The signs of the times mystery


“The signs of the times”. Since Vatican II, this expression from Gaudium et spes (§4) has entered the mainstream of Catholic social teaching.

Those who have read a bit more will know that John XXIII also used the term in his last encyclical, Pacem in terris. Right?

Yet, if you look at the English text, you will only find it referred to once as part of a heading above §126.

Pacem in terris in English

It almost looks as if it has been added as an afterthought, which is what I have long suspected.

So, since I am working on Gaudium et spes at the moment, I thought I should take another look, this time starting from the Latin.

Lo and behold, there is absolutely no reference either to “signa temporis” (signs of the time) or “signa temporum”!

Pacem in terris in Latin

By now, I’m used to variations, errors, etc., between different language versions of major Church documents, including encyclicals, Vatican II documents, etc. Nevertheless, given the impact that John XXIII’s reference to “signs of the times” is reputed to have had on the drafting of Gaudium et Spes, I was still very surprised to find the term absent from the Latin “original”.

However, we also know (or think we know!) that Pacem in terris was drafted by Pietro Pavan and a team of Italian experts. So I checked the Italian version. Sure enough, the expression “segni dei tempi” appears four times!

Nevertheless, the fact that the term appears in the headings and not in the text certainly adds to the impression that reference to “signs of the times” came as an afterthought.

Pacem in terris in Italian

So what about other language versions then?

The Spanish is very faithful to the Latin in this regard and makes no reference at all to the term “signos de tiempos”.

Pacem in terris in Spanish

The French version is faithful to the Italian version using the expression “signes des temps” in the same locations.

Pacem in terris in French

The German version also uses the term “Zeichen der Zeit” four times in parallel with the use in the Italian version.

Pacem in terris in German

Similarly in Portuguese, except that it only refers three times to “sinais dos tiempos”, dropping the first reference in Italian.

Pacem in terris in Portuguese


What to make of all that? For one thing, as so often the case, you just cannot rely on the English version!

But what about the difference between the Latin “official” version and the Italian version, which presumably (I shouldn’t presume after all this, but for the moment I have no choice!) was the version prepared by Pavan and team.

According to Richard Schenk, the first reference to “signs of the times” or “segni dei tempi” was made in L’Osservatore romano, on 11 April 1963, and then in La
Civiltà cattolica
, 114 (1963), II, 105 sqq. Use of the term in these journals on the very publication date of the encyclical certainly seems to authenticate the term.

But, to repeat, the fact that the term only appears in the headings and not in the text of the paragraphs of the document adds to the impression that these were last minute additions.


Here it is important to remember that in April 1963, the drafting of Gaudium et spes was then in its early stages, and Pavan and his team were also involved in the drafting of this conciliar document.

Secondly, although Mater et magistra (§236) had endorsed the see-judge-act method in 1961, many still opposed it, or at best conceded its use as a method of formation for young people.  Hence it was not appropriate for a conciliar text, or so the argument ran.

Thus, adding the reference to reading the “signs of the times” seems to have been an attempt to add a biblical justification (Matthew 16:2) for the use of the method in the encyclical, and hence in the drafting of Gaudium et spes.

Indeed, it was ultimately extremely successful in achieving this objective.

Meanwhile, mysteries still remain as to the differences between the various language versions.


PS So much for Latin being the reference for translators of Vatican documents!

Stefan Gigacz