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Babel, Pentecost, and the Universal Church

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And the earth was of one tongue, and of the same speech. And when they removed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Sennaar, and dwelt in it. And each one said to his neighbour: Come, let us make brick, and bake them with fire. And they had brick instead of stones, and slime instead of mortar. And they said: Come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven: and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of Adam were building. And he said: Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech. And so the Lord scattered them from that place into all lands, and they ceased to build the city. And therefore the name thereof was called Babel, because there the language of the whole earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries.  – Genesis 11:1-9

At Babel, God scattered the proud because they had established unity for an evil purpose. They worked together to create a tower that would reach to the heavens, not to be closer to God, but to challenge Him.

In his 2012 Pentecost Homily, Pope Benedict asked:

What is Babel? It is the description of a kingdom in which men have concentrated so much power that they think that they no longer need a distant God and they believe that they are strong enough to build a way to heaven by themselves and open its gates to put themselves in God’s place.

From the time of the serpent’s appearance in the Garden of Eden, this is the temptation which man falls under like a spell: “You shall be as Gods.” (Gen 3:5) We are always looking for a shortcut to glory. We resist following Divine precepts because they seem too demanding, too rigid, or too hard to understand. There is a temptation in our modern, comfortable age to think of Jesus as a sort of numinous hippy; a divine peacemaker who hung out with sinners to show everyone else that they need to “stop judging” and “loosen up.” What is ignored in these neutered renditions of Christ is His perpetual call to conversion, and His never-ending supply of difficult challenges laid in the path of those who wish to follow Him. Any honest reading of the New Testament texts shows us that Christ did not come to give everyone a free pass to heaven. He came instead to open the doors, to show us the way, to lend us the strength to traverse the path. A path that is difficult, and requires a great deal from us.

We see Christ’s disdain for easy answers throughout the Gospels. From the requirement of baptism (John 3:5) to the “hard sayings” revealing the Eucharist as His real flesh and blood, the consumption of which is necessary for salvation (John 6), to the admonition of the rich young man (Matthew 19), nothing about Christ give us the message, “Just be a good person and be nice to people and you’ll get to heaven.” He calls us, rather, to the Cross, and indeed, His most stern words were reserved for Peter, his chosen apostle, who, when he questioned His Lord on the need to undergo the sufferings of His passion, was stunned with the rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

The story of Babel is most often contrasted against that of the just-celebrated feast of Pentecost, which comes at the conclusion of Christ’s mission and at the very dawn of the Church. The Mystical Bride of Christ is born into the world in a moment that mystically reverses the confounding of Babel. We see the gift of the Holy Spirit coming over the apostles to overcome the diversification of men’s language by a united profession of faith. This happens not through a challenge to God’s power, but by cooperation with it. At Pentecost, God did not heal the world of its diverse tongues, but instead superseded them. This first He accomplished through the miraculous preaching of the apostles, whereupon “every man heard them speak in his own tongue.” (Acts 2:6)  Later, this supernatural provision was supplanted by a more quotidian mechanism: the embrace of Latin — the dominant language of the world at that time — as the universal, perpetual, and living language of the Church. As Pope St. John XXIII explained in his apostolic constitution, Veterum Sapientia:

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.

[…]

The “knowledge and use of this language,” so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, “is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons.” These are the words of Our Predecessor Pius XI, who conducted a scientific inquiry into this whole subject, and indicated three qualities of the Latin language which harmonize to a remarkable degree with the Church’s nature. “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time … of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.”

In a sense, the introduction of the vulgar languages to the Roman liturgy in the post-concilliar “reform” was like a second Babel, the practical effect of which was a confounding of the unified expression of praxis and belief within the Church. We see this today in the widely varying character of modern liturgy; also, in the ever-increasing disputes pertaining not just to theological concepts, but to the the documents in which the Church seeks to express their substance. Theologians unable to read source documents in their original Latin often find themselves grappling with ideas that have lost something — or had it deliberately distorted — in translation.

And if we have lost the unity of the Church’s language, by which all nations under the banner of Christ could communicate, there is also today a state of confusion that results from our neglect of Pentecost’s original purpose. If Babel confounded the “designs of men” who sought to challenge God, and if Pentecost restored unity in Truth by God’s grace, to what end was the gift of the Holy Spirit imparted? For what purpose were the apostles given the ability to transcend the barriers of language to present the beauty of the Church?

In a word: conversion. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that Peter, while speaking to the multitude through the gift of tongues, said to them:

Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are far off, whomsoever the Lord our God shall call. And with very many other words did he testify and exhort them, saying: Save yourselves from this perverse generation. They therefore that received his word, were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles, and in the communication of the breaking of bread, and in prayers.  – Acts 2:37-42

Peter’s witness, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, led thousands to be baptized and come into the Church, and these were found to persevere “in the doctrine of the apostles.” Those who were baptized did not stop with the sacrament of Christian initiation; they became fully a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and participated in “the communication of the breaking of bread” – that is to say, the Most Holy Eucharist. Peter later explains that “there is no other name under heaven” but Jesus “given to men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). In Galatians 1:8, St. Paul warns, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.”

It is the constant teaching of the Church that there is but one Christ and one Gospel and one Christian faith, to which all men are called in order to be saved. It is no coincidence that the word Babel, in Hebrew, means “gate of God.” The men of Babel sought to create their own gateway to heaven, but it is only in Christ that this is accomplished: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:9) There are not multiple roads to heaven, but one — and it is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14). Christ’s Mystical Body is the Catholic Church, not in some amorphous sense, but truly and substantively. And this Church exists inextricably with and under the guidance of one shepherd: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)

If we desire salvation, membership in this Church is not optional. And Our Heavenly Father has gone to great lengths — sacrificing his Only Begotten Son and sending his Holy Spirit among us to provide salvific graces and guarantee the Church He established — to ensure that we would have access to salvation. He did not establish a multiplicity of churches or shepherds. There is but one.

In his 1302 papal bull Unam SanctamPope Boniface VIII made this staggeringly (and infallibly) clear:

Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins…

…We venerate this Church as one, the Lord having said by the mouth of the prophet: ‘Deliver, O God, my soul from the sword and my only one from the hand of the dog.’ [Ps 21:20] He has prayed for his soul, that is for himself, heart and body; and this body, that is to say, the Church, He has called one because of the unity of the Spouse, of the faith, of the sacraments, and of the charity of the Church. This is the tunic of the Lord, the seamless tunic, which was not rent but which was cast by lot [Jn 19:23- 24]. Therefore, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter, since the Lord speaking to Peter Himself said: ‘Feed my sheep‘ [Jn 21:17], meaning, my sheep in general, not these, nor those in particular, whence we understand that He entrusted all to him [Peter]. Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John ‘there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.’

[…]

Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Pope Boniface makes mention of the “Greeks or others” as “not being the sheep of Christ,” because by then the Great Schism had already been firmly established. This is not, however, a condemnation, but rather a plea for evangelization and conversion. There is no other bond of unity upon which our salvation rests save membership in the Catholic Church. Pope Eugene IV reiterated the teaching again in his papal bull, Cantate Domino: “No one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.”

There are those who believe that we Catholics are on a shared journey toward heaven with those of other faiths – particularly other Christian faiths. While it is true that God may, in His infinite mercy, offer opportunities for salvation through extraordinary means, it is terrifyingly presumptuous of us to expect that He will do so as a matter of course. It is equally dangerous for us to use such assumptions as an excuse not to seek the salvation of souls outside the Church. Any dialogue with members of other religions (Christian or otherwise) must — as it did at Pentecost — have at its heart the goal of conversion.

Any attempt at false unity — of the kind which leaves souls outside the salvific embrace of Holy Mother Church — is to attempt “to build a way to heaven by themselves and open its gates to put themselves in God’s place.” It is not love. It is not mercy. It is damnable cowardice, and it will undoubtedly lead (and no doubt has led) to the loss of countless souls.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is both the beginning of the Church and the antithesis of the events at Babel. The word “Paraclete” means “advocate” or “helper.” God sent Himself in the form of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity to give to His apostles — most especially Peter — the power to convert hearts and minds to His Church and to thereby save souls. It should be our prayer that every descendant of Peter will uphold the solemn duty to invoke this gift, and lead many souls from the darkness of error to the light of truth, the balm of sacramental grace, and the unspeakable glory of eternal beatitude.

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