Excerpt from Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret, (2003) Orbis Books and the Center of Concern.CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING
Catholic Social Teaching Theological Context: Reading the Signs of the Times
Excerpted from Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret, (2003) Orbis Books and the Center of Concern.To purchase this book, go to www.coc.org.
A foundational conviction underlying Catholic socialteaching is that God is at work in human history. This wastrue in biblical times; it is true today. It is true in places thegospel has been embraced; and it is true in places andamong people who have never heard of the gospel or ofJesus the Christ. God is at work healing and redeeminghuman history and inviting all people to participate in thatwork. Perceiving the historical action of God and discern-ing God’s invitation are often now referred to as “readingthe signs of the times.
”The term “signs of the times” in contemporary Catholic social thought is a term based upon Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 16:4—“You know how to read the face of the sky, but you cannot read thesigns of the times.” Pope John XXIII made the first use of the term in modern Catholic social teaching to refer to the principal characteristics of the age that are emerging from the collective consciousness of the human community inthe form of shared understandings and social movements.In Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris), John XXIII identified the women’s movement, the movement for workers’ rights, and the ending of colonialism as important “signs ofthe times.
”The Second Vatican Council embraced the notion, bringing it to the heart of the church’s mission.
“…the church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment,to serve and not to be served. To carry outsuch a task, the church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times andof interpreting them in the light of the gospel.” (The Church in the Modern World[Gaudium et Spes])
The “signs of the times,” then, embody and reflect the movement of the Holy Spirit in human history working tobring about the redemption of peoples and the fuller realization of the Reign of God. Interpreting the “signs ofthe times” requires prayerful discernment within theChristian community and in dialogue with all people ofgood will. The criteria for this discernment involve the coherence of the contemporary “signs of the times” with the gospels, the Christian understanding of human nature,and the common good.
The growing body of Catholic social teaching, beginning with On the Condition of Labor (Rerum Novarum),comprises a collection of efforts by the church to read the“signs of the times”since 1891.Discussion Questions
1. In your opinion, what are some of the current “signs of the times?”
2. Why is it important that you and your faith community identify and interpret the “signs of the times”?