From the Publisher: The Signs of the Times

Recently we honored John FitzGerald, the senior member of the Philosophy Department at Notre Dame on his eightieth birthday. He said a few words in response to the tribute and spoke of various past events with vigor, wit, and clarity. While far from as venerable in years as he, I lived through some of the things he spoke of. His version made them all but unrecognizable.

More recently still, in a bookstore, I came upon the familiar face of Joseph Bochenski, O.P., adorning the cover of a large book. It consisted of extended interviews with the eminent historian of logic on a number of broad topics. Bochenski was a visitor at Notre Dame in 1955-56, my first year on the faculty, and I have known him ever since. Notre Dame and his role in the development of our department arose in the course of the interviews. Once more, I scarcely recognized events I have experienced in his recalling of them.

I am not making a point about the accuracy of octogenarian memories. The same variation is found in the accounts of eyewitnesses to almost any event. What are we to make of this?

It is of such stuff that history consists and the wild differences between versions of what happened invite such down-putting definitions of history as the victor’s narrative of what happened, or the survivor’s version.

Eschewing such cynicism, you will suggest that we not confuse what really happened, the facts, on the one hand, with the various personal or subjective or emotional responses to those facts, on the other. Truth consists in those facts; the responses are, well, biased, fleeting. Taken to an extreme, this would mean that history is the tale of what humans do when we leave the human agents out of account. Short of that extreme, we find we have to settle for a very modest view of historical accounts. Their inclusion and comparison of the differing reports of the participants point toward but never achieve the comprehensive truth of what is going on.

Clumsy thoughts in a hot season. Around me as I write, dogwoods are in blossom, lilacs perfume the air, roses await their day in the sun, grass inexorably grows. Supine in a lawn chair, I look to where my hummingbird feeder hangs like a symbol of failed hope and ask myself, in the manner of my trade, what does it all mean?

Auden’s poem, “Their Lonely Betters,” written in just such a setting, comes to me.

Caught up in the swirl of events and deeds that make up our lives, family and professional and, more distant, political and ecclesiastical, we are all but overwhelmed by detail. The desire for true understanding may seem either doomed or presumptuous. Those of us who lived through the years of Vatican II are often astonished by references to the Council and by appeals to it as sanction for one outrage or another. There seems to be a willful distortion of what the Council Fathers did and what the 16 documents they produced and which were promulgated by Paul VI mean. Must we settle for the alarming view that Vatican II is what anyone chooses to make of it?

Even in such an indolent season as this, I am prompted to cry, Distinguo! Memoirs, personal accounts, many histories of the Council give us an angle of vision on it, an account of the events as seen by one participant or observer. Such accounts, as we know, vary, sometimes profoundly, from one another. What interests one person is not what interests another, choices among things to be spoken of must be made, there are limitations on what anyone knew at the time of what was happening. Collecting such accounts, sifting, comparing, being critical of them, seeking to formulate some idealized narrative, may still leave us with only one contestable version of what went on. But this does not mean there is ambiguity about what the Council was and what it taught.

The fathers of Vatican II were not engaged in competitive or collective autobiography when they produced those 16 documents. What they mean and what they do not mean is ascertainable truth. Moreover, there is a continuing authoritative interpretation of them that is not just one point of view among others. The teaching floats on a sea of contingencies but rides above them.

Is the distinction I suggest merely another version of that between impersonal facts and the messy and various outlooks of actual human agents? In part it is. Vatican II cannot be reduced to the many conflicting experiences of participants. Gossip about who said what to whom in a trattoria on the Via della Conciliazione is not the key to what the documents mean, though of course the record of the discussion of them prior to their final form is a guide to grasping what they mean.

This may seem to suggest that the deeds of the participants, observers, lobbyists, periti, journalists, and all the millions around the globe who received unprecedented reports and running interpretations of what was going on—all that just fades away into the dustbin of history, its sole role to be a vehicle for a truth that transcends their contingency. It would be an abomination to suggest this.

The real story of what is happening in time includes the wishes, dreams, and deeds of each of the billions of human agents on earth, and this bewildering concatenation has a meaning, it makes sense, it is a narrative that is moving toward a satisfying denouement. The name for this is Providence, God’s plan as it is working itself out in His creation.

The fact that our histories cannot begin to approximate that comprehensive account of what is happening, one in which the size of your nose and every fleeting deed takes on eternal significance, is the basis for modesty about history and awe before Providence.

Kierkegaard says somewhere that the historical method is meant to put us in the position of eyewitnesses of past events. But which eyewitnesses? History is one manifestation of our need to seek in the ceaseless flow of human doings the meaning of the whole. The fact that we cannot achieve that meaning by history or fiction or any other technique should not blind us to the fact that such a meaning is present in the bewildering unfolding of events. There is, after all, one Eyewitness whom nothing escapes because He is also the principal agent of history. Someday, to our eternal joy or sorrow, He will show us what our role in the whole shebang has been. Meanwhile, like Baron Corvo, we have only the desire and pursuit of the whole, a reading of the signs of the times, a muddling through. And the shadows lengthen on the lawn, bees buzz back and forth, an eponymous cardinal alights upon a branch above my head and, mindful of the ceaseless interaction of the sublime and the ridiculous, I scramble for cover.

Among the epitaphs Hilaire Belloc wrote in his prolonged old age is this:

I am a sundial. Ordinary words

Cannot express my thoughts on birds.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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