Since the Second Vatican Council used the phrase "the signs of the times" in the Introduction to its pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (p. 905, Flannery edition), it is often quoted by self-styled "progressives" as they press the claims of some program or other for radical change.
It is an interesting fact that the phrase is found in only one place in the New Testament. There, in the Gospel of St Matthew (16:1-3), we read: "The Pharisees and the Saducees came, and to test him, asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, 'When it is evening, you say "it will be fair weather; for the sky is red." And in the morning, "It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening." You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times'."
It is clear that what Christ was referring to when he spoke of "the signs of the times" was his miracles, which proved, for any fair-minded man, that he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. If the Pharisees and Saducees refused to draw this conclusion, it was because Christ did not conform to their extravagant interpretations of the Law prescribing observance of the Sabbath. Just how extravagant some of these interpretations were, Alfred Edersheim has pointed out in an appendix (pp 777-787) to Volume II of his classical work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.
"This man," his adversaries said, "is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath" (John 9:16). The man born blind was more perspicacious. "Never since the world began," he answered them, "has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing" (John 9:32-33).
In the Council document we read (no 4): "At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel."
Obviously, this is not the literal meaning of what the phrase meant as Christ used it. It is what the biblical scholars call an accommodation of the text. This is not a genuine interpretation, but the text is quoted because it bears a certain likeness to a subject with which it has no strict connection (cf R.C. Fuller's article "The Interpretation of Holy Scripture" in the Nelson Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, 1953, no 40j).
Military experts, in discussing warfare, distinguish between strategy and tactics. Strategy is concerned with the principal objectives and the broad pattern of a campaign, whereas tactics has to do with the efficient deployment of men and weaponry in a particular battle.
If we are discussing what the Church Militant, i.e., the kingdom of God, must do in her unending war with the kingdom of Satan, which Christ called "the world" (John 14:30), and St John has analysed in his First Epistle (2:16), it is clear that there can be no change in the Church's strategic aims or policy.
But sometimes it will be necessary for her to make a change in tactics to meet a set of circumstances that has changed. Thus the excommunication of a Christian ruler, which would have had a good chance of getting him to mend his ways in the Middle Ages, would have been quite ineffectual after the Protestant Reformation, even if he was the Most Christian King of France or the Most Catholic King of Spain.
It has been the grave mistake of such "progressive" thinkers as the liberation theologians to suppose that changes in "the signs of the times" demand that the Church should change her strategy. They contend that the primary object of the preaching of the Gospel should be not to promote the eternal salvation of men's immortal souls, but to contribute to the attainment of social justice or international peace.
It is true that if a country accepts the Gospel message, it will in due time reap some social benefits, such as more care for the needs of the poor, but only as a kind of by-product.
Sister Sandra Schneiders IHM, the revolutionary US feminist, is campaigning to have the ecclesiastical hierarchy abolished, but while she does not, so far as I am aware, appeal explicitly to "the signs of the times" as demanding such a change, that phrase does sum up the drift of her argument.
If the Church were to abandon its hierarchical structure of Pope and bishops, she contends, this would bring it into line with the modern world. For, nowadays, only democratic régimes are recognised as legitimate, and nearly every country is, or claims to be, a democracy. Moreover, she adds, such a change would cause the Church of today to revert to what it was in its earlier days, namely, "a discipleship of equals."
After the Emperor Constantine's conversion in the fourth century, the Church was, Sister Schneiders suggests, corrupted by the adoption of the patriarchal structure - which then prevailed in the Greco-Roman world - and established a hierarchy to imitate the political systems of the day.
If the Church is to survive and prosper in the modern world and not remain as a fossil of interest only to antiquarians, it must adopt participative leadership while abandoning hierarchical leadership, along with its basic principle that, since all legitimate authority comes from God, obedience to such authority is a sacred duty.
Many communities of religious, she assures us, have abandoned the hierarchical principle, in practice, if not in theory, so that obedience is now regarded, not so much as submission to a superior, as co- operation with the community in the achievement of a common task.
This was the ideology that inspired a tight-knit and highly organised group of about a dozen major superiors in 1971 to effect a radical transformation of religious life in the United States. They secured a change of name, whereby the Conference of Major Superiors became the Leadership Conference, and succeeded in persuading the Sisters to abandon the religious habit and dress like women who had no religious vows. In this way, they were assured, they would be heeding the signs of the times and be able to act more effectively in the modern world.
Ann Carey, in her book Sisters in Crisis published in 1997, has explained how these revolutionary changes were engineered and describes their catastrophic consequences.
G.W.F. Hegel, the 19th century philosopher, understood "the signs of the times" in a pantheistic sense, as if the course of history, properly understood in terms of his philosophy, threw a clearer light on the nature of God and human destiny than that provided by the Christian Gospel, as this is usually interpreted. It was therefore a surer guide, not only for the statesman in framing national policy, but also for those controlling enterprises with a more limited scope.
The insuperable difficulty confronting this theory is that interpreting the course of history after the event is hazardous. Forecasting it is impossible.
Sister Sandra Schneiders has proposed that the Church in general and religious orders in particular abandon their hierarchical structures and adopt participative, democratic ones. While, as indicated, she does not appeal explicitly to "the signs of the times," there is not much doubt that this expresses the basis of her ideology or that her ideal of participative leadership is provided by modern democracy, whose charter is to be found in the Constitution of the United States, which begins with the words, "We the People," drawn up in Philadelphia in 1787.
It is plain the proposal that the Church, interpreting "the signs of the times," should, in order to carry out her mission in the world more effectively, adopt a democratic structure and abandon the present hierarchical one - hierarchy being the ecclesiastical version of patriarchy - should be dismissed as worthy only of derision.
Fr Duggan is a New Zealand theologian and former seminary professor.