Signs of the Times
On December 7, 1965, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke these words in a document known as The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes):
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds…
Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man's history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God's design and reach its fulfillment.
Though mankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, giving witness and voice to the faith of the whole people of God gathered together by Christ, this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. The council brings to mankind light kindled from the Gospel, and puts at its disposal those saving resources which the Church herself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, receives from her Founder. For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed…
Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit… To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.
What You May Have Detected
You may have detected a pattern in recent bulletins. The pattern is fifty years ago. “The Manhood of Robbie Binter” and “The Return” were tales situated in 1968, less than three years after the Second Vatican Council’s conclusion. This year marks fifty years since the assassinations of MLK and RFK, whose causes I honored in “The Audacious Runt.” Fifty years ago this July 25, the Feast of St. James, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) affirmed Catholic teaching on marriage and contraception.
1968 challenged Camelot’s Cold War confidence. The Tet Offensive revealed what Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted in ’65: the odds were against us in Vietnam. “Search and destroy” wouldn’t work, practically or ethically. At home, the summer of ’68 sparked more race riots. Civil rights leaders, hippies, students, unions, farm workers and the middle class – in a budding new age of color TV – turned the nation into a socially clashing kaleidoscope, overthrowing old prejudices and integrating new outlooks. In the mid-60s, RFK asked the counterculture guru Allen Ginsberg – in earnest – if the hippies would join with the blacks. In that same conversation, Ginsberg asked RFK if he tried “grass,” and he replied: “No. Whatever that means.” In ’68, shortly before his assassination, there was humor in Bobby’s bid to best Gene McCarthy with middle class voters in California’s Democratic primary. Paul Corbin, an RFK wildcard loyalist and operative, paid some homely hippies to rally for McCarthy and, then, stare eyeball-straight into the TV cameras saying, “I hate Bobby Kennedy.” Corbin’s gimmick spooked middle class voters from Gene to the more family-friendly RFK. That was the game of ’68. On the Catholic front, a hitherto conservative clergy fractured with Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. Vatican II documents had yet to be deciphered. Globally, America’s racial tensions hung out before all the world to see at the Mexico City Olympics when gold medalist, Tommy Smith, defiantly took off his shoes and raised his glove-clad fist in a gesture of black power, protesting American racism and poverty.
Hamlet says there’s a special providence in the fall of every sparrow. Between the lines of social chaos and peace-loving optimism, there were providential signs worth reading in ‘68. “The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, 4). Reading providence in the “theater of man's history” means cleansing the palate of partisan presumptions. In my view, one man who did this was RFK. I consider him among the greatest statesmen of that era. In him, I detect works of grace – breakthroughs of baptism – in a morally sensitive actor on history’s stage. I’m not saying his every judgment was agreeable or saintly. Whose is, even among saints? But I think RFK’s Catholic conscience and outlook, in action, was remarkable. He was, as they say, “his own man.” He intuited the “signs of the times” in the light of perennial truths. Take this passage from a speech of his in ’68:
“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
That sounds like something Plato would’ve said if he had lived in the ‘60s. Rarely have I heard a statesman speak like that and still have a large audience and prospects of victory. Only a truly “political” man (in the best sense of the term) – one who sees the “polis” (not to be confused with the “polls”) as the human soul written large – would say something like that. Moreover, he had a genuinely searching public. Where did RFK get that outlook?
“A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9). You might say that RFK had a similar “vision” when Jackie Kennedy gave him The Greek Way, a book by Edith Hamilton, after JFK’s assassination. In his grief, the book brought him the consolation of philosophy. It took him to Greece and Greece to America’s political theater. Reason and faith had a consoling effect on RFK’s post-JFK mind, channeling the grace of his baptism into the public forum. RFK’s Greek philosophy in turn consoled inner-city Indianapolis on the night of MLK’s assassination, as he spoke from a flatbed truck: “To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Who speaks like that now? By ’68, RFK had intensely experienced the three foundations of wisdom: see much, study much, and suffer much. In his grief-ridden maturity, he was unction on “the times.”
It’s high time, once again, to “bring out treasures new and old” (Matthew 13:52), to renew all things in Truth. The “times” are calling for a public discourse that looks beyond what we can measure and into “that which makes life worthwhile.” Why can’t we, in these times, account for the “strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate” and the “the joy” of our children’s play? Why do we spend loads of money on education and yet ignore the perennial wisdom of “the Greeks,” to whom even Providence called the Apostle? If we want to read the “signs of the times,” we must contemplate the perennial questions. And we must see much, study much and suffer much.
“The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other” (Gaudium et Spes, 4).
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor