Gaudium et Spes, a document of the Second Vatican Council, says the Church should read the signs of the times, so that “in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.”
This makes a great deal of sense. Knowing what’s going on can make it easier to reach people. But there’s a limit to this. Jesus could read the signs of the times, but his listeners couldn’t understand what he was talking about. Paul read them too, but people found his preaching “foolishness” and a “stumbling block.”
The problem wasn’t that Jesus and Paul needed to work out a new and improved form of evangelism, but that people insist on ignoring basic realities. When they do, focusing too much on their language and concerns means joining their mindlessness. Saint Benedict and Saint Francis went a different way. They didn’t think current concerns were going anywhere, and their response was to forget about them and do what they thought made most sense. When people saw what this was, they realized what they had been missing and followed them. This changed the world.
Why not take this as our model? Christ tells us not to be solicitous for tomorrow. And Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes the Russian proverb, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” So why isn’t preaching the Word in and out of season better than trying to read the signs of the times so we can fit our message to the contemporary point of view?
We need to keep basics in mind. It’s good to read the signs, but the Church shouldn’t read them the way others do. She gives us what others don’t, so the signs she should attend to are signs related to her specific mission. She isn’t looking to ride the next big wave, but she may want to take it into account. Big social trends usually ignore, overlook, or misconstrue things that might matter. So if the Church is to be a physician of souls she needs to pay attention to what the times leave out of consideration.
We may ask what’s being left out today? Not aggiornamento, i.e., the effort to bring all things up to date. There’s been more of this than we need. Tradition lost what authority it had in the 1960s, when “deeply-rooted social expectations and stereotypes” became the explanation for everything wrong with the world, and people have been disregarding the past ever since. So the problem isn’t attachment to bygones but the opposite. Bringing the Church more up to date would mean becoming even more forgetful and ignorant of our past.
Nor are man’s physical needs being ignored today. Corporal works of mercy are basic to the Church’s mission, since we have bodies as well as souls, and love of neighbor requires concern for both. The hungry are better fed and the sick better tended than ever, and everyone still talks about the pressing need to do more. The same could be said about relief from war, violence, and crude political oppression. These are common enough today, but less so than in the past, and all sides still say that more should be done.
The Church should promote political, social, and physical conditions that help people live a good life. But whatever the deficiencies in how such issues are handled at present, they don’t present the Church with a crisis unique to the present day. Also her understanding of a good life means she can’t ally herself with those movements—including all those which are progressive—that seek to reorganize life on secular assumptions to bring about a version of the human good very different from her own.
What the signs tell us is that now—far more than in the past—the times are distracting us from eternity. Love of God is the first and greatest commandment, but no one today pays attention to it. Politics, education, and both high and low culture tell us that there is no transcendent dimension to human life. Ultimate things are to be considered a private hobby that shouldn’t distract us from the practical realities that really matter. And they need to be kept out of social interactions for fear they will lead to non-negotiable disputes.
Such views make no sense. Everything starts with something treated as non-negotiable. If you say there is no final truth, then that is your final truth. And ultimate realities are an essential concern even from a strictly practical point of view. It is by reference to them that we can put all aspects of life together. Without this we can’t act rationally. We would pursue goals without knowing which ones make sense because we wouldn’t know how they relate to the whole of life.
The times are telling us that the Church should forget about the times and focus more insistently than ever on God and eternity. No one else is doing it, and people need it. As a practical matter this means emphasizing contemplation and basic teachings regarding God, man, and eternity. It also means emphasizing observances that remind us of those things: regular prayer, the Church’s devotional and sacramental life, and traditional liturgies and observances that refuse to assimilate the divine to the everyday and so emphasize timelessness and transcendence.
Oddly, many seem convinced of the contrary. The Church, they believe, should become as up-to-date and activist as the world around her. Doctrines regarding God are overly abstract, contemplative orders of religious are unproductive, traditional liturgies are rigid and out-of-touch. Such things need to be downplayed or done away with in favor of joining in the universal project of building a better world; such seems the outlook.
By their fruits you shall know them. What have the consequences been of worldliness in the Church, or of the single-minded concern for urgent practical matters suggested by the proposal that we think of the Church as a field hospital? Such ways of thought have given us confused doctrine, a mundane liturgy, declining religious commitment, catechesis and religious education that teach very little, and endless pronouncements that no one pays attention to on secular public policies. Have those things helped anyone?
Politicians, administrators, and activists in clerical dress get us nowhere. The practical effect of their efforts is to make the Church just another NGO, i.e., an administrative structure run by professionals for purposes professionals outside the Church approve. If that’s what the Church is to be about, who needs the Church?
New life doesn’t come from officials, committees, or administrative structures, necessary though these things may be, constant activity, or following fads, or joining secular causes, but from saints like Benedict and Francis who dealt directly with life and God and gave the effort their all. It is to such people and not current trends that we should look for guidance. This, it seems to me, is the lesson of the signs of our times.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (July 2018).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 See Matthew 13.
 See 1 Corinthians 1.
 See Matthew 6:34.
 See 2 Timothy 4:2.
 “Life Expectancy” by Max Roser, in Our World in Data, 2018.