The Signs of our Times — and What they Require from Priests
by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. July
2007 To Australian ACCC
Some of you probably saw a film that came out last year, The Children
The story is set in Britain in the year 2021, and the premise is that
there hasn't been a child born on the planet since 1995. Nobody knows
the reason why. Humans have somehow become infertile. And all the
efforts of all the world's governments and scientists to find a
solution have proved futile. The drama, of course, involves a
"miraculous" pregnancy and the journey of the expectant mother and her
companion as they try to bring the baby into the world.
It's a film worth seeing. But unfortunately, it's only very loosely
based on the P. D. James novel of the same name. I say "unfortunately"
because James' book is a deeply Christian fable about our times.
And that's what I'm here to talk to you about today — the signs of our
times and what they mean for us as priests. We could choose dozens of
different trends to discuss, but I want to focus on six specific signs:
the confusion of priestly identity; globalization; the worship of
science; the diminishment of the human person; the rise of practical
atheism; and sex as a cheap substitute for transcendence.
I start with some prior assumptions. Here they are: Being a priest
means being a man of God among the children of men. It means being a
spiritual father to the children of God. It means knowing yourself to
be a child of man and a child of God like all others — yet a man set
apart to lead others by a personal calling from Jesus Christ himself:
"It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you."
Now, the first key sign of our times is that everything I just said
about the priesthood is disputed. Of course, it shouldn't be. It's the
teaching of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church. But ever since
the Second Vatican Council, there's been a real confusion about who we
are as priests and what we should be about. We've "functionalized" the
priesthood, reduced it to the performance of certain tasks.
But being a priest isn't a job. It's a new way of being. A real
transformation took place when you and I were ordained. Like that of
the bread and wine in the Eucharist, this transformation can't be
explained by physics or biology. We have a new identity. We can call it
an "incarnational" identity. We're still men. We're still sinful clay.
But we're men called, and given the grace, to make God incarnate
through our words and actions. Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me has
seen the Father." You stand in persona Christi, in the person of
Christ. And whoever sees you, sees the Father.
In the course of these talks I want to speak to you brother-to-brother
and father-to-father. The first thing I want to say is that we need to
support each other. We need to remember who we are. We are fathers.
"The apostles were sent as fathers," St. Augustine said. You have been
ordained to continue the apostles' mission, the mission entrusted to
them by Christ. You, too, are sent by the Father to be fathers to his
children. To raise them up in holiness through the sacraments of the
Eucharist and Penance. To guide them through the problems of this world
until one day they reach their Father's house and see him face to face.
To be good fathers, we need to know the world we've been sent into.
We've got to know the lay of the land. Our mission territory isn't
simply the parish we serve, or the city we live in. It's also the
geography of the human heart, mind, body and soul. It's a culture. We
have to know what our people are up against. We need to understand
what's going on around them and what's going on inside them. That's
what it means to know the signs of the times.
A second sign of our times is globalization. I can stand here in
Melbourne, having traveled nearly 9,000 miles from the United States,
and presume to start my talk by mentioning a movie made in Hollywood
based on a book written by a British woman. And I can presume that most
of you have either heard about that movie or seen it, and that some of
you probably even read the book.
That's a kind of everyday description of what's been wrought by
globalization. Globalization is a defining sign of our times.
Globalization could be a good thing, an expression of our common
humanity and solidarity. But right now, globalization is too often
about money and power. Whatever material benefits it may one day bring,
globalization to date has produced a new kind of colonialism of the
intellect and spirit.
What do I mean by that? On the outside, globalization is about "stuff"
— the making and moving of products and services. On the outside we see
that, despite vast differences in history, culture and language, the
different peoples of the world are now wearing the same clothes,
listening to the same music, drinking the same soft drinks, and
watching the same movies and TV shows. And most of this "stuff" either
comes from American-related companies or is driven by
American-influenced sensibilities and financial interests.
This has led to a peculiar vision of human life and happiness.
Globalization's biggest impact is "anthropological." It's creating a
new kind of secularized man. Men and women who are very often friendly,
open and adaptable; but also pragmatic and thoroughly materialist. It's
a vision of life that both appeals to and repels us at the same time.
That's where P. D. James comes in. James is known as a great writer of
detective mysteries. But she's also a serious Christian, an Anglican.
And The Children of Men is an anti-utopia comparable to Huxley's Brave
New World and Orwell's 1984.
James asks us to imagine what the world would be like if we knew we
were the last generation to inhabit the planet. What would we do? How
would we behave? What would we believe? Like Huxley and Orwell, she
uses an imaginary future to help us see the present more clearly, to
suggest where we're likely to wind up if we keep heading down the path
we're on. So I want to use James' critique as a kind of touchstone for
looking at the signs of our times.
One of the signs she sees — the third sign on my list today — is the
worship of science. "Western science has been our god," her main
character, Theo, says. He continues: "In the variety of its power [this
deity] has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us
. . . the anesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the
antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures."
Pope Benedict XVI has also talked about science and technology as one
of the signs of our times.
We can manipulate the human genetic code and the physical composition
of matter. We can change the course of rivers and travel into space. We
can "create" new life in a lab and destroy it there as well.
Benedict says, "because we live in a world that almost always appears
to be of our own making" there's no room left for God. And that's true,
materially speaking: We don't have any real "need" for God. We feel
like we've got things under control. We're self-sufficient.
For you and me as priests, this "sign of the times" means we're
ambassadors of God sent to a world that thinks it's getting along quite
nicely without him. We have to deal with a de facto atheism. We also
have to grapple with a strange sort of anti-humanism. Because when God
is out of the picture, our image of man loses focus, too.
It's a curious irony. We replace God with science and technology. We
enjoy our achievements and relish the works of human hands and minds.
But we forget that we ourselves are the "works" of our Creator. When we
do that, we lose our own true identity. The Western tradition is
founded on the biblical truth that the human person is created in the
image of God. Without God, the human person becomes nothing unique;
simply another creature.
As Benedict says, "a radical reduction of man has taken place. [He is]
considered a simple product of nature and as such not really free, and
in himself susceptible to be treated like any other animal."
Here's another irony, and the fourth sign of our times. We reduce man
to the status of an animal. And yet we proclaim ourselves to be great
humanists. In fact, the reigning ideology of our times is what the
Canadian Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, has labeled "exclusive
In this way of thinking, "human flourishing [becomes] the unique focus
of our lives," as Taylor puts it. But that flourishing is defined in
strictly materialist terms. This world, and only this world, is
presumed to be real. All that's good, all that life can mean, is to be
found contained in this world, in this life.
As a result, religion comes to be viewed as a reactionary enemy of
human progress and freedom. Talk of God or transcendent values or
aspirations that aim beyond this world is treated as a threat to
humanitarian goals and progress.
We have a casebook example of this in the current Australian debates
about stem-cell research and cloning. In this one debate we can see
some of the most unsettling signs of our times. We see the worship of
science, which is given the power to create and destroy new life. We
see the degradation of the human person, who becomes simply biological
matter to be manipulated in a laboratory. And we see the efforts of a
materialist society to ban the memory of God and authentic Christian
conscience from the public square.
Creating human embryos for the purpose of extracting their stem cells
is a form of barbarism, whether it happens here, in China or in the
United States. It's the work of a culture bent on its own extinction.
To do that kind of work, to make laws that promote that kind of work,
shows contempt for the sanctity of human life. And so I want to urge
you as strongly as I can: Don't let anyone silence the voice of the
Church in Australia on this issue. Please support Cardinal Pell and
your bishops on these crucial matters.
I'm reminded of a line by the Dominican Father Jean Baptiste Henri
Lacordaire. Lacordaire was a militant atheist, well on his way to being
an influential barrister when he converted to the faith and was
ordained. During the persecutions in post-revolutionary France, he
fought for the Church's right to freely preach the Gospel.
He said once: "The priestly word has been entrusted to me, and I was
told to carry it to the ends of the earth, no one having the right to
silence me on a single day of my life."
The priestly word, the Word of God, has been entrusted to us too,
brothers. And no one, not even a member of Congress or Parliament or
even an Attorney General, has the right to silence that Word.
The fifth sign of our times is that the society we live in breeds a
practical, workaday atheism. People go about their days as if God
doesn't exist. Because they live in a society that denies any presence
or need for God, people learn to live without him. The deeper questions
of human existence — where do I come from, what am I here for, what
should be the purpose and direction of my life — these questions no
longer seem relevant.
Theo, the P. D. James' hero, expresses the sum total of his
metaphysical beliefs in these few words: "That once I was not, and that
now I am. That one day I shall no longer be." I'm afraid that's the
unspoken creed of many of the people we serve, even many who sit in our
pews every Sunday.
But the human heart is made for worship, to serve something or Somebody
beyond itself. There's a hole now in the modern heart. It's a void left
by the absence of God. People fill that hole with all the sights and
sounds and trinkets of our consumer culture. James' character calls
these things "my consolations."
But there's something vampiric about the way consumerism works to
"console" us for the loss of God. It keeps us absorbed in the
unimportant while it drains out the life of the soul.
The rise of consumerist culture was one of the great worries of John
Paul II in the later years of his pontificate.
In his 1999 World Day of Peace message. John Paul writes: "The history
of our time has shown in a tragic way the danger which results from
forgetting the truth about the human person. Before our eyes, we have
seen the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism, and Fascism . .
. No less pernicious, though not always obvious, are the effects of
materialistic consumerism . . ."
Those are strong words. John Paul argued that the habit of consumerist
greed is "no less pernicious" in its effects than Nazism, Marxism, and
Fascism. The effects are as deadly and as destructive as the murderous
systems of the 20th century-ideologies that gave us the Holocaust, the
gulag and the killing fields of Cambodia.
John Paul finishes this quotation with a comment on what materialist
greed entails. With this ideology, he says, there is an "exaltation of
the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations
become the ultimate goal of life."
This habit of consumerism forms the mind of the people we're called to
serve. It's so damaging because it makes people prisoners of their
selfishness. It invites them to create their own chains, to be willing
addicts to their appetites and passions. It keeps them away from the
only questions that matter: why we're here, and where we're heading.
I'll mention a sixth and final sign of the times before I finish. It's
this. In a culture driven by selfishness, sex becomes a cheap
substitute for transcendence, Malcolm Muggeridge once said of our age:
"Sex is the mysticism of materialism." He was right. Modern society
chatters obsessively about sex. And if you listen carefully, you notice
that the language used to describe sex is almost religious. Sex is
portrayed as a kind of life force, the denial of which becomes a kind
of mortal sin. The problem is that sex as a form of personal recreation
is completely disordered. We've made it something utterly routine — a
consumer commodity like everything else.
P. D. James describes how science and technology engineered away an
essential dimension of sexuality — the power to create new life, to
make babies. "Sex totally divorced from procreation," is how she
describes it. Through birth control and abortion, we've rendered
sexuality both unnatural and infertile.
The sexual sterility in the James novel is a metaphor for the spiritual
barrenness of our world today. And make no mistake: The world she
describes isn't implausible. There are fewer children under the age of
5 in the world today than there were in 1990. If present trends
continue, many people in the developed world will soon have no personal
experience of having a brother, sister, aunt or cousin.
Unlike any previous period in history, the depopulation of developed
countries isn't being caused by outside forces like wars, famines or
plagues. We're doing it to ourselves — destroying our young before
they're born; mutilating ourselves so we're permanently incapable of
creating new life. Modern birth control and abortion have wiped out
more generations than all world wars put together.
This is the world that you and I have been sent into as priests. The
question then becomes: What are we to do? How are we to conduct our
ministries as apostles and fathers? I'll be focusing on that more in
one of my other talks.
Here I want to say only that the natural temptation is to try to make
the best we can of a bad situation. There's a certain misguided
"realism" that tells us we should try to make whatever accommodations
we can with the culture. That we should compromise in order to gain
some small measure of influence over a culture that's increasingly
hostile to the Gospel.
But that approach has been tried. It doesn't work.
In her novel, James paints a ruthless critique of her fellow
Christians. "During the mid-1990s," she writes, "the recognized
churches . . . moved from a theology of sin and redemption to a less
uncompromising doctrine: corporate responsibility coupled with a
sentimental humanism." She describes one popular preacher who stopped
preaching about the cross altogether and turned the Beatles' song "All
You Need Is Love" into a church hymn.
Her caricature is useful. For more than a generation now, Christians
have accepted the box that humanist ideology reserves for religion.
With the best intentions, and often in the name of dialogue, we've
contented ourselves with sentimental goals — helping the poor,
comforting the hurting, offering people a space to pray. We've watered
down our preaching, and replaced the cross and the call to holiness
with a "less judgmental" approach.
We Christians — we priests — share the blame for the world we see
I'd like to quote Lacordaire again: "Christian living is a rarity
today, even among those who are Christians. The enfeeblement of
character, the instability of conviction, the standardization of
personality, all seem to show that the power of the gospel is not
impressing its mark on souls with sufficient force . . . Easy morals
have made their way everywhere; they have degraded many things and many
men, even among the clergy. The clergy are perhaps even more lacking in
inner resources than in theological knowledge or social conviction."
Those words were spoken in 1857. I'd like to suggest that they should
form a part of examining our priestly conscience today, 150 years later.
A world without children is a world without fathers. And the world is
without children because the world has been left without a credible
witness to God our Father.
It's significant that in P.D. James' fable, the miraculous baby is
conceived by the only two characters who try to retain some semblance
of the true Christian faith. Even in the apocalyptic wasteland, every
day they say the priestly prayers of the ancient Eucharistic service,
asking their merciful Father to give them the bread of life. And the
book ends with a priestly act — the baptism of their child. A child of
man becomes a child of God. And like every new child of God, he is a
sign of hope and the promise of God's covenant.
Psalm 90 tells us that the same God who brings man to dust, calls the
children of men to turn back to new life. He still issues that call
today through you, his priests, his fathers. The children of men are
waiting for their true fathers. They're waiting for you.
© Archdiocese of Denver