Pope Francis and the Changing Times

The central question is this: just what “dogmatic” issues are being upheld and what ones are customs that can be changed?

“Although the universal Church of God is constituted of distinct orders of members, still, in spite of the many parts of its holy body, the Church subsists in an integral whole….” — Pope Saint Leo the Great, Sermon #4.

“Times change and we must change with them.” — Pope Francis, Homily, Santa Marta, October 23, 2015

I.

When Pope Francis is in Rome, he usually gives a morning homily at his Mass in the Santa Marta hostel. L’Osservatore Romano in the English edition gives a summary of these homilies. They are not official “sermons” that give a verbatim recording of the Pope’s words, but they do cite direct passages. One should not make too much of these homilies, I suppose, but they can be instructive. The Pope seems to prepare them in general by going over the daily readings. He does not have much time, nor does he seem to employ a secretary to prepare them. They have a quality of familiarity, of a certain “this-is-what-occurred-to-me-today” feeling about them. They are clearly not modeled on the sermons of Bossuet or Newman.

The homily for Friday, October 23, was entitled “Times Change.” Bob Dylan had a 1964 hit called “Times they are a changing”. One is hard pressed to deal with the meaning of a statement that “time changes” since change is included in the very definition of time. You cannot have time without change. Eternity is thus defined as “nunc stans”, the stationary now, though it implies the fulfillment of all change. Change is designed to come to rest at some level, unless one’s theory of the cosmos is simply “change”, a logically incoherent position.

The Pope’s Friday homily “was a call to act ‘without fear’, to act ‘with freedom’, to avoid tranquilizing conformism, to be steadfast in the faith in Jesus, steadfast to the truth in the Gospel’, but to ‘constantly move according to the signs of the times.” Reading the “signs of the times”, no doubt, is a fine art especially when combined with “freedom without fear”. If we are really free, we probably could use a little fear. Without an established criterion of truth, signs and freedom can justify almost anything. Indeed, they can justify anything. We are to have a “truth in Jesus” which is not a “tranquilizing conformism”.

The question becomes: “What is this criterion of ‘truth in Jesus’ by which we can judge “the signs of the times”? We would like this criterion to be spelled out. The Holy Father said in his final discourse to the recent Synod that “apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by the Church’s magisterium, we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop from one continent, strange and almost scandalous—almost—to a brother bishop in another….” The central question is this: just what “dogmatic” issues are being upheld and what ones are customs that can be changed?

This understanding of law and custom was a central issue in Aquinas’ Treatise on Law. What seems to be most at issue today are not the changeable customs that can be otherwise but the dogmatic principles that cannot. These latter are what are being denied and even persecuted in various cultures, including our own.

These “dogmatic” issues are likewise said by many to be “changeable” with the times. How this historicism and positivism happened is pretty much the history of modern western thought. And interestingly enough, most of these most controverted dogmatic issues have something to do with the family. These issues are what people are seeking clarity about.

II.

St. Paul, as Pope Francis points out, stresses the “freedom that we have in Christ”. This “freedom” is a “gift”, to save us from sin. This gift makes us free. This gift enables us to call God “Father”. This freedom requires opening ourselves to the Spirit, so that we can understand what goes on “within us and around us”. Some things come from the Good Spirit, others do not. We must “discern”. But now we must also look at things outside of us. We need to look at how we “evaluate the things that happen around us.” Presumably, unless we do this evaluating, we cannot act wisely.

For a man whose most famous statement is “Who am I to judge?” the following words are instructive: “We need to ask ourselves ‘How do we judge? Are we able to judge?’” No one can really escape the need to judge, even a pope. Without judgment, no reasonable action can follow; no truth can be known. Truth is in the judgment, as Aquinas said. We have the “capacity”. Indeed, St. Paul tells us that we will “Judge the world: we Christians will judge the world.” The secular media has been slow to pick up this papal theme. Just what will we judge the world of? Peter tells us we are a “chosen people” a “holy people”. The normal answer to this question of judgment is “sin”.

But “we Christians have the freedom to judge what happens around us.” It sounds like this freedom is given to us to be exercised. But to judge, we must really know “what is happening around us.” This “what is really happening”, on examination, is not always so clear. This knowledge is what the Church means by “the signs of the times.” We are not evidently astrologers. Mankind’s record at estimating what will happen next is not exactly reassuring. It may be possible to predict rain if the sky is dark, but what will happen to Europe if its birthrate continues to decline and Muslims continue to arrive by the hundreds of thousands may be more difficult, though perhaps not all that difficult.

This reading of the signs is where the “times change” theme comes in to the Pope’s reflections. “It is truly Christian wisdom to recognize these changes, to be familiar with the different times, to know ‘the signs of the times’, to distinguish between the ‘meaning of one thing and another’.” To “distinguish” one thing from another, of course, is the essence of philosophic discourse, as Msgr. Robert Sokolowski pointed out. This thing is not that thing. Plato already taught us this.

Pope Francis then added: this effort “is not easy because we hear many comments: ‘I heard that this happened here; or that happened there; I read this; they told me that’.” What is the alternative? “We should ask ourselves: ‘What is the truth? What is the message that the Lord wants to give me with that sign of the times?’”

Of course, the same problem remains. One person says “This is the sign of the times; another says that is the sign of the times.” As such, the “signs of the times” have no content, or they do, we have no infallible way to see the truth that is presumably there. In Matthew 24:33, the signs of the time are end times. We are given these signs but we are not able to recognize them. We know not the day or the hour. We are warned about false prophets.

III.

The Pope has some “practical” suggestions about knowing what these signs are. First we need “silence”. We need to “think within ourselves?” Like “Why are there so many wars now?” Why did this “thing happen?” We are not to forget, I suppose, that we are told that there would always be “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew, 24:6) Then we are to pray.

We may be tempted to say: “But I have not studied much…. I did not go to the university, not even to secondary schools.” But evidently, this lack of education is no problem for Pope Francis. “Jesus’ words leave no doubt. He does not say: ‘Watch how the academics act, how the doctors and intellectuals act.’” Rather He says: “Look to the farmers, to the humble in their simplicity they understand that when the rain comes, the grass grows; they are able to distinguish wheat from weeds.’” Pope Bergoglio frequently, as here, has an acid word for academics and intellectuals. Plato himself was not too happy with them.

But the Catholic Church did found the modern university tradition at Paris, Oxford, and Bologna. She produced not a few academics and intellectuals whom we need more than ever. Catholicism has always been a religion that takes mind seriously. Again, the problem is a criterion of truth whereby we do not get rid of our minds in the process of concern about ideological professors.

Aristotle himself said that an ordinary man could often judge the truth of somethings. But the Basic Works of Aristotle are not without touches of intelligence that few, if any, have ever approached. Surely, Aquinas is among these few.

What follows? “Simplicity—if accompanied by silence, reflection, and prayer—will enable us to understand the signs of the times.’” So, “times change and we Christians must constantly change. We must change steadfast in the faith of Jesus Christ, steadfast in the truth of the Gospel, but our approach must constantly move according to the signs of the times.”

This is Pope Francis’ conclusion as recorded in L’Osservatore Romano: “We are free through the gift of freedom that Jesus Christ gave us. But our task is to examine what is happening within us, to discern our feelings and our thoughts, and to analyze what is happening around us to discern the signs of the times.” And we can do this with “silence, reflection, and prayer.”

So on a Friday morning, we find much to reflect on in Francis’ homily. I, for one, would still like to know just how these changing times with their changing signs relate to those “dogmatic” truths that the Church has defined, truths that bishops from all over the world, in spite of their different copes, hats, and language, have in common and about which they gather to affirm before the watching world.

Pope Francis has, of course, written other things. What I liked, in conclusion, about this Friday homily in particular was his awareness that the answer to his question of “Who am I to judge?” is, in this homily, his bold recollection of St. Paul’s “We Christians will judge the world.” What is at issue is the criterion of this judgment, something handed down to us, not created by us, from the beginning.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.