Catholic identity and 'reading the signs of the times'

Catholic identity and 'reading the signs of the times'

John Kelly

From the beginning, the Church and her teachers have engaged the dominant philosophies and religions of the world. The Spirit of the Gospel inevitably encounters in systematised, political and popular modes, the spirit of the world. The inevitability of this encounter arises largely from the theological and historical aspects of the Church as a missionary body.

This contact with philosophies and religions (and, in recent times, ideologies) other than her own has always posed questions for the Church: not only questions of missionary strategy, but also of identity. The recurring question, as old as the earliest centuries of the Church's existence, has been, in one way or another: "To what extent is Christian revelation compatible with non-revealed pagan or humanistic thought?"

Early Church

The early Church had to thread her way through the maze of philosophical and religious cults that characterised the Graeco-Roman world. Convinced in the Spirit that she had a unique, decisive, saving truth to proclaim, and commissioned to evangelise, the Church did just that: she preached the Gospel of her crucified and risen Lord, internally to her own members; and externally, to the Gentiles. The aim and often the outcome of this engagement with philosophies and religions other than the Church's own received and saving truth was conversion.

Two basic stances are evident in the early encounters of the Church with pagan philosophy and religion. Tertullian is representative of a suspicious and finally implacable attitude towards the 'enlightenment' of his day: "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the academy to do with the Church? Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic or compliant Christianity" (Apologia 116; Dialogue 110).

According to Tertullian, the pure wine of faith must not be diluted with the water of human reason. In this intransigent response to the prevailing thought systems of his day, with the segregation of revelation from the reason it asserts, we have one of the earliest formulations of what was later to be the classical Protestant position on the issue, not only of the relationship between faith and reason, but also of its practical corollary, the Church's relationship with culture. Tertullian's position admits no compromise: the worlds of grace and nature are worlds apart; Christ and humanistic culture are at odds.

Tertullian's stance, rhetorically persuasive as it may be, is not the one that came to characterise Catholicism.

Eminent thinkers and converts from the pagan world, such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, recognised that not only was not all pagan thought futile, but saw also the reconcilability of the ethical content of much pagan thought and monotheistic religion with Christian moral and religious teaching, as well as practice. Moreover, they recognised the usefulness of key categories of pagan thought for giving an account of the content of Christian revelation.

Justin writes: "For each [i.e., the pagan philosophers] through his share in the divine generative Logos, spoke well, seeing what suited to his capacity ... Thus, whatever has been spoken aright by any men belongs to us Christians" (Apologia, 11, xiii); and Clement: "For your foot will not stumble, as the Scripture says, if you attribute to Providence all good things, whether belonging to the Greeks or to us. For God is the source of all good" (Stromateis, I, v).

While faithful and discriminating in their use of pagan formulations, ensuring that the use of pagan terminology was always subject to and at the service of the revelation received in faith and the Church's mission of evangelisation, the stance of teachers and apologists such as Justin and Clement and subsequent Church Fathers was continuous with the Apostolic conviction that the revelation of Christ and its efficacy are necessary and universal; that is, for the salvation of all; and that, while significantly obscured, God's image in fallen humanity is not totally obliterated.

The Church in her historical pilgrimage would confidently engage all non-revealed thought and religion, not embracing all with an undiscerning eclecticism to the erosion of her own divinely revealed truth, authority and identity, which ultimately transcend socio-cultural conditions.


Rather, recognising and accepting what is true and good, if incomplete, in the secular sphere, she places all within the full context of creation, sin, grace and faith, elevating and completing nature, including the world of humanistic thought and the cultures it generates, and referring all explicitly to the liberating and salvific judgment and love of Christ.

Engagement with the world of twentieth century humanism, influenced so strongly as it is in theory and practice by such figures as Comte, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, their contemporary developers and popularisers, and the movements to which they have given rise, makes it incumbent that the Church's teachers are adequately informed of and committed to the tradition of Catholic thought and Magisterium.

If encountering humanism is historically inevitable, the capture and domination of it by Catholic thinking and teaching is not: humanism, in theory and practice, must be exposed to the Church's life-giving call to conversion, to that "life to the full" offered by and in Christ alone.

When the Church enters into dialogue with the world, it is a dialogue conditioned decisively by revealed truth received in faith, which is not negotiable, because of its divine origin. The Church's identity cannot be defined by the world of philosophy or the natural sciences alone. The ultimate object of natural reason, God, transcends unaided reason's powers. The limitations of reason are highlighted in the Church's insistence on analogy in our knowledge of God and on the intellectus fidei - reason informed by faith.


Shakespeare's King Lear perhaps provides a sobering analogy for Church-world relations. "Who is it can tell me who I am?" asks the delusion-shattered Lear after conducting his fatuous and abortive "authority-sharing" exercise. Seizing their golden opportunity to inform a man who had "ever but slenderly known himself," those least qualified readily supply an answer. Those who do not love and have no care for truth at all, driven by greed and ambition, proceed to determine not only the King's fate, but of his realm. His loyal and true supporters are exiled, their voices silenced.

When Vatican II exhorted the faithful to read "the signs of the times" and to adopt a dialogical relationship with the modern world, it was surely not declaring "open season" on the doctrines, structures and practices constitutive of the Church's identity. It would be as naive and absurd as Lear for Catholics to suppose that the forces which shape contemporary popular imagination and thought are, ipso facto, consonant with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and attuned to the voice of the Good Shepherd; and as blind as Shakespeare's misguided monarch to think that the divinely inspired and sustained wisdom of two millennia, more accessible than ever before and distilled in the Church's official doctrine on all that ultimately matters, has nothing to teach our contemporaries.

John Kelly is a Catholic school teacher in Adelaide (SA).

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.