Of Entropy and Confusion

1 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

This is called the Tower of Babel story, even though it refers specifically to “a city and a tower.” The story might very well have been inspired by the Etemenanki, which was a ziggurat build in ancient Babylon, and dedicated to the god Marduk.

In any event, Babylon becomes a biblical way of referring to the existing world power. Thus we read in the First Epistle of Saint Peter that he is writing from “Babylon,” as opposed to a direct reference to Rome [1], and in the Apocalypse of Saint John we find an unmistakable reference to Rome with the words, “Babylon the great, the mother of the fornications, and the abominations of the earth,” sitting on “seven mountains,” or the seven hills of Rome. [2]

Great cities, great empires, great nations, are established with permanence in mind. But they eventually fall apart, they eventually crumble, because, it seems, that political organizations are subject to a kind of entropy. One point of the Tower of Babel story might well be that the disintegration of human political structures is inevitable. As speculative as this idea may seem, it is buttressed by the story of the foundation of the Church at Pentecost, where the language confusion of Babel is reversed. [3] The Church is also intended to be permanent, but, unlike purely human political structures, its permanence will be achieved; “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” [4] 

Now the current world power is the United States. We often hear that it is the only “superpower,” and there is evidence enough that it is so. But, like Babylon, like Rome, like every other political structure erected by humanity, its ultimate disintegration is inevitable.

It is not hard to make the point that signs of the demise of the United States are already visible. There is a growing wealth gap, combined with a rise in indifference, indeed, at times, outright hostility toward the impoverished. Our political arena has become a hotbed of invective, where rational dialogue is nearly impossible. In the face of serious national concerns we have turned on each other. Congress itself is so divided that its ability to act is seriously compromised, and there are some members of Congress who have willingly shut down government operations and have threatened to bring about a default on the public debt. The family is becoming a relic as 40% to 50% of marriages end in divorce [5], 41% of children are born to single mothers [6], and it is commonplace for fathers to abandon their children. Half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion. [7] The United States initiated an attack against Iraq in 2003 in clear violation of international law [8], and American politicians are now agitating to do the same against Iran. Meanwhile, America’s foreign adventurism drains the public treasury, inciting politicians to threaten and effect cuts in aid to the country’s most vulnerable, including military veterans who were used in that very foreign adventurism. In sum, we seem to be a nation that has lost its collective mind.  

Still, for the Catholic, it is impermissible to simply watch passively as the nation disintegrates. The Catechism tells us that “[i]t is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom.” [9] Political and social action is particularly the duty of the Catholic laity. “This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens. Social action can assume various concrete forms. It should always have the common good in view and be in conformity with the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. It is the role of the laity ‘to animate temporal realities with Christian commitment, by which they show that they are witnesses and agents of peace and justice.’” [10] 

Since Catholic social and political action is to “be in conformity with the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church,” it is to be hoped that by that means some of the permanence of the Church can be infused into the political structure, and thus forestall the operation of that structure’s inherent entropy. The directions to be taken should be clear, because the social Magisterium of the Church is not ambiguous. We must, as best as we can, reverse the confusion of Babel with the clarity of Pentecost.

Jack Quirk