that question remains quite pertinent today.
In context, of course, Paul was upbraiding the Colossian Christians for their tendency to observe pagan rituals as though the original religious myths motivating such things were legitimate. They didn't quite "get" that Christ had liberated them from all that. But if the pagan gods were and are false, then just what were these "elemental powers" to which the baptized had supposedly died with their incorporation into Christ? And I mean the real ones, whatever they were—not the gods of mere imagination, if that's what some of "the gods" were. Given the gravity of the issue, the answer has to be perennial, not just local, and therefore one of contemporary relevance.
One part of the answer is clear enough: fallen angels, or "devils." Jesus talked a lot about those, especially about their chief, who was his chief adversary. It is to such as those that Paul, in the same passage from Colossians, referred when he said of Christ that "despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by [the Cross]" (Col 2:15). That there are such beings is the experience of the saints, of the possessed, and therefore of true exorcists, as well as the irreformable teaching of the Church. But devils are not the whole story; and for good reason, it's not the part the Pope speaks of in SS. Today, the most obvious referent of the term 'elemental powers' is to the blind forces of Nature itself, most specifically to what is now called "evolution." Yet that referent too has its roots in the ancient world of which Paul spoke. The continuity is instructive.
Until a century or two before Christ, little or no distinction had generally been made between unseen personal beings, among whom were devils, and what we would now call "the laws of nature." Skeptical philosophers aside, the masses of people seemed to believe that the seasons unfolded, the stars stayed in their courses, the sun rose and set, and so on, because there were living spirits, "gods," making sure that such things kept happening. That is why the earliest known Western philosopher, Thales, had said: "All things are full of gods." Some of those "gods" were accounted good, others not so good, and some oscillated between the two. So when one paid obeisance to "the gods," one was merely trying to stay on the good side of the unseen personal powers of the universe. There was no hope of escaping their power: the best one could do was limit one's exposure to their caprice, or at least avoid exciting their malice. Such led to a certain fatalism among the ancient pagans, even the Romans. And such fatalism persisted as the skeptical rationalism of the philosophers began to affect the general sensibility. Whether "the gods" literally existed or not, most people saw little or no hope of getting beyond the world, even those who believed there was some sort of afterlife. Their horizons were limited to this world, or to what was taken to be this world. That is why Paul also says to the Ephesians that, before their encounter with Christ, they were "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). The Pope puts it thus:
Myth had lost its credibility; the Roman State religion had become fossilized into simple ceremony which was scrupulously carried out, but by then it was merely “political religion”. Philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality. The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces, but a God to whom one could pray did not exist. Paul illustrates the essential problem of the religion of that time quite accurately when he contrasts life “according to Christ” with life under the dominion of the “elemental spirits of the universe” (Col 2:8).
That's what St. Paul indicated Christ had freed believers from. And so it was. But today in the "developed" world, we live in a public reality that is largely post-Christian, even as in some less developed corners of the world people still live under the spiritual thralldom of an essentially pre-Christian paganism. The philosophy of secular materialism, which can take either agnostic or atheistic forms, is the new fatalism. As such, it is ultimately a counsel of despair. And it is to just that despair that the Christian message addresses itself as much now as it did then, when greed, lust for power, and sexual perversions were as open as they are now. Once again, SS (footnotes omitted):
In this regard a text by Saint Gregory Nazianzen is enlightening. He says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ. This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.
The contrast now is as stark as it was back then. Intellectually the counsel of despair might seem more persuasive, because we know so much more about how the universe in general and life on earth in particular have developed. But existentially, the choice remains exactly the same now as it was when the Church was new: despair, or hope.