The recent document published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace concerning the global economy and calling for the creation of a ‘global public authority’ has already attracted considerable attention in a variety of fora, including First Things, The American Conservative, A View from the Right, and Front Porch Republic. It is certainly not a play by Antichrist for world domination, as anti-Catholic bigots may claim (how could the Vatican not have seen that one coming?), but it is still very problematic. While the document contains a largely accurate outline of the history of the current economic crisis and the reasons for the collapse, as well as some worthwhile specific proposals for amending the practice of the global financial markets, it nearly goes without saying that the overall aim of the publication has deeply troubling ramifications. Others have written at length about the dangers inherent in any global political authority: the fact that all examples of international authority thus far have often been limited to the point of inefficiency or, when efficient, have used their power with regrettable, though perhaps unintended, consequences; the inevitable threat of corruption and abuse of power; the imposition of universal principles that ignore the validity of particular cultural systems and structures; the failure to recognise that the centralising impulses of statification and globalisation were major contributors to the current problems in the first place; and perhaps most surprisingly, despite the lip service paid to the principle, that such an Authority (written throughout the document with a sinister capital ‘A’) intrinsically contradicts the consistent Church teaching of subsidiarity. These problems all seem self-evident enough that I do not feel the need to spend further time on them (though we can debate them in the comments if someone feels so inclined).
However, the conclusion of the document (according to a provisional translation) raises an interesting question of biblical exegesis:
Through the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the Bible warns us how the “diversity” of peoples can turn into a vehicle for selfishness and an instrument of division. In humanity there is a real risk that peoples will end up not understanding each other and that cultural diversities will lead to irremediable oppositions. The image of the Tower of Babel also warns us that we must avoid a “unity” that is only apparent, where selfishness and divisions endure because the foundations of the society are not stable. In both cases, Babel is the image of what peoples and individuals can become when they do not recognize their intrinsic transcendent dignity and brotherhood.
The spirit of Babel is the antithesis of the Spirit of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12), of God’s design for the whole of humanity: that is, unity in truth. Only a spirit of concord that rises above divisions and conflicts will allow humanity to be authentically one family and to conceive of a new world with the creation of a world public Authority at the service of the common good.
There are several problems with this interpretation. The First Things article that I linked above points out that Babel did not start off as a praiseworthy goal, frustrated by selfish ambitions and unwillingness to cooperate. Instead, it was a project begun in a spirit of cooperation, intending to pursue the common good so that mankind would not ‘be scattered abroad in all the lands.’ It was not their own diversity which prevented this, but rather a diversity given to them by God, to show them that such a monumental project lies beyond the grasp of man. If anything, the story of Babel should illustrate why (from a mythological point of view) reliance on a global political Authority to save us from or prevent financial crises is fundamentally misplaced. Babel was an attempt to centralise and unify all of humanity, thus creating a temporal power which would seek to eliminate man’s need for dependence on any Authority other than its own. It is hard to see how any modern manifestation of global political power would do otherwise.
Therefore the comparison with Pentecost is deeply misleading. Babel and Pentecost are not equivalent projects pursued in different spirits. Babel is the ultimate temporal project; Pentecost the ultimate spiritual one. The creation of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church at Pentecost was the beginning of the first truly universal endeavour for humanity, a unification of the diversity of mankind within the catholic family of God. But this catholicity is only made possible through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ combines the universality of God with the particularity of Man, and therefore only a body in touch with Him can achieve harmony on a global scale. And this harmony is an ecclesiastical one, not a political one; the times in which the representatives of the Church have been most culpable of wrongdoing have been when She has held the most temporal authority. This is not to say that the Church plays no role in politics; our Faith is sacramental, and therefore calls for interaction with real practical issues. However, while the Church has universal jurisdiction in spiritual matters, including how those inform political issues (economic morality, rights of minorities, etc.), it cannot hold such jurisdiction in temporal matters. The ecclesiastical and political, while interrelated, remain separate; simply because the one can manifest unity in communion with Christ does not suggest that such unity is possible through the mechanisms of human government on a global scale.