Pentecost and the Freedom From Babel

COMMENTARY: The original confusion of languages was the final fruit of original sin. The Holy Spirit ended this confusion at Pentecost.

A painting depicting Pentecost from the year 1506, designed by Angelo di Giovanni, adorns the apse of the Chapel Miniscalchi in St. Anastasia Church in Verona, Italy.
A painting depicting Pentecost from the year 1506, designed by Angelo di Giovanni, adorns the apse of the Chapel Miniscalchi in St. Anastasia Church in Verona, Italy. (photo: Renata Sedmakova /

At Pentecost, which brings the Easter season to a close, Christians witness the final fulfillment of the revelation of the Word of God begun in the creation of the world and completed in the work of Jesus Christ.

He himself sends the Holy Spirit from heaven on the apostles in the form of tongues of fire, the great sound and the strong, driving wind. Though the Church is born from the blood and water flowing from his side on the cross in the mystery of the sacraments, the public manifestation of the Church is implemented in the faith of the apostles, to whom Christ now reveals all things:

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

The strong, driving wind expresses the depth of the power of grace, and the tongues of fire demonstrate the love that the Holy Spirit brings to us, which allows the whole human race to speak the language of faith, the language of the inner life of God.

When the apostles are motivated by the fire of this love to speak about Jesus, “the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6).

The original confusion of languages was the final fruit of original sin, in which it inundated the human race with pride at the Tower of Babel. The very sign of our reason became an expression of misunderstanding among human beings. The Holy Spirit ends this confusion by inspiring the apostles to speak in the new language of faith, which is the only language which can unite the divided human race again.

Grace brings interior peace to the soul, which in turn brings external peace to all those united by the Spirit in the one universal human society, the Church.

There is a pious tradition that comes from the early Church that posits that, when this loud driving wind came on the apostles and the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ from heaven that finally resolves original sin by the sanctification and renewal of the interior man, each of the Twelve Apostles uttered one of 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Though this is not factual, it does express an important Catholic truth: All future reflection on the mystery of the Catholic religion and its expressions must be found in the faith of the apostles, either explicitly or implicitly.

This is why formal Revelation closed with the death of the last apostle. This is implicitly stated in Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: “The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Timothy 6:14 and Titus 2:13)” (4). This includes both Scripture and Tradition and, by implication, also the magisterium of the pope and the bishops, who are the apostles’ successors:

“Yet this magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (Dei Verbum, 10, 2. Quoted in: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86).

Since the magisterium is the servant of the word of God in both Scripture and Tradition, it cannot change what is explicitly and implicitly contained in those sources.

Though throughout the history of the Church there have been various theological developments in the understanding and expression of the Catholic faith, this cannot take place even on the part of the popes and the bishops in such a way as to deny the original content of faith.

These developments occur in both doctrine and morals, and, though the teaching of the Church evolves, it cannot do so at the expense of a previous teaching. To take an obvious example, if the Church has always taught that birth control is wrong, this teaching in some sense is found in principles originating in the teaching of the apostles or St. Paul — and therefore cannot be changed without doing violence to both the teaching itself and to the authority which proposes it. If a future pope or bishop should deny what a former one has taught in doctrine or morals, then by implication he undercuts his own authority.

Since the 1960s it has become a commonplace idea among many Catholic theologians that doctrine must be changed to correspond to the “signs of the times.” The term “paradigm shift” is often used to express this idea, which is indistinguishable, really, from the relativity of truth.

The term “paradigm” here means a model of what might be a way of expressing a truth that is not absolute but relative to the times. It is certainly true that the Fathers at Vatican II wanted to speak perhaps in a less Scholastic language to the world to make the teaching of the Church more accessible to those not trained formally in this manner of speaking. But they certainly never imagined changing the substance of what was taught.

In other words, if one uses a new form of expression to teach the faith (a good example would be the theology of the body of Pope St. John Paul II), this can in no way lead to a denial of the previous teaching, which perhaps was expressed in another way. To do this would change the former teaching in substance, not just in expression.

Many people have taught that the age initiated in Pentecost of the Son of God was not the final expression of divine Revelation on earth. Today this is expressed in the idea that faith is more a matter of sentiment than intelligence.

As long as one has a religious sentiment, the expression does not matter, says this idea: Each society’s need determines the authentic expression of that sentiment, which can contradict other expressions either of the past or the present. Doctrine and morals are determined only by context.

But this would mean the Holy Spirit is culturally conditioned in the way he speaks. This is to introduce a new Babel into the Church, and Pentecost is denied.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct

professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.