'worldly’ decision was the fruit of prophetic witness or merely of confused understanding.”