This past Sunday at Mass I was reminded of the ancient and perennial problem of the one and the many. The intellectual spur which brought this issue to mind was our pastor Fr. Kevin Estabrook’s homily on Pentecost and the miracle that occurred on that feast when one man, St. Peter, spoke to a multinational crowd in Jerusalem and all heard him in their own language. This event is an obvious undoing of the separation of languages spoken of in the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, and it holds within it what is possibly the greatest lesson for the world today: only within the context of the Church, enlivened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, can there be unity among humankind.
For the ancient Greek philosophers this issue was described as the problem of universals and particulars. A multitude of questions comes from this area of philosophical inquiry, and not just the kinds of questions of interest to professional philosophers alone. For example, what is the relationship between the individual person and the group? And, how does that relationship drive economics, science, politics, and the rest? In the economic realm – to name just one instance – the choice that many people make between laissez faire capitalism and state socialism is one that rests on the answer to such questions.
Within a Catholic context neither the choice of “the one” nor “the many” suffices. The critique offered by the Church on this general issue is made very clear in the Social Encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si in 2015. While defending the individual soul against the tyranny of the State, the Church tirelessly calls each person to act for the Common Good of all.
When science, politics, and economics take the place of religion in the lives of a people then it doesn’t really matter which side in the particular/universal debate wins because humanity loses. If there is a God, then He knows exactly what the solution to the argument of “the one” v. “the many” is. If this God has revealed Himself and His plan in Jesus and in the Church, then to ignore that plan is to ignore the key that unlocks the problems of our world.
Those who built the Tower of Babel believed they had the key, but they did not. St. Peter believed he had the key, and he did. In fact, he had the Keys – the Keys to the Kingdom granted to him by the Lord Himself. Peter spoke with great courage to the crowd in Jerusalem on Pentecost, and “they were cut to the heart” by his words. St. Luke tells us that three thousand were baptized because of what Peter said.
Those who are the successors to Peter and the Apostles, the Pope and Bishops of the Church, are called to do the same today. It is their ex officio role, but it is also our role because of our baptism. Just as the Holy Spirit inspired and gave courage to Peter, so does He draw all of us (and especially the Episcopacy, since it is their formal role) to spread the Gospel in the face of the competing – and often hostile – religions of science, economics, and politics.
Our Church is not an organization. She is an organism – the living Bride of Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit. We are all members of this one Body and as such are essential to the proper functioning of that Body. All are called to be members of that one Body, and that means reverencing each and every human person created by God, and to invite those persons to use their gifts in the realm of economics, science, politics, and all of the worldly arts, for the benefit of that immortal Body, the Bride of Christ, and the true Common Good. If we do not answer that call, then those many and great talents will continue to be wasted on the new Tower of Babel – a tower that, despite all of humanity’s efforts, is being built counter to the Will of God and is therefore doomed again to fail.