Each age thinks of its own controversies as eminently sensible, whereas future ages tend to find them somewhat ludicrous.
Change seems to be in the air. And I heard someone say the other day that “it’s inevitable; we need to read the signs of the times.” When I first became a Catholic during my senior year in college, I often used to hear people use that much-quoted phrase from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), which says that the Church is supposed to “read the signs of the times.” I love that document, and I teach that document to my students every year (although I may be one of the only people left who does so). But when I teach it, I point out to my students that the phrase about “reading the signs of the times” is only the first part of a sentence. What the Vatican Council actually says is a bit more sophisticated.
After a long introductory section laying out the two-sided character of the technological progress made by the modern world — tremendous increases in our power to do good, on the one hand, side-by-side with tremendous increases in our facility to commit even greater evils, on the other — the Council finishes its introduction with this: “Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit.” And it is in the very next sentence, then, that we get the famous phrase: “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting themin the light of the Gospel.” [Emphasis mine]
Thus, the context provided by the actual document, not quoting out of context, makes clear that “To carry out such a task” — meaning “to carry forward the work of Christ” — the Church has always had the duty (this isn’t something new) of “reading [another translation has ‘scrutinizing’] the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” Why that last part gets left out, I can’t quite say. But it does. And when the last part of the phrase gets left out, people who use it often seem to be suggesting that the Church should just open up her sails fully to the winds of change and go wherever the wind blows. “Reading,” taken in this sense, would mean “following.” “Reading the signs of the times,” in this sense would be something like “reading the handwriting on the wall,” or “reading the tea leaves,” as if to say: “Here is the direction history is moving; you don’t want to be ‘left behind’ by history, do you?” Or as is often said: “You don’t want to be stuck in the Dark Ages.”
I’ll have more to say about the folly of trying to “keep up” with the most recent historical fads in a moment, but for now, I want to focus on the notion that the Church has always been scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. What does this mean?
Think about it. Let’s say I’m a Christian living in the Church in the early Fourth Century A.D. What do I find going on around me? Although the Gospel was preached originally within a Jewish context, even in Paul’s day it had begun to spread among the Gentiles. Thus, although Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, the Gospels were written in Greek. And as the Gospel spread among the Greek-speaking peoples around the Mediterranean, it was natural that they would think about the Christian mysteries in light of their own categories. Preaching the Gospel to the whole world was clearly in accord with Christ’s intention and the nature of a “catholic” church. But the success of the Gospel brought with it challenges as well.
Allow me to mention just one. Among the Jews, who defined themselves as distinctly monotheistic, Paul’s description of Jesus as “the Christ,” as “the Lord,” and as “the one whose name was above all other names,” clearly indicated he was talking about the one and only God. There is no one else “whose name is above all other names,” and “the Lord” (