Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 13, Part 5: Babel

Pope John Paul II brings out for our consideration an old story from Genesis. Would you be surprised to learn it comes from the eleventh chapter, the tale of the Tower of Babel?

In order to carry out this penitential ministry adequately, we shall have to evaluate the consequences of sin with “eyes enlightened”(Cf Ephesians 1:18) by faith. These consequences of sin are the reasons for division and rupture not only within each person, but also within the various circles of a person’s life: in relation to the family, to the professional and social environment, as can often be seen from experience; it is confirmed by the passage in the Bible about the city of Babel and its tower.(Cf Genesis 11:1-9) Intent on building what was to be at once a symbol and a source of unity, those people found themselves more scattered than before, divided in speech, divided among themselves, incapable of consensus and agreement.

The aspiration for the tower is summed up in verse 4: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” (NABRE)

It’s not really an explicitly evil motivation. If the community at work for Babel was the entirety of the human race, then making a name could be gaining some recognition by God. Or it could be setting themselves up as a power to rival God. What has this to do with reconciliation and penance? Setting the terms of one’s own behavior and sin–this would be something we often enough in human history, even to this day. People decide to play God, exercising judgment against all sorts of “others.” They did not want to play by God’s rules, sign on to God’s desires and plans for all persons.

Why did the ambitious project fail? Why did “the builders labor in vain?”(Cf Psalm 127:1) They failed because they had set up as a sign and guarantee of the unity they desired a work of their own hands alone and had forgotten the action of the Lord. They had attended only to the horizontal dimension of work and social life, forgetting the vertical dimension by which they would have been rooted in God, their creator and Lord, and would have been directed toward him as the ultimate goal of their progress.

Now it can be said that the tragedy of humanity today, as indeed of every period in history, consists precisely in its similarity to the experience of Babel.

Lots of things in the world today: abortion, January 6th insurrection, refugees, colonialism, fake news, the list goes on.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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