PONTIFICAL COUNCIL for INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE
INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION
THEOLOGY TODAY: PERSPECTIVES, PRINCIPLES
AND CRITERIA, 29 November 2011
6. In dialogue with the world
51. ‘The people of God believes that it is led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the whole world’. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church should therefore be ready to discern in ‘the events, the needs and the longings’ of today’s world what may truly be signs of the Spirit’s activity. ‘At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times [signa temporum perscrutandi] and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task. In language intelligible to every generation, she should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which [people] ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come, and how one is related to the other. We must be aware of and understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live’.
52. As they live their daily lives in the world with faith, all Christians face the challenge of interpreting the events and crises that arise in human affairs, and all engage in conversation and debate in which, inevitably, faith is questioned and a response is needed. The whole Church lives, as it were, at the interface between the Gospel and everyday life, which is also the boundary between the past and the future, as history moves forward. The Church is always in dialogue and in movement, and within the communion of the baptised who are all dynamically engaged in this way bishops and theologians have particular responsibilities, as the council made clear. ‘With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the whole people of God, particularly of its pastors and theologians, to listen to and distinguish the many voices of our times and to interpret them in the light of the divine Word, in order that the revealed truth may be more deeply penetrated, better understood, and more suitably presented’.
53. Theology has a particular competence and responsibility in this regard. Through its constant dialogue with the social, religious and cultural currents of the time, and through its openness to other sciences which, with their own methods examine those developments, theology can help the faithful and the magisterium to see the importance of developments, events and trends in human history, and to discern and interpret ways in which through them the Spirit may be speaking to the Church and to the world.
54. The ‘signs of the times’ may be described as those events or phenomena in human history which, in a sense, because of their impact or extent, define the face of a period, and bring to expression particular needs and aspirations of humanity at that time. The Council’s use of the expression, ‘signs of the times’, shows that it fully recognised the historicity not only of the world, but also of the Church, which is in the world (cf. Jn 17:11, 15, 18) though not of the world (cf. Jn 17:14, 16). What is happening in the world at large, good or bad, can never be a matter of indifference to the Church. The world is the place in which the Church, following in the footsteps of Christ, announces the Gospel, bears witness to the justice and mercy of God, and participates in the drama of human life.
55. Recent centuries have seen major social and cultural developments. One might think, for instance, of the discovery of historicity, and of movements such as the Enlightenment and the French revolution (with its ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity), movements for emancipation and for the promotion of women’s rights, movements for peace and justice, liberation and democratisation, and the ecological movement. The ambivalence of human history has led the Church at times in the past to be overly cautious about such movements, to see only the threats they may contain to Christian doctrine and faith, and to neglect their significance. However, such attitudes have gradually changed thanks to the sensus fidei of the People of God, the clear sight of prophetic individual believers, and the patient dialogue of theologians with their surrounding cultures. A better discernment in the light of the Gospel has been made, with a greater readiness to see how the Spirit of God may be speaking through such events. In all cases, discernment must carefully distinguish between elements compatible with the Gospel and those contrary to it, between positive contributions and ideological aspects, but the more acute understanding of the world that results cannot fail to prompt a more penetrating appreciation of Christ the Lord and of the Gospel since Christ is the Saviour of the world.
56. While the world of human culture profits from the activity of the Church, the Church also profits from ‘the history and development of mankind’. ‘It profits from the experience of past ages, from the progress of the sciences, and from the riches hidden in various cultures, through which greater light is thrown on the mystery of man and new avenues to truth are opened up’.The painstaking work to establish profitable links with other disciplines, sciences and cultures so as to enhance that light and broaden those avenues is the particular task of theologians, and the discernment of the signs of the times presents great opportunities for theological endeavour, notwithstanding the complex hermeneutical issues that arise. Thanks to the work of many theologians, Vatican II was able to acknowledge various signs of the times in connection with its own teaching.
57. Heeding God’s final Word in Jesus Christ, Christians are open to hear echoes of his voice in other persons, places, and cultures (cf. Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-28; Rom 1:19-20). The council urged that the faithful ‘should be familiar with their national and religious traditions and uncover with gladness and respect those seeds of the Word which lie hidden among them’. It specifically taught that the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is ‘true and holy’ in non-Christian religions, whose precepts and doctrines ‘often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens’ all people. Again, the uncovering of such seeds and discernment of such rays is especially the task of theologians, who have an important contribution to make to inter-religious dialogue.
58. A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should be in constant dialogue with the world. It should help the Church to read the signs of the times illuminated by the light that comes from divine revelation, and to profit from doing so in its life and mission.