When the Church Reads the Signs of the Times

What’s the connection between time and eternity? Twitter and scripture? How can we use human language to speak of divine things? It’s complicated, so it’s not surprising we sometimes get it wrong.

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.”

That makes a great deal of sense. Knowing what’s going on can make it easier to reach people. But there’s a limit to how far the assistance can go. 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 “stumblingblock.”

The problem wasn’t that Jesus and Paul needed to work out a new and improved form of evangelism. It was that people insist on ignoring basic realities. When they do, sticking too much to 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 go off to do what they thought made most sense. When people saw what it was they realized what they had been missing and followed them. That changed the world.

Why not take that 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 present points 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 that show what’s required for her specific mission. She isn’t looking to ride the next big wave, but she may want to know what it’s going to be so she can take it into account. Big social trends usually ignore, overlook, or misconstrue something that matters a lot. So if the Church is a physician of souls she needs to pay attention to what the times leave out of consideration.

But what’s being left out today? Not aggiornamento, the effort to bring all things up to date. There’s been more of that 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 forgetting the past ever since. So the problem isn’t attachment to bygones but forgetfulness. Bringing the Church more up to date would mean becoming even more forgetful and ignorant.

Nor are man’s physical needs being ignored. 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 that side of life. But the hungry are better fed and the sick better tended than ever, and everyone talks about the pressing need to do more. The same could be said about relief from war, violence, and crude political oppression. Those things are common enough today, but less than in the past, and all sides say that more should be done about them.

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 now, they don’t present the Church with a crisis unique to the present day. And her understanding of a good life means she can’t ally herself with secular movements—including all movements that now count as progressive—that want to reorganize life on secular assumptions to bring about a version of the human good that is very different from her own.

What the signs actually tell us is that now—far more than in the past—the times distract us from eternity. Love of God is the first and greatest commandment, but no one today pays attention to it. Politics, education, and high and low culture tell us that there is no transcendent dimension to human life. Ultimate things are considered a private hobby that shouldn’t distract us from the practical realities that are what really matter. And they need to be kept out of social life 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 that we can’t act rationally. We’ll pursue goals without knowing which ones make sense because we won’t know how they relate to the whole of life.

So the times tell 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 that 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: an administrative structure run by professionals for purposes professionals outside the Church also approve. If that’s what the Church is about, who needs the Church?

New life doesn’t come from officials, committees, or administrative structures, necessary though those things may be, or from constant activity, or from following fads, or from joining secular causes, but from saints like Benedict and Francis who deal directly with life and God and give the effort their all. It is to such people and not current trends that we should look for guidance. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of the signs of our times.

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