How to Read the New "Signs of the Times"

by Sandro Magister

ROME, December 30, 2012 – A strong indicator of secularization in countries of ancient Christian tradition is the decline in sacramental marriages.

Italy too is glaringly marked by this decline. The 2012 edition of the “Annuario statistico italiano," published in recent days by the ISTAT, has documented that for the first time, in northern Italy, civil marriages have surpassed religious marriages, in the proportion of 51.7 against 48.3 for every hundred marriages.

This grammar of the human constitutes the trunk upon which one can graft the proclamation of faith in a fruitful manner.

Francesco Arzillo

But this does not mean that marriages at city hall are marking a “victory” over marriages in church. Both of them, in fact, have diminished in number with respect to the previous year. And civil marriages have declined even more than religious: down by 7.3% for the former, and down by 4.6% for the latter.

For civil marriages, the decline is very steep. After many years of uninterrupted growth, since 2008 they have done nothing but diminish. The demographer Roberto Volpi commented in the December 28 issue of “il Foglio":

"If one takes into account that in civil marriages there is a higher proportion of second marriages – of those who, being divorced, cannot marry in church – it becomes clear how among those who are marrying civilly for the first time the plunge is even more severe. The truth is that in Italy one no longer gets married at all: neither in church nor at city hall.”

With regard to marriages celebrated, then, Italy no longer represents an “exception” with respect to other countries of advanced secularization. On the contrary, its marriage rates are now among the lowest in Europe: with only 3.6 marriages a year for every thousand inhabitants, compared to 4.7 for the European Union as a whole.

In the two wealthiest regions of Italy, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, the marriage rate is even lower than 3 per thousand, half of that of the Scandinavian countries: Denmark, Sweden, Finland.

It is no surprise, then, that the hierarchy of the Church is in alarm over this decline of marriage, both religious and civil, which is all the more startling when it occurs in countries of more deeply rooted Catholic tradition.

It is an alarm that affects pastoral strategies. That imposes new reflections. Like those made below by Francesco Arzillo, an administrative magistrate with extensive philosophical and theological expertise.

Arzillo demonstrates among other things how the pontificate of Benedict XVI – especially in the homilies – is addressing the crisis of marriage and other “signs of the times” with a style similar to that of the Fathers of the Church, capable of “keeping together the radical essentiality of the foundation of the faith and the dynamics of contemporary society.”

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Excerpt from  How to Read the New "Signs of the Times" by Francesco Arzillo.

European secularization is a typically post-Christian phenomenon: this leads to the notable difficulties that it poses to theologians, philosophers, and scholars in general. Besides, today we do not go to attend bloody spectacles in the circus, but at the same time we produce babies in test tubes: it appears evident that this is a new situation, which requires that we combine the return to the sources of the faith with a capacity of interpretation of the whole that is suited to the times. In this sense, the conciliar doctrine of the “signs of the times” takes on a resonance that is not naïvely optimistic.

The necessity of a bioethical and biojuridical battle, for example, must not be understood as the restoration of a Christendom of the past, of a past in which such problems were not raised in such a way and to such an extent as they are today.

It is purely and simply a matter of the grammar of the human, which in other times could be taken for granted in Europe, and no longer is today.

This grammar of the human constitutes the trunk upon which one can graft the proclamation of faith in a fruitful manner.

It is not a coincidence that in the pontificate of Benedict XVI the defense of this grammar and the proclamation of a faith purified and brought back to its spiritual foundation clearly coexist and find expression in the extraordinary homilies that precisely for this reason resemble the homilies of the Fathers of the Church.

This is not a matter, in fact, of an extrinsic stylistic resemblance, but of a resemblance of internal logic: the attempt, fortunately successful, at keeping together – as did an Augustine and a John Chrysostom – the radical essentiality of the foundation of the faith and the dynamics of contemporary society, in a discourse that is never ideological and wisely extended into the different but connected areas of kerygma, doctrine, liturgy, life.

In this perspective, even the great ecclesial dispute over Vatican Council II, which far from dying down is taking on ever more radical tones, can be brought back to the proper course.

Francesco Arzillo is an administrative magistrate with extensive philosophical and theological expertise. 

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