The controversial “Note on financial reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace” makes the international financial crisis, still unfolding around us in slow motion, the occasion for a renewed call for a “global political authority.” That, rather than its observations on the crisis itself, is the real point of the Note. The conditions now exist, it claims, “for definitively going beyond a ‘Westphalian’ international order in which the States feel the need for cooperation but do not seize the opportunity to integrate their respective sovereignties for the common good of peoples. It is the task of today’s generation to recognize and consciously to accept these new world dynamics for the achievement of a universal common good.”
One may ask whether it really is the case that “in a world on its way to rapid globalization, the reference to a world Authority becomes the only horizon compatible with the new realities of our time and the needs of humankind.” And whether it is indeed true that “for every Christian there is a special call of the Spirit to become committed decisively and generously so that the many dynamics under way will be channeled towards prospects of fraternity and the common good.” Both statements, it must be said, give the appearance of being somewhat presumptuous, notwithstanding the Note’s referencing of the Second Vatican Council and the Populorum Progressio tradition.
The Note, however, concludes with a note of caution, or rather two notes of caution drawn from a single biblical story:
However, it should not be forgotten that this development, given wounded human nature, will not come about without anguish and suffering. 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.
While it may be conceded that the Babel imagery contains both these warning notes, it must not be overlooked that the “diversity” in question is produced by God himself, with a view to preventing the greater danger – the danger of a false unity – being realized. A question, then, for the authors of the Note: Would you have us believe that the Spirit of Pentecost, who has set about achieving in the Church the true unity of mankind that answers to the false unity of Babel, intends to realize this unity only with the help of a “world political Authority”? If so, is that world political Authority to be under the direction of Christ and his Church, or under some other direction?
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of “Baking Bricks for Babel?” (Nova et Vetera 8.4). Nova et Vetera has made this article available free of charge on its website.