“The Signs of the Times”: An Alternative Catholic View of the Relationship of History and Theology

“The idea that faith is anchored in history is not a novelty,” writes Giuseppe Ruggieri, “when we recall that from the beginning Christian biblical faith has been the recognition of God’s action in the history of a people (Israel) and the life of an individual (Jesus Christ).”:”(Giuseppe Ruggieri, “Faith and History,” in The Reception of Vatican II, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean-Pierre Jossua, and Joseph A. Komonchak, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987], pg. 91)”:

Ruggieri briefly discusses the role of prophets in calling attention to present problems, and notes the too-often dismissive or repressive response of those in power to the prophets. Will Catholics today recognize internal prophetic calls to take very seriously the problems of today, or will they, “like the king of Judah, [go] to question the imprisoned prophet, but then be filled with fear at his plain words and decide to take shelter in the rules of the institution and ignore his message (see Jer. 38:14-28)?”:”(Ibid., pg. 92.)”:

To answer his own question, Ruggieri brings out the example of the Catholic controversialist Melchior Cano (1509-1560) and contrasts it with more recent example of Pope John XXIII.

Cano’s position had two basic focal points. First, he included history among the sources (loci) of theology, which meant that history was to be used essentially as a storehouse of intellectual content with which to fill up the molds of theological syllogisms. Following the division of theology into “positive” and “speculative,” Cano thus worked with “a dangerous extrinsicism”–a view which forced the “matter” of history to fit a pre-existing “form,” namely, a Scholastic Aristotelian concept of Reason. “Positive” theology “find[s] the elements that serve as points of departure for argumentation,” while “speculative theology “construct[s] argumentation.”:”(Ibid., pg. 93.)”:

Second, Cano described the locus of history as a field of material that was “foreign” to theology. Theology was a function of (transcendent) special revelation; history was merely a function of (immanent) “natural reason,” akin to the “authority of the philosophers.”:”(I have added the modifiers “transcendent” and “immanent” because I think they clarify Ruggieri’s analysis of Cano’s distinction in light of what Ruggieri himself admits has been “representative of the prevailing outlook among Catholics until a few decades ago,” pg. 92.)”: According to Ruggieri, this meant that Cano “separate[d] the knowledge of faith from human history” such that “History becomes a very useful storehouse of apologetical demonstrations, but Christian knowledge as such follows a law of its own that is characterized by assent to an external authority.” On this sort of view of the relationship of history and theology, it is no accident that “though Christian historiography gradually took over some fruitful elements of the critical method, it too has looked at the history of the Church primarily from an apologetical point of view.”:”(Ibid., pp. 93-94.)”:

Ruggieri acknowledges that this view of history “would be defended, propped up, and repeatedly overhauled [by Catholics] as late as the first half of the present century.” Nevertheless, as early as 1812, the Catholic scholar J.S. Drey was writing of the need for Catholics to have a better understanding of the way that theology is historically-conditioned. This promising start was, it seems, squelched by neo-Scholasticism’s intense reaction to Modernism, especially its reaction to the concept of historical conditioning as supposedly being a form of “relativism.” Ruggieri characterizes this as a “rearguard action that was essentially ended by Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu. In the wake of the Modernist crisis, which Ruggieri characterizes as lacking a “calm assessment of the real issue,” Catholic scholarship of the next generation, among whom should be counted Maurice Blondel, “must be credited with preparing the ground for a calmer and more productive vision.”:”(Ibid., pg. 95.)”:

The pontificate of John XXIII (1958-1963) saw the fruition of this new, calmer and more productive Catholic view of history. Ruggieri draws attention to a pivotal phrase which John used in his convoking speech at Vatican II, and which the Council itself used four more times, in which the pope reminded all Catholics of Christ’s words to discern “the signs of the times.” Since the 18th century, says Ruggieri, Catholics had tended to have a very negative view of Modern history, which it saw as “a progressive corruption of human beings due to the Protestant denial of the principle of authority.” Pius XI’s Syllabus of Errors, Gregory XVI’s Mirari vos, and Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus stand as representative examples of this extremely negative Catholic view of Modern history. John XXIII sought to alter this fundamentally negative orientation when he remarked

Nowadays…the Spouse of Christ prefers to apply the medicine of mercy rather than the medicine of severity; she believes that she will meet today’s needs by showing the grounds for her teaching rather than by repeating condemnations. It is not that there are no false doctrines, opinions, and dangerous ideas to be guarded against and warded off; but these are in such clear contrast to the right norm of honesty and have produced such deadly fruits that men and women on their own seem inclined to condemn them.:”(Cited in ibid., pg. 96.)”:

The pope continued, charging the older negative Catholic view with lacking discretion and moderation:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral ministry we are offended at times by having to listen to the views of those who, although full of zeal, have no great sense of discretion and moderation. They see the modern age as nothing but disasters and calamities; they keep repeating that our age, as compared with past ages, is getting steadily worse….

But we must disagree with these prophets of doom who are always predicting disaster, as though the destruction of the world were imminent.

In the present course of human events, when society seems to be entering into a new order, we must see rather the hidden plan of divine providence that through the ages has been using the works of human beings–usually without their intending it–to achieve its purpose.:”(Cited ibid.)”:

Against Catholics who readily assume that the pope did not realize what he had set in motion (relativism?), Ruggieri cites the judgment of Yves Congar about the pope’s urging of Catholics to recognize “the signs of the times.” Said Congar, “…The aim [of the pope's language] is a full recognition of the historicity of the world and of the Church itself which, though distinct from the world, is nonetheless bound up with it. Movements in the world must have their echo in the Church, at least to the extent that they raise problems.”:”(Cited ibid., pg. 97)”: As Ruggieri then summarizes, the issue facing Catholics since Vatican II is “the abandonment of a deductivist outlook according to which a few principles yield conclusions valid for human activity in every age, and its replacement by an inductive mindset that reads in and educes from facts the signs of a consistency between the gospel that is believed and proclaimed and the desires of human beings.”

The pope’s call to observe “the signs of the times” thus “call[s] for a positive acknowledgment of history as an authentic ‘place’ wherein the imminent presence of the kingdom may be perceived.” This is “linguistically incompatible with a fixed theology (‘a theology of conclusions’) and calls for a consonant theology of its own; its meaning cannot be adequately captured by second-level reflection or a theological theory, because it expresses first and foremost an attitude of faith, a concrete disposition of mind for which history is not an accident or an extraneous fact but is constitutive of the salvation that Christians hope for and proclaim.”:”(Ibid., pg. 98.)”:

In this way, Vatican II set into motion a process of aggiornamento (“updating”). As John XXIII himself said, no longer should Catholics be primarily interested with safeguarding doctrinal treasures in a static, negative way. Instead those treasures should be examined and explained (pervestigetur et exponatur) in a way that meets the needs of today (quam tempora postulant nostra). In this connection the distinction between the deposit of faith itself and the ways in which the deposit is stated and defended becomes particularly important. There are bad ways of stating and defending the contents of the deposit, and more historical consciousness can sometimes bring those way to light.

Ruggieri gives the very illuminating example here of Cardinal Frings, who during the debate at Vatican II over the sources of revelation openly rejected the view presented by the Roman Curia’s commissions as being reflective not of the entire Catholic tradition, but only of “a small segment, the tradition of the last hundred years.”:”(Ibid., pg. 99.)”: Other examples include Dei Verbum‘s placement of revelation in “deeds and words that are intrinsically connected with one another” rather than merely abstractions about “truth,” Lumen Gentium‘s subordination of the hierarchical-institutinoal dimensions of the Church to the mystery of the Church as the people of God, and Gaudium et Spes‘ basement of a solemn decree on an analysis of historical circumstances.:”(Ibid., pp. 100-101.)”:

There is much more of interest in Ruggieri’s article. I appreciate his fascinating observation that the new Catholic recognition of the pluralism and dynamic character of the Christian Faith is rooted firmly in the Trinitarian and eucharistic aspects of the religion.:”(Ibid., pg. 101)”: In his closing remarks, he summarizes his article this way: “The solid core of the new attitude of faith toward history is that it no longer looks upon history as a field of independent apologetical proofs of truths and no longer seeks to deduce practical attitudes from doctrines, but on the contrary, it seeks to read God’s call in history itself.”:”(Ibid., pg. 110.)”:

This entry was posted in Ecumenism, Writing History. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>