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What Does It Mean to ‘Discern the Signs of the Times’?

November 20, 2023


In the post-conciliar period, the phrase “discern the signs of the times” has surfaced and resurfaced with some regularity in official Church documents and in general Catholic discourse. For example, it was used at least four times by the Second Vatican Council;1 it is referenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church;2 and Pope Francis has employed it on multiple occasions, including in his recent motu proprio, Ad Theologiam Promovendam, which approved new statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology.3

However, a set phrase can carry different connotations depending on the users’ intentions. This fact creates ambiguity and confusion about what precisely the words mean in a given instance. For some, “discerning the signs of the times” is practically equivalent with a call to “get with the times,” to update and change by adopting modern sensibilities and popular opinions. In this sense, the words are used to encourage the Church to see where the world is going and join in.

But is this the authentic meaning of the phrase “discern the signs of the times”? I think not. In this article, I would like to explore the origin of the phrase as well as propose an appropriate theological meaning.

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The phrase “discern the signs of the times” comes from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they 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 an threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

(Matt. 16:1–4) (emphasis added) 

The immediate context is the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ lack of ability to discern the signs of the times. Commentary offered in The Navarre Bible understands the passage as follows: “Jesus uses man’s ability to forecast the weather to speak about the signs of the advent of the Messiah. He reproaches the Pharisees for not recognizing that the messianic times have in fact arrived.”4 The signs of the times, in this instance, refers to recognizing the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah, which is fulfilled in Jesus. It has nothing to do with discerning popular opinions or the attitudes of the contemporary culture. It is about seeing what God is working in his providence in salvation history.

The phrase has been used in a different—although perhaps not completely unrelated—sense. Bishop Barron’s comments on one such usage found in the Second Vatican Council is particularly illuminating. He writes:

In Gaudium et Spes 4, we read, “The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting in the light of the Gospel.” When I was coming of age, “the signs of the times” were almost always seen as positive, and the teaching of the council was presented as a call for the Church to adjust itself to the present situation. But the thousands killed by gun violence in our city streets, the millions of unborn children murdered since the passage of Roe v. Wade, the moral drift in our culture, the rise of the “nones,” and aggressive forms of atheism—these, too, are signs of our times. Our job is not to accommodate ourselves to the times, but rather to scrutinize the signs of the times—both good and bad—and interpret them “in the light of the Gospel.” They are data to be read; the reader is the Christian, and the interpretive lens is revelation.5

Bishop Barron’s words here encapsulate the very heart of the magisterium’s use of the phrase. Discerning the signs of the times is not about seeing contemporary society’s mores as a new revelation that trumps Scripture, Tradition, and magisterial doctrine. Rather, it bespeaks the need to scrutinize the trends of one’s day to perceive where society is progressing in a laudable direction and where it is declining in dangerous and immoral ways. Divine revelation is the measuring stick with which to determine whether the movements are good or bad, not the other way around.

To my mind, theology’s task is to be an advocate of the Church to the world in order to change the world to conform to the reign of God.

The converse use, which at least appears to be popular among some theological progressives, forms what I call anti-theology. To my mind, theology’s task is to be an advocate of the Church (and her doctrine rooted in revelation) to the world in order to change the world to conform to the reign of God. Anti-theology attempts to be an advocate of the ways of the world to the Church in order to change the Church to conform to the Zeitgeist.

Due to widespread but faulty uses of such phrases, we can be tempted to abandon them altogether. I propose a different strategy: explicitly reclaim them by advocating for a correct understanding. After all, “discern the signs of the times” is found in Scripture and magisterial documents. We therefore ought not to relinquish them to those who would twist their authentic meaning. Rather, we should defend the legitimate meaning against such usurpation. So when we encounter misappropriate utilizations of this phrase or faulty definitions of other words that are frequently misappropriated, we can respond in the famous words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “Why do you keep using that word? I do not think it means what you think it means.”

1 See Gaudium et Spes 4, Unitatis Redintegratio 4, Dignitatis Humanae 15, and Presbyterorum Ordinis 9, in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, ed. Matthew Levering (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire Institute, 2021).
2 See Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1788.
3 See Francis, Veritatis Gaudium 1, apostolic constitution (Jan. 29, 2018) and Ad Theologiam Promovendam 8, apostolic letter issued motu proprio (Nov. 1, 2023).
4 The Navarre Bible: The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, reader’s edition, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Four Courts Press, 2008), 146.
5 Bishop Robert Barron, “The Signs of the Times” in the Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, 218–19.