“The Church always has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” Gaudium et Spes, 4.
For several decades now, this quotation from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, has been used often to frame or justify countless developments in the life of the Church. In some cases it has been applied as a basis for relaxing a moral teaching or practice. In other cases the “signs of the times” were said to call for an embrace of new modes teaching or of praying. In all cases of application, the very reality of cultural change itself was awarded an authoritative, even dogmatic status, sometimes over and above dogma or tradition itself.
I think it is safe to say that any changes argued from the basis of “the signs of the times” have been both good and bad for the Church and also good and bad for “the times.” To make matters more complicated, determining which changes are good as opposed to bad might only be possible after the passage of enough “times.” As time passes, some things do become clearer. Hence the need to always pay close attention, per Gaudium et Spes4, to “the signs of the times,” and then to adjust our pastoral strategies or articulations accordingly, hopefully without doing so in a way that overpowers tradition.
I am blessed to begin very soon a short study sabbatical from July through early October of 2019. In addition to the wisdom of sabbaticals from a strictly spiritual dimension (see below), they offer an opportunity to study certain topics in more intentional detail than one can often devote in the ordinary routines of life. In the case of my upcoming sabbatical, it could be said that I am using it as an opportunity to do what the Second Vatican Council calls for in Gaudium et Spes4: to scrutinize the signs of our times in light of the Gospel, and to discern what a response to these signs should be on the part of the Church.
Some Signs of Our Times
What might some of these signs be that I hope to explore? I will outline a handful of them here.
Shifting Institutional Allegiances: Mobility Reigns
The changing nature of institutions is one key sign of our times that requires serious pastoral analysis. More and more of the world’s population enjoys the freedom of mobility, which means that human institutions, or cultural artifacts, will continue to grow more fluid. People on the move do not want to hang on to houses, appliances, books, yards, cemetery plots, and mail boxes these days. Mobile people thrive on disposable entities, including disposable relationships with persons. Institutions and cultural networks are being radically reshaped as a result with classical ones on the decline, and new ones on the rise.
A cost-effective and ready agent of fluid institutional dynamics is digital life. For example, Google is currently among the strongest institutions on the planet, belonging to the new institutional category of digital media. Digital media institutions are the digital brick and digital mortar structures of the modern era that leave no footprint, are infinitely fluid, readily accessible, overwhelmingly popular, and (as of the moment) widely trusted. They are the new heart of our social framework.
Compare the new fluid, digital institutions to earlier static institutions such as civil governments, private corporations, and of course the Church. The government, on any level of organization, no longer enjoys that kind of institutional popularity or trust. Corporations that are too rigid in their footprints and operations are rapidly losing popularity, being forced to survive through the modern art of acquisition, which allows for greater consumer options.
What of the Church? On one level the answer is obvious: in these times, she is rapidly losing institutional ground. The Church’s structures are bound in most cases to buildings, to unbending concepts, to weekly gatherings in-person, to stable local communities, and to a form of worship that can never, ever be digital. There is no such thing as a digital sacrament.
Therefore, some argue, the Church is bound to disappear. In some localities that were once strongly Catholic, she is already all but gone, leaving only her empty museum-like buildings behind. Parishes in many sectors fight to hang on to a stable population that supplies enough money and labor to keep everything running.
Can the Catholic Church survive in a highly-mobile, post-institutional, disposable, digital Western society? This is a key question facing us in our present times.
The Institutional Church Is Not Dead Yet
We do have some strong things going for us in the light of the above, even if it may not seem obvious at first glance. For one, for the sectors of the global population that are highly mobile, Catholicism does offer a uniquely world-wide experience of an almost franchise-like quality, allowing the most mobile of believers to be at home in any Catholic church anywhere in the world. This leaves us uniquely positioned to thrive in a highly mobile society that, for all of its apparent thirst for variety, actually has a low tolerance for the unknown.
Noteworthy as well is the often overlooked fact that vast sectors of the world’s population are not highly mobile, and do not have the luxury of dabbling in the rootless lifestyles of the free-floating West. For a lot of the world whose economic standard of living is comparatively low, they will be born, will live, and will die all within the same geographic locality. They will be tied to family structures and to occupations that do not facilitate major changes of venue. For these large sectors of the world, the Church is an attractive home precisely because she is of, and for, the marginalized. Membership in the Church does not require much in the material realm. The price of admission is faith, which itself costs no money. The Church offers a stable network of organization for communities and populations who might not otherwise have the time or resources to create their own networks. In this way she is poised to remain a steady force, or a heartbeat of major areas of the human family.
In Search of Human Rootedness: The Church Holds the Answer
Also of major significance is the truth that a highly-mobile, digital, disposable, post-institutional world is fundamentally dehumanizing. People are not made to live without roots, purpose, the transcendent, the good, the beautiful, or the tangible. We crave all of these things by our very nature, and our current cultural leanings do demonstrate this fact.
For example, I am convinced that one important driver of the rising Green Movement is a fundamental hunger for the untouched character of creation. Creation as a whole has an observable pattern, purpose, beauty, and tangible quality to it that transcends the relatively brief life-spans of a mere man or a woman. It is easy to see why the ancients thought of the natural world as divine and above us. People are drawn to the untouched natural world in much the same way that they are drawn to a beautiful church building.
Similarly these days, it is trendy in the West to showcase old things. Uncovered fieldstone walls, re-purposed industrial buildings, old kitchen appliances from the pre-plastic era: anything that speaks of a prior era of stability holds particular sway over us right now. If it is tangible, earthy, and has endured the passage of years, it is attractive. Could all this be indicative of a hunger for stability on the part of a largely rootless generation?
The Catholic Church, along with the Orthodox Churches of the East, is the ideal vehicle for a rootless West to find roots, drawn in by the ancient, the enduring, the beautiful, and the transcendent. What’s more, in the case of right worship, our desires for these things are properly channeled through liturgy and ritual into the open heart of the Savior who alone can satisfy all of our longings. We can stockpile re-purposed bricks and old barn doors all that we want, but none of those things can fill our souls. Even creation itself, for all of its beauty, is limited for it remains merely creation. Without viewing the Divine Creator clearly through His creation, as distinct from it, creation quickly becomes a cruel force that kills as swiftly as it births, breeding pagan fear and accompanying acts of appeasement on the part of humanity.
Only the Church can save the disposable West, whether the West admits it or not.
In the light of these signs of the times, the Church must continually decide which parts of our mobile modern culture she is going to embrace, and which parts she will stand against. It does not strike me as wise to fully embrace whatever is cheap, disposable, virtual, and trendy merely to appease a highly mobile population that does not realize that they are seeking fulfillment in empty pursuits.
Another sign of the times that requires scrutiny and attention by the Church is the demographic implosion of the West. The most recent data on the birth rates in the United States indicate that the average woman will have 1.73 children in her lifetime, which is well below the needed replacement rate to maintain a population.
What has made this biologically possible is the explosion of contraception and sterilization across the world in the past 50 years. The Catholic Church continues to teach that artificial contraception and sterilization are intrinsically sinful and wrong in our official documents. However, most pastors do not discuss the teaching, and most people find the teaching laughable. Multiply the abandonment of the teaching across an entire society, and the result is the aging, graying, childless West that is careening toward extinction.
Widespread Social Pressures Encourage The Suppression of Fertility
What makes the low birthrate desirable is another question, and probably the most important question, that we need to face as a culture and as a Church. Even though we can exercise such massive control over our fertility, it does not mean that we should do so. However, we will continue to do so unless a compelling case, and a favorable climate for higher birthrates is provided. The Church has not adequately come to terms with this point.
Part of the reason is because so much of our language around the topic has focused on the ethics of the sexual act itself, and on a very narrowly drawn perspective that centers only on the man and the woman. A key problem is that the forces and pressures that make it desirable to have a low birthrate are culture-wide and are systemic, going well beyond the man and woman considered in isolation. The reasons to desire low birthrates center on economics, college debt load, low-wages, a pervasive consumer mentality, wildly inflated expectations of fulfillment, the glamorization of youth and mobility, the functionalist view of vocation, the flight from sacrifice, fear of loss, and the loss of the transcendent just to name a few.
Those cultural pressures are so strong, that even the small segment of faithful Catholic married couples who believe in the accuracy of the Church’s ethical teachings against artificial contraception, and who fell in love with Saint John Paul II’s vision of the Theology of the Body, often tend to treat Natural Family Planning like licit contraception, fighting very hard to keep their family sizes small using natural means.
The cult of good health is another major social pressure. How does the Church respond to the questions raised over the peril that pregnancy can sometimes pose to a mother’s life? In many instances the decision against fertility is made because the medical professionals have informed the inquiring husband and wife that another pregnancy will be deadly. In earlier times, the mothers would simply have died bringing new life into the world. This did not seem all that unusual in a prior era when death was all around us, and when we simply accepted that life was made up of death. Salvation, sin, heaven, and hell all took on a very tangible quality to such mortality-minded people.
Not so today. The Church is in serious need of a theological response to the questions of life and death, both literal and metaphorical, that surround childbirth and parenting. We need to make a compelling case for marriage and for parenting, with that charge being led by the voices and witness of married couples themselves. Additionally, the broader civil society is obligated to foster economic and legal conditions that ease the pressures that are currently driving down the birthrate. Without these driving agents, the trend is not going to reverse itself.
Authentically Green: Nature Always Wins in the End
It is quite likely, as is often the case with social systems, that change will be forced upon us before we are able to change of our own volition. It is chillingly instructive to note that steep demographic declines, as well as demographic surges, drove the rise and fall of Europe from Roman times all the way until the present. Demographics drive everything. At the rate we are going in the West, the current societal infrastructure we have will very quickly be impossible to maintain with the population we have. When that begins to happen, just as was the case in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, large segments of cities, towns, and national infrastructures will simply disintegrate into ghost towns. In some of the moral rural areas of America, this is already beginning to happen. It is also already true that multiple sectors of employers cannot find enough workers to fill their needed positions. The amazingly low unemployment rate might be attributable to a strong economy. More likely it is a function of a demographic crunch that is only going to worsen.
To a Western culture that fell in love with stunningly accurate fertility control in our era, God will allow it to decline on the terms of its own choosing, until the point that whatever remains of the collective culture finally surrenders control. At that point we will re-embrace the truth that nature has known all along: humans were meant to have children.
On the way to that point of self-realization, we will pass through the present cultural flirtation with artificial creation of life, with the normalization of same-sex relationships, and with the notion that gender is a construct. All of those alternative meanings of the human person are dead-ends made temporarily possible only by a society that has cut itself off from the forces of nature.
This is deeply contradictory on our part. Pope Benedict XVI noted in his 2008 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, that a contemporary society so outwardly obsessed with green living, and the careful protection of the natural world, should not at the same time be departing so radically from nature in the critical realm of human sexuality and fertility. At the center of authentic environmental ecology must be an authentic “human ecology.”
The Church needs to articulate an authentic “green theology” that recognizes all that is accurate in the secular Green Movement, while at the same time addressing its most dangerous flaw, namely that it is fundamentally anti-human, and thereby also anti-Christian. Disappointingly, even the lengthy papal encyclicalLaudato Sidid not speak to this fundamental point. The contemporary Green Movement can only ensure a future for humanity if it is fundamentally and completely grounded in Christ, who is the redeemer of man, and who calls the human family to an authentic pathway of sacrificial renewal. Failing this essential transition, the secular Green Movement is poised to become one of the most destructive anti-human ideologies of this century.
The Global State vs. the Local Community
Another sign of the times is the eroding of the political center in the post-War West that had held firm for several decades. Many writers and commentators have already noted this point.
It seems as though wide sectors of the population are losing faith in the liberal democratic institutions that once promised deliverance from the bloody religious and ethnic wars of Old Europe and the Colonial Era. This shift originates in questions of economics, of the common man losing ground, and of the gradual disintegration of societal standards of decent behavior, to name only a few factors that are at play.
The Church appears slow at this point to acknowledge what might be called the legitimate roots of the populist questioning that are bubbling up all around the world. Too quickly do our Church leaders plant their banner on the side of the disintegrating Western bureaucratic apparatuses, processes, and structures as the cracks in the old Western liberal social contract grow wider and wider. In their calls for the defense of the old institutions, they seem to be ignoring the reasons for their decline.
What is the reason for the emerging and widening cracks? I suspect much of it has to do with the fact that, whether the secular elites (or Church leaders) like to admit it or not, the whole Western social democratic order was built on Christian foundations, and it likewise presumed a wide-spread adherence to basic virtues and Christian principles that are essential for the maintenance of civilized life. Those Christian principles are being abandoned. In fact, the very governing entities that once grew out of those Christian principles are now directly attacking these same principles. This is tantamount to a tree that is hacking at its own roots with an axe, and is unable to understand why it is toppling.
All politics is local, as it is commonly said, and something of the same is true of religion and culture. The average person in the world who has to make a living, support a family, and live in safety, really does not want a world-wide, non-religious state. The globalized economic and political culture we have been striving to glorify in so many elite sectors breeds anxiety for much of the world. It is the elites and the young, childless people who get to be in love with a mobile, global bureaucracy. Meanwhile, everyone else is tossed about on the continually changing seas of social currents as all local institutions, religious and civic, disappear.
An authentically Christian West is one that allows for a thriving, local, Christian culture. It provides a common framework, in Christian teachings, for the integration of other cultural joiners who enter (or leave) a community. In this way local culture and customs ground identity, and they offer a pathway to a future that inspires hope for the common person. As a network of such local entities is stitched together, then broader, multinational entities can also thrive in ways that are appropriate and stabilizing. The broad entities must rest on firm, common foundations, most especially those of Natural Law and revealed truth. Where all of that is lacking, broader social unification projects will fail, and local institutions will eventually push back as we are currently witnessing in populist currents all over the world.
The Christian West in Mid-Life Crisis
A sign of our times is that the Church is not able to offer a compelling answer to a post-Christian West that has decided its Christian roots are not worth saving, or, worse, has decided that its Christian past is the source of all of its current woes.
There is a deep self-loathing in the post-Christian West about all the ways that we (apparently) wreaked so much havoc on everything from the earth itself, to native populations, and even to each other, all while purporting to be devout followers of Jesus Christ. What did Christians do, and what did Christianity bring us? Oppression, war, and ruin, so the common thinking goes. Clearly Christianity is not the answer, so we believe, and therefore we are casting about desperately for some new, alternative foundation for modern society.
We are not going to find one. The undeniable fact is that all of the best elements of Christian thought and practice built the West. At the same time, it is true that all of the sinful elements of fallen man are what caused the prior hurts and battles in our past, that still plague us to this day. To analogize the West to a person, the sins of “Adolescent West” have now left scars on the “Middle-aged, mid-life identity crisis West.” What are we to do?
The Church must find a way to talk to the West in the same way we pastorally talk to anyone else going through a mid-life identity crisis wherein one must come to terms with one’s past and roots. A good counselor offers assistance in sorting out the good from the bad so that the person in crisis does not make the common mistake of throwing out all the past, all of the good, just because of some of the bad. This is how authentic spiritual and personal growth takes place. The Church must employ the same strategy in talking to a West that is loathing the mistakes of its Christian past.
The good news is that all of the necessary tools for such a conversation and articulation exist in the Christian tradition. The crisis of the current West, and of the contemporary Church, is a spiritual crisis of selective memory. The solution does not call for an abandonment of our principles, but rather for a re-embrace of them in the maturity of experience, and in the power of the Holy Spirit that ultimately leads those who wander to move deeper into the Father’s house.
Pluralism and Islam
Related to the above is the fact that the contemporary Church has not been able to come to terms with what has become the primacy of pluralism in the West. This, more than anything else, has led to a deep crisis of faith and identity that is shaking the Catholic Church from the smallest local parish all the way to the Vatican itself.
Is Christ the way, the truth, and the life? Or, is he simply ONE such way, truth, and life? Are all religions equal? Is God’s ancient revelation just that: ancient? Or is it the abiding truth that must challenge every generation?
Is it accurate to say that members of Islam do indeed worship the same God as the Christians do? Or, would it be more helpful to admit that there truly are serious differences among the two faiths that raise very difficult questions for the ongoing future of the entire human family? Is it the case that the average American really has no idea what it is like to live in a majority Muslim country, and vise versa, and if so, what does that fact mean for the manner in which dialogue among differing nations, and religions, must be conducted? The future of the Church, and of the West, as well as the East, and the Middle East, and the South, all depend upon finding satisfying answers to these questions.
This cursory identification of only a few of the pressing issues of our day is a necessary first step in the Church’s task of scrutinizing the signs of the times, granting them their appropriate didactic authority. None of them can be ignored if we are to effectively share in the mission of the Redeemer for the salvation of souls.
The Sabbatical Itinerary
In order to delve a little more deeply into these and other topics, during my upcoming sabbatical I will be spending time in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, and Palestine. In those areas I will be visiting monasteries that are centers of cultural significance, liturgical beauty and renewal, and careful theological scholarship. In these same territories I will be visiting with local Christian families about their joys and struggles to live the faith. My hope is to learn from them all about their hoped-for contribution to the preservation of the Church in our era, as they raise families and live their respective vows.
Those same countries and locations are currently areas of major cultural intersections between the East and the West, and between Islam and Christianity. They are places where faithful Christian families face daily struggles to live the faith as a minority of the population. They are places of populist political questioning in the face of shifting, liberal democratic structures. They are places of natural beauty as well as centers of the rising Green Movement. They are places of major demographic change. In short, there is much fodder for study and observation.
The Spiritual Gift of a Sabbatical
All of the above is very weighty. I will certainly spend some time pondering it all, and perhaps I will return with some helpful answers that can contribute to what will be a decades long conversation about all of these topics.
However, on the most fundamental level, a sabbatical is an opportunity to personally reconnect with the Lord who hungers and thirsts so deeply for our undivided attention.
Priests must do this once in awhile. In my years of priesthood thus far, I have found the analogies between priesthood and biological parenting to be helpful guides as I have navigated a variety of pastoral challenges. Fatherhood is fatherhood, pure and simple, and priests are fathers. The parallels of both fatherhoods have been in my mind when many well-meaning, busy moms and dads have lately asked me: “when do I get to take my sabbatical!”
The analogy between both vocations does limp. The Church in her wisdom recommends that priests take sabbaticals now and again for similar reasons that the Church requires priests to make annual retreats. Priests have daily contact with the raw power of the Divine at work in the world in a way that no one else does. This is nothing that we earn, it is rather something that God simply does because he wants to. Just as people who frequently work in the proximity of, for example, high voltage electricity can run the risk of getting too casual about its power, so too it is for priests and the power of God. We get so caught up in our routines that we tend to forget who our Master is, and we get sloppy about the Divine. As a spate of recent headlines have shown, when that happens, the results are deadly.
Hence, the first goal of my sabbatical is to be deeply reminded of the One for whom I work, and whose power upholds my daily existence. Only in the process of sitting in this truth can any of the other answers to all the weighty questions become clear. This is true most especially because to remember our master is to remember that we are passionately loved by Him, even in our mistakes and failures. God is a consuming fire, and God is love.
God loves the post-Christian West. He loves his Church. He will not abandon either of them because they are both cut of the fabric of humanity for which God gave up His life. One cannot preach hope for tomorrow to a despairing West if one cannot first, as a priest and shepherd, rest in the arms of the one and true Savior. In His arms I do intend to rest, so that I can lead others to rest there as well.
Father Nathan will be on study sabbatical from July 1stthrough October 5th. During those months he will spending time in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Israel, in order to pray, read, learn, and listen. During that time he will not be posting or publishing, and he will be reachable only through family and friends. Know of his prayers while he is away; please pray also for him.