Reading the Signs of the Times

The Second Vatican Council tract, Gaudium et Spes, among the more significant documents to emerge from the Council, was organized around the proposal that "At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the time and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task." This trope, "reading the signs of the time," is an allusion to Matthew 16.3, in which Jesus criticizes religious leaders who can interpret the skies for tomorrow's weather, but cannot grasp the work of God in what is going on around them. The writers of Gaudium et Spes, in drawing on this trope, remind their readers that theological reflection which seeks to understand the ways of God must begin with an informed effort to ascertain the historical forces, convictions and hopes that are in play at a particular cultural moment. The paragraph goes on, "We must be aware of and understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live."10 This admonition has become a standard feature of Catholic "social teachings," with every papal encyclical beginning with reflections on some fresh cultural development. Such signs are to be approached as registers of God's presence in the world, where God continues to be revealed.

This trope also echoes a question posed by the disciples to Jesus as he was issuing his apocalyptic warnings near the end of his life. "Tell us," they asked, "what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (Mt. 24.3). What signs will alert us, in other words, to anticipate that a new order is at hand. Jesus went on to describe to them a bleak scenario of wars, famines, earthquakes, and widespread lawlessness. Great upheavals precede the unveiling of a new order, his message seemed to be. With this, Jesus gave us one of the most enduring plotlines of Western history, internalized in our consciousness and rehearsed in probably every generation since to make sense of the tumult that never really desists for long. The belief that the tumult of our present moment in modernity is foreshadowing a new order is a pervasive theme in our culture, inside and outside of the church, a preoccupation of sufficiently pressing importance that we have come to refer to our times as postmodern. This is a "sign" worth noting.

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