The Signs of the Times, by Hans Boersma

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By Hans Boersma, First Things, Aug. 23, 2019

Vatican II was the council of the “signs of the times.” The conciliar documents use the expression four times. Unitatis redintegratioapplauds ecumenical efforts and exhorts Catholic believers “to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.” The introduction to Gaudium et spes explains that the Church “carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” Dignitatis humanae describes the increasingly global recognition of religious freedom as a civil right as a “happy sign of the times.” And Presbyterorum ordinis insists that priests take into account lay people’s wishes, experience, and competence, so that together they may recognize “the signs of the times.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t make too much of the repeated use of the expression. The way in which the conciliar documents use it is relatively innocuous (though I must admit that I have qualms about the broad-stroke treatment of the “civil right” of “religious freedom”). And, on a positive note, the Vatican II documents say a great deal about the centrality of Christ in interpreting created and historical realities.

Still, the council’s use of “signs of the times” doesn’t occur in isolation. Marie-Dominique Chenu, the medievalist and social activist from the Dominican school of Le Saulchoir, had often used the expression in the years leading up to the council. Chenu thought it crucial that we be on the lookout for signs of the times. Chenu saw these signs as positive indications of the progressive humanizing of society, which he believed allows Christians to recognize points of contact (pierres d’attente) in secular values. ….