The point is, if we “scrutinize the signs of the times,” we’ll recognize (pretty quickly in fact) that we probably don’t have to spend a lot of time arguing against aberrant neo-platonic philosophies or about the challenges of Aristotle’s philosophical works to Christian orthodoxy. But we do, very sadly, have to spend a lot of time arguing for the dignity of the unborn. Our question must be: What is God calling us to do now, in our own age. Our challenges will not necessarily be (and usually aren’t) the challenges faced by our forebears. There is usually little need to re-fight old wars. As T. S. Eliot suggests in “Little Gidding,” the fourth of The Four Quartets:
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
We don’t have the same challenges today. Rather, we must face our challenges, not merely rehearse theirs. This is what it means to “scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel message.”
There are, quite naturally, dozens and dozens of similar examples one could give: from the intellectual challenges of the newly-discovered works of Aristotle in the thirteenth century (Are there “two truths”: one Aristotelian, one Scriptural?) to the cultural challenges faced by the missionaries to Asia in the sixteenth century (Should we insist that these new believers use bread and wine instead of tea and rice?) to the challenges in natural philosophy faced by churchmen in the seventeenth century due to the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo (Does what science tells us overrule what the Scriptures say? Or vice versa?) to the cultural challenges posed to the Church by the Protestant Reformation (Who has the authority to interpret the Scriptures authentically?). Each age has had its own challenges. And thus each age requires vigilance and profound, often difficult efforts to clarify the faith in response to these new challenges — always trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It would be very much contrary to the historical record to suppose that all these “developments” in Church doctrine happened seamlessly, calmly, and without much argument in a fairly simple battle between the “good guys” (“us,” the “faithful ones”) and the “bad guys” (“them,” “the unfaithful heretics”). Such silly notions of a clear line of “development” owe more to nineteenth century Hegelian philosophies of “progress” than they have anything to do with actual notions of doctrinal development in the Church such as one finds in the writings of, say, John Henry Newman. Church history can be a messy business. The Holy Spirit has not promised that He’ll tell us everything at once, clearly and in ways that we can understand immediately, merely that He’ll guide us and protect us. Think of the role of the Holy Spirit in your own life. He’s there; you just don’t always know it. Nor do you always understand the direction you’re being led until you’re much further down the road toward your destination.
So please understand: “reading” or “scrutinizing the signs of the times” and “interpreting them in the light of the Gospel message” was not a new innovation or a unique project of the Second Vatican Council. It has been the constant job of the Church since the moment when the Apostles were cowering frightened in an “upper room” after the crucifixion of the Lord wondering: “What now?” “What does being the Messiah mean now that the Messiah has been crucified? Perhaps we need to do something serious re-thinking of our previous concepts, in the light of this new revelation” — that is to say, in the light of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and His sending of the Holy Spirit to be with His Church until the end of time.
It is for reasons such as these that, whichever direction the cultural winds seem to be blowing, I prefer that the sail remain firmly attached to the Ark of the Church. Indeed, the more all the fellow officers, associated deck-hands, and crew members are resolutely “on board,” working to keep the ship upright in high seas, and headed in the right direction — the “right direction” being the one that leads to God, and not merely where the wind happens to be blowing as it swirls around us — the less anxious I become. By the same token, given how dangerous the seas are in which we’re now sailing, it tends to concern me when I hear whispers of mutiny, constant grumbling among the crew, and threats to change course or jump overboard, instead of us re-dedicating ourselves to row hard, bail water, and work the lines.
Randall B. Smithis Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.