'La Construction de la Tour de Babel'
Hendrick III van Cleve (1525 - 1589)
(click on the painting to view it full-sized)
Hendrick III van Cleve (1525 - 1589)
(click on the painting to view it full-sized)
Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. But the very nature of the promise implies the presence of a war. The dragon "makes war" against the children of Christ's Mother, that is, those who "keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus." (Rev 12:17) So how does hell fight against Christ's Church? Of course there are external threats, such as persecution and the enticement of worldliness. But the more insidious attacks are internal; these are heresy and schism. Heresy and schism generally go together, because one without the other would be exposed for what it is. Only together can they hide each other. Satan hides himself in a certain respect, disguising himself as an angel of light. (2 Cor 11:14) That is his standard mode of operation. He once was Lucifer, the light bearer. So he portrays all his works as good and right and enlightened, as though they are the path of the truly wise, and especially suitable for making one wise. This is how he deceived Eve. This is how he deceived the people into choosing the murderer Barabbas [whose name means "son of the father"] over the innocent Son of God. And this is how he continues to deceive people into sinning against the Body of Christ, by leading them into heresy and schism.
But evil is always intrinsically self-destructive, because not only is evil a privation of good, but evil is also therefore a privation of unity and a privation of being. That is why evil is always parasitic on the good. Evil cannot exist on its own, but only in and in relation to what is good. For this very reason, the concepts of heresy and schism are not themselves sustainable within heresies and schisms. Within heresies and schisms these concepts collapse into the semantic equivalent of 'disagreement with my interpretation' and 'separation from me', respectively. All their objectivity and normativity is lost. Just as Satan succeeds when people no longer believe that he exists, so also he succeeds when the concepts of 'heresy' and 'schism' have been so evacuated that people no longer believe there really are such things.
The Church is supposed to be the voice of Christ to the world. Satan cannot defeat this voice, but through heresies and schisms he can drown it out in a sea of competing voices, each claiming to speak for Christ. In this way he creates confusion, not only in the world but even among Christians, for the effect is as if there is no authoritative voice of Christ, but merely a cacophony of opinions. Yet "God is not a God of confusion". (1 Cor 14:33) Christ did not leave His sheep without a shepherd. Nor did he intend that all who wish to determine who is the true shepherd first learn to read, let alone read and exegete Greek and Hebrew (as is testified to by the theological disunity among those who *do* read and exegete Greek and Hebrew).
The schisms that have weakened the unity and strength of our voice as Christians are in their effect like the curse of Babel that thwarted the builders of that tower. But the purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to reverse that division by means of a divine ingathering. This was the significance of the gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. (See the column of paintings on Neal Judisch's blog to get a better sense of the idea.) Babel was the tower of man, initiated by men and built up by men. It is the paradigmatic referent of Psalm 127:1, "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain". Nimrod is said to have been the initiator of the tower of Babel; in this way he is a figure of the Antichrist. In contrast to Babel, the Church is the tower that God is building, joining all peoples together into one Body in which we all speak the same divine language. (To read an early second century description of the Church as the tower that God is building, see Book 1 of the Shepherd of Hermas.) This is the Body of Christ, of which He is the founder and Head.
One way to respond to the common insouciance among Christians regarding our disunity is to show the disunity for what it is, as Dickens showed child labor for what it was. That is the sort of thing I was attempting to do recently here and here, in showing that the position of those Protestants who claim to believe in a visible Church is only *semantically* distinct from the position of those Protestants who deny that there is a visible Church. This highlights the absence of a middle position between Catholicism on the one hand, and that of those who deny that Christ founded a visible Church. The denial of a visible Church leaves each man to do what is right in his own eyes, for in that case there is no divinely-established voice of authority in the visible Church, because there is no visible Church. This position has difficulty making sense of St. Matthew 16 and St. Matthew 18, as I showed in the comments here.
Moreover, the ecclesiological position of those who deny that Christ founded a visible Church is intrinsically disposed to perpetual fragmentation and disharmony and weakness, for according to that position Christ did not establish a lasting hierarchy by which to preserve and guard the first mark of the Church: unity. But while Christ assured us that the Church will endure, He also tells us that a house divided cannot stand (St. Matt 12:25; St. Mark 3:25; St. Luke 11:17). Therefore, unity is an essential mark of the Church. Christ did not tell us to make a man-made peace that He would then preserve. He gave to His Apostles His peace, a peace that is not of this world. He left His peace with them. (St. John 14:27; Philippians 4:7) This is the divine peace and unity into which we must be incorporated. It is this divine peace and unity given by Christ to the Church that makes unity the first mark of the Church.
There are many Christians who recognize the need for greater unity among Christians. The moral decline in the broader culture makes such a need more and more obvious. And the recognition of this need for greater unity should be commended and encouraged, as should the efforts to effect it. But there are two fundamentally different types of ecumenicism. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us the goal of a thing shows us what it is, and the difference in goal distinguishes these two different types of ecumenicism. I'm not speaking here of the proximate goal of fostering dialogue and improving mutual understanding and social cooperation between Christians of various denominations and traditions. I'm speaking of the final goal.
I have written here about the way in which one form of ecumenicism unwittingly continues the work of Babel, by trying to create a new tower that Christ Himself did not found. It does this by seeking to establish a new institution and trying to get all Christians to be united to it. We see this mentality in organizations like the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. (For an example, see here.)
True ecumenicism does not lay a new foundation other than that which God has already laid, the incarnate Christ being the cornerstone, followed by the "apostles and prophets" (Eph 2:20), and their successors in the Church, which is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15). True ecumenicism is therefore necessarily by its very nature and final goal a searching for and reuniting with the Church that Christ founded. So long as some Christians conceive of the Church that Christ founded as the mere set of all believers, or as the set of all believers and their activities, or as a mere phenomenon, they will not perceive what the Church actually is, and how the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. Mere sets and mere phenomena have no authority, no actual unity, and thus no actual being. What has no being cannot be a foundation, let alone a foundation of the truth.
To defeat the divisive work of Satan, we first have to come to see schisms for what they are. This is part of what it means to expose the works of darkness. (Eph 5:11) We tear away the façade of light that keeps us from perceiving evil as evil. These schisms are "ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body" (CCC 817). If we love our own bodies, then how much more should we care for the wounds of Christ's Body? But we can go about seeking to heal these wounds in one of two ways. We can either take the keys to ourselves, which is the way of Babel (or more precisely, an endless series of Babels, each with its own self-appointed or de facto Nimrod), or we can seek out the Church that Christ founded, where He left His peace, seeking full communion with the one to whom He gave the keys.