Signs of the Times: Origin and Meaning

Varying events in the life of the Church—from the approach of the Synod on Synodality to the “Synodal Way” of the Church in Germany—have once more brought to light the importance of Vatican II’s teaching on the “signs of the times.” Since the Council, the phrase has become shorthand for a new method of theology (and as some, argue, a new locus of content) that takes seriously the lived experience of men and women in the modern world. In the following, I explain the origin of the phrase and its theological and pastoral implications as given in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes.

One of the most striking characteristics of Gaudium et Spes is its reading of the “signs of the times.” Its introductory survey of the situation of human beings in the modern world is a remarkable “snapshot” of the conciliar era.[1] The Council fathers speak of the rapid changes brought about by modernity, including political and social struggles for freedom, the rise of science and the technology that springs from it, gains in the rights of women and workers, globalization, and even the decline in the religious practice of modern men and women. The image evoked by this survey is both optimistic and scrutinizing; modernity presents both reasons for hope and causes for concern. In total, the fathers describe the modern world as full of inaequilibria (“imbalances”) that are a symptom “of that deeper [inaequilibrio] that is in man himself.”[2] It is this reading of an internal struggle in the human heart that allows the Constitution to proclaim Christ as the one who can “show man the way and strengthen him through the Spirit in order to be worthy of his destiny.”[3]

While this proclamation of Christ is aimed at the Council’s reading of the (then) modern world, one can still take from the Constitution a certain pedagogy of the signs of the times that endures. Thus, 50 years removed from the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes in 1965, our image of the world may include significant differences from the one described by the Council, and yet the Council’s method of reading human experience and proclaiming Christ as its purification and fulfillment offers the Church a way in which to undertake its enduring mission of evangelization. To better understand this pedagogy, we are helped by returning to the source of the phrase signa temporum.

In Humanae Salutis, the document by which he summoned the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII first used the phrase “signs of the times,” referencing Matthew 16:3 in doing so. For Pope John, the Church needed to oppose the voice of those who only saw the world with eyes of condemnation. Rather, Christ “has not deserted the human beings he has redeemed”; as such, the Church should know how to “recognize the signs of the times” that it might, “in the midst of all the hideous clouds and darkness, perceive a number of things that seem to be omens portending a better day for the Church and for mankind.”[4] Later, in the 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, the phrase was used as a heading for what the pope perceived to be positive developments in (then) recent history.[5] From these two uses it can be gathered that, for John XXIII, “signs of the times” referred to the characterizations and events of current history that manifest the present condition of humanity. Though he especially wished to highlight those signs that could be perceived as positive, John XXIII indicated both the negative and positive character of such signs, thereby calling upon the Church to distinguish between the two.

It was with this history in mind that the Council fathers utilized the phrase signa temporum in Gaudium et Spes, seeing such signs as particular insights into humanity that could provide the material needed for the Church’s dialogue with the modern world. Still, the use of the phrase in the Constitution only came with much debate. An earlier draft had linked the signs of the times with the Roman proverb vox temporis vox dei, thereby regarding “the voice of the age . . . as the voice of God.”[6]

Such an equation of history with God’s speaking itself came under scrutiny when it was compared to Matthew 16:2–4, the passage Pope John XXIII had originally referenced in his use of “signs of the times.” In the Gospel, Jesus’s interlocutors ask him for a sign from heaven. Jesus replies somewhat antagonistically,

In the evening you say, “Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red”; and in the morning, “Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times. An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah.

In this passage, “signs of times” bears a distinct Christological and eschatological meaning, one that is placed against the ability of his questioners to interpret present history. The ultimate sign of the time is Christ himself, along with his saving work, yet the Sadducees and Pharisees in question are unable to recognize him as such. The Gospel, then, seems to present a meaning of signa temporum that is directly antithetical to the Roman proverb.[7]

Because of this, the use of the phrase in subsequent drafts was altered, and it is notable that the official Constitution does not make reference to the Matthean passage. In article 4, Gaudium et Spes states that:

At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading [perscrutandi] the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel if it is to carry out its task . . .  We must be aware of and understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live.[8]

The Council’s use of the phrase, while bearing no referential notes to the biblical context, nevertheless should not be completely disassociated with the Gospel passage. Rejecting the earlier draft’s equation of history with the voice of God, the final document does recognize the need to scrutinize [perscrutandi] present history and human experience in order to ascertain what is genuinely a sign of the presence of God. Thus, the passage from Matthew and the use of the expression signa temporum in Gaudium et Spes share a common bond in that both refer to the reading of God’s presence and activity in human history.[9] Nevertheless, they are distinct in that the Gospel passage uses “signs of the times” to refer to the definitive presence of Christ (especially as a sign of history’s final time), while the Council document refers to elements of human history that may or may not be genuine signs of his presence.[10]

Ultimately, then, the Council used the phrase in the sense in which John XXIII first did, as a reference to present history. The signs of the times are meant to be scrutinized by the Church so that, inductively, she can present the gospel message as the fulfillment of human yearnings. Considering the overarching goal of the document, along with the Council’s overall intention regarding the relationship between faith and the world, signa temporum can be taken as “shorthand for the Church’s openness to and dialogue with the world that was the major goal of Vatican II.”[11]

With the rejection of vox temporis vox dei in favor of the Church’s need to scrutinize history, the Council gives further insight into the question of the universality of divine revelation. Earlier, Dei Verbum’s limited statements on the subject were noted. The question was raised as to whether God speaks and acts in moments of history that stand outside the provenance of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The answer is clearly given in the affirmative by the use of “signs of the times” in Gaudium et Spes. Such signs can potentially reveal the presence of God working in current earthly realities and present history.

Nevertheless, the Council expressed caution in recognizing this fact. Article 11 of the Pastoral Constitution elaborates further on the Church’s need to scrutinize history:

The people of God believes that it is led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the whole world. Moved by that faith it tries to discern in the events, the needs, and the longings which it shares with other men of our time, what may be genuine signs of the presence or of the purpose of God. For faith throws a new light on all things and makes known the full ideal which God has set for man, thus guiding the mind towards solutions that are fully human.[12]

The language here is evenhanded. The Holy Spirit is said to indeed fill the whole world, giving present history the ability to bear within it the presence of God. Nevertheless, in what Ratzinger terms a “felicitous touch,” the Constitution describes the Church as called to discern [discernere] which signs of the times are genuine bearers of this presence.[13] The spiritual practice of the discernment of spirits, most prominently seen in the Ignatian tradition, is thus reflected in these words.

It is only by the light of faith that the Church can see in present human experience what is truly “of the Spirit.” From this, what was stated in article 4 now stands out in greater relief: “The Church carries the responsibility of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”[14] Thus, only from the vantage point of its faith, that is to say, only from the gift of revelation it has already received from God in Jesus Christ, can it see the ways in which the Spirit moves and speaks in the entirety of human history. And being united to this history by its own humanity, it seeks to call those outside its visible walls to itself, presenting the truths of the faith as capable of fulfilling what is human, yet raising it up to full communion in Jesus Christ.[15] Thus, the “solutions that are fully human” are those that are, by their nature, open to union with God.[16]

Ultimately, then, the relationship between the Church’s mission of proclaiming the faith and the signs of the times is dialectical in nature. The Church seeks to offer the world what can fulfill its “humanity,” yet the world offers its humanity as a necessary avenue for the truth to be contemplated and proclaimed. In the words of Gaudium et Spes §44, “The Church is not unaware how much it has profited from the history and development of mankind. It profits from the experience of past ages, from the progress of the sciences, and from the riches hidden in various cultures, through which greater light is thrown on the nature of man and new avenues to truth are opened up.”[17] The Church, therefore, as the Body of Christ, has both divine and human elements—in the words of Lumen Gentium, it is a mystery. From this mystery, it offers to the world what it has received from God and receives from the world a clarification and insight into its own humanity.[18]

This insight provides some further refinement in understanding the nature of divine revelation, especially in terms of the question regarding revelation in “secular” history. Is there revelation in history beyond that of the biblical and ecclesial tradition? The answer can only be reached in recognizing, as seen in the previous analysis of Dei Verbum, that revelation (by its own nature as dialogical) requires the perception of the one to whom God is being revealed. While this is true of the individual person, in a greater way, it is true of the Church as a whole. As the one who is called to discern the signs of the times, the Church is ultimately the subject who receives God’s self-gift, and in perceiving it, responds in the returning self-gift of faith: “Thus God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church—and through her in the world—leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”[19]

In this sense, one can say that revelation is only received in the Church, which is to say, by the “spouse of the beloved Son.” Any revelation “outside” the Church (in the signs of the times) is then ordered to union with God in the Church. Thus, the revelation to Israel recorded in the Old Testament is, as Dei Verbum §3 explains, ordered to the coming of Jesus Christ—which is ultimately to say, ipso facto, that it is ordered to his Body, the Church. Likewise, the presence of God in the signs of the times is ordered to communion in the Church. Indeed, this presence is recognized as revelatory by the very perception made possible by the Church’s faith.

It should be noted that the faith that allows it to perceive this presence encompasses the revelation it has already received from the scriptures and by its doctrine, life, and worship—that is, from sacred tradition. Then, in discerning God’s speaking and acting in present history, it thus incorporates the sign into its own tradition. The sign of the times, in one sense “outside” its walls, is now fulfilled by being brought “within,” becoming an avenue for the proclamation of the Kingdom. Thus, in the greater context of Gaudium et Spes §44, the Church:

Profits from the experience of past ages, from the progress of the sciences, and from the riches hidden in various cultures, through which greater light is thrown on the nature of man and new avenues to truth are opened up. The Church learned early in its history to express the Christian message in the concepts and language of different peoples and tried to clarify it in the light of the wisdom of their philosophers: it was an attempt to adapt the Gospel to the understanding of all men and the requirements of the learned, insofar as this could be done. Indeed, this kind of adaptation and preaching of the revealed Word must ever be the law of all evangelization.[20]

In a way, this understanding of revelation in the signs of the times is analogous to what has already been said regarding creation and revelation. Just as creation itself is not revelation but is an occasion for it, so too is present history and human experience an occasion for the Church to perceive God’s acting and speaking.

But another explanation may be of further help in understanding this dynamic concept of revelation in the Church and the world. At the Council, in discussing a draft of what would eventually become Dei Verbum, the Melkite archbishop Néophytos Edelby offered the Eastern Churches’ understanding of tradition in relation to history.[21] In markedly liturgical language, Edelby described the proclamation of the Scriptures that occurs in the liturgy as a “consecration of salvation history”—that is, an offering of God’s actions in history back to God himself—a recapitulation reminiscent of the offering of bread and wine. Yet, Edelby continued, “this consecration requires some kind of epiclesis—that is to say, the invocation and the action of the Holy Spirit.” Strikingly, he explained that this “epiclesis is precisely sacred tradition,” and without this tradition, “the world’s history is incomprehensible and sacred scripture remains a dead letter.” History, then, can be an offering of the presence of Jesus Christ to the Father, when it is subsumed by the Holy Spirit into the Church’s living tradition.

I believe it is important to reemphasize, in this dynamic concept of tradition, that the revelation received by the Church in its Scriptures and already put forth in its doctrine, life, and worship becomes the norm for discerning the ways in which God continues to speak today. Here it may be helpful to make a distinction—latent in the dynamic understanding of tradition put forth in Dei Verbum—between the Body of Christ understood diachronically [dia/through-chronos/time] and synchronically [syn/with-chronos/time]. While both viewpoints are legitimate and necessary, the first recognizes those who make up the Church throughout time and therefore includes Christians of the past, united to the present in the communion of saints; and the second recognizes the rightful place of the people of God in the present era, a people who are found in virtually every corner of the world. The synchronic understanding lends legitimate voice to the present concerns of the people of God in the modern world. Yet the diachronic understanding shows that the scriptures and Church teaching are not external impositions upon the freedom of the present experience of the Body of Christ. Rather, they are objective manifestations of the revelation already received by the people of God in the past and, since the Church by nature is united to this experience, it must continue to be informed by it. Scripture and doctrine are, thus, not external to the present Church but make up a central part of its very identity.

Ultimately, then, the revelation received in the past is the means for discerning the revelation of God today. The signs of the times are discerned by the light of the Gospel. It is necessary to stress this point in the face of incorrect interpretations of the Council’s teaching that would claim experience as the determiner of revelation’s claims,[22] or further, that the world in and of itself is already in some sense “Christian.”[23] For the Council, present human experience is only properly seen in the light of the Church’s faith, responding to God’s self-revelation.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from the chapter “Revelation and the Human Person According to Vatican II” in Catechesis for the New Evangelization: Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Unity of Revelation and Experience. Reprinted with the kind permission of The Catholic University of America Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

[1] George Weigel, “Rescuing Gaudium et Spes: The New Humanism of John Paul II,” Nova et Vetera 8, no. 2 (2010): 254.

[2] Gaudium et Spes §10. Henceforth, GS.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John XXIII, Humanae Salutis §4, trans. Austin Vaughn, in The Encyclicals and Other Messages of Pope John XXIII, 387; AAS 54 (1962): 6.

[5] See Richard Schenk, “Officium Signa Temporum Perscrutandi: New Encounters of Gospel and Culture in the Context of the New Evangelization,” in Scrutinizing the Signs of the Times in the Light of the Gospel, ed. Johan Verstraeten (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2007), 173. Schenk points out that the official Latin version of the text includes no headings, thus excluding the term; however, the Italian version uses the phrase four times, the English version once. Cf. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, AAS 20 (1963): 257–304.

[6] Ratzinger, “Part I: The Church and Man’s Calling, Introductory Article and Chapter I,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler, trans. W. J. O’Hara (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 5:115.

[7] Ratzinger, “Part I: The Church and Man’s Calling,” 115. See also the comments of the Reformed scholar Lukas Vischner, an invitee to the Council, as recorded in Schenk, “Officium Signa Temporum Perscrutandi,” 178: “The text does not state in what fashion God speaks to us. It never names a criterion that would allow us to distinguish God’s voice from any deceptive voices. It doesn’t even mention that the phenomena of the times have a polyvalent character and thus are not easy to interpret. It settles for the simple statement of fact that God’s voice is to be heard in our times. . . . The draft shows few traces of this epistemological problem. It speaks of God’s voice as if it were easy to recognize. It opens the way for interpretations of history that are not grounded in the word of God. And the history of the Church is full of such interpretations” (emphasis in the original).

[8] GS §4. Perscrutandi, translated in the Flannery edition of the Council documents as “reading,” has a more distinct meaning of “scrutinizing.”

[9] See Mary Elsbernd and Reimund Bieringer, “Interpreting the Signs of the Times in the Light of the Gospel: Vision and Normativity of the Future,” in Scrutinizing the Signs of the Times in the Light of the Gospel, 62–63.

[10] More of Vischer’s comments are telling in this regard: “To recognize the signs of the times one ought to distinguish the voice of God from any other voice no matter how persuasive it might be. Furthermore, the world is ambiguous, and evil is mixed up with good.” As quoted in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., s.v. “Signs of the Times.”

[11] Elsbernd and Bieringer, “Interpreting the Signs of the Times,” 63.

[12] GS §11.

[13] Ratzinger, “Part I: The Church and Man’s Calling,” 116.

[14] GS §4. Emphasis mine.

[15] That the Church is united to the world by its humanity presupposes an understanding of ecclesial identity that it is essentially sacramental. Thus, Gaudium et Spes builds on the foundation set by Lumen Gentium, by which the Church is said to be “in the nature of a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” Thus, before it is the People of God (chapter 2) or a hierarchically structured society (chapter 3), it is first mystery [sacramentum]. See Lumen Gentium §1.

[16] GS §11. See also Ratzinger, “Part I: The Church and Man’s Calling,” 116–17: “Certainly the Church is tied to what was once and for all, the origin in Jesus of Nazareth, and in this sense it is obliged ‘chronologically’ to continuity with him and the testimony of the beginning. But because ‘the Lord is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:17) and remains present through the Spirit, the Church has not only the chronological line with its obligation of continuity and identity, it has also the moment, the kairos, in which it must interpret and accomplish the work of the Lord as present. The Church is not the petrification of what once was, but its living presence in every age. The Church’s dimension is therefore the present and the future no less than the past. Its obedience to the Lord precisely as such must be obedience to him as pneuma, as summons today; it must be accomplished with discernment of spirits and must accept the risk of submitting at all times to such discernment. That is of course necessary in order that the moment of the Holy Spirit may not imperceptibly change into the momentary spirit of the age, and what is done under the appearance of obedience to the pneuma may not be in fact submission to the dictates of fashion and apostasy from the Lord. This shows the intrinsic connection between holiness and aggiornamento.” Thus, what is accomplished here in Gaudium et Spes is a window into the Council’s goal of aggiornamento as a whole, and the discernment of the signs of the times is likewise connected to the dynamic concept of tradition presented in Dei Verbum. In fact, what Gaudium et Spes implies here, which Ratzinger does not mention, is the inner connection between ressourcement and aggiornamento. The past becomes a norm for discerning the present.

[17] GS §44.

[18] See GS §44: It is enriched by the world “not as if something were missing in the constitution which Christ gave the Church, but in order to understand this constitution more deeply, express it better, and adapt it more successfully to our times. . . . Whoever contributes to the development of the community of mankind on the level of family, culture, economic and social life, and national and international politics, according to the plan of God, is also contributing in no small way to the community of the Church insofar as it depends on things outside itself.”

[19] Dei Verbum §8. Emphasis mine.

[20] GS §44.

[21] An English translation of this remarkable speech, from which my quotations are taken, can be found in the appendix of Gerald O’Collins, Retrieving Fundamental Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 174–77.

[22] It is important to remember here the amendment to Dei Verbum concerning the role of experience in tradition. In article 8, it is the understanding [intelligentia] of spiritual realties experienced that helps tradition make progress in the Church, rather than experience itself. That revelation is a norm for present experience is a teaching in Gaudium et Spes that is sometimes left aside in the wake of the positive value of dialogue with the world. For an example of the impact on moral theology when this teaching is left aside, see Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman, “Human Experience and Catholic Moral Theology,” Irish Theological Quarterly 76, no. 1 (2011): 35–56. The authors rightfully consider the role of experience in moral theology, but give it preeminence over Scripture, tradition, and reason.

[23] Jared Wicks points to a letter in de Lubac’s memoirs in which the theologian staunchly opposed an interpretation of Gaudium et Spes, and indeed the Council as a whole, in which “there would no longer be any true evangelization in view for the future,” since the “so-called ‘profane’ world [was] already Christian in reality, independent of any evangelical revelation.” See Wicks, “Further Light on Vatican Council II,” Catholic Historical Review 95, no. 3 (2009): 546–69, especially 559–62; and de Lubac, At the Service of the Church, trans. Anne Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 341.

Featured Image: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Sign of Jonah, 1511; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Brian Pedraza

Brian Pedraza is Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, in Baton Rouge, LA, and is the author of Catechesis for the New Evangelization: Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Unity of Revelation and Experience.

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