The Third Millennium

"Any day is a good day to be born and any day is a good day to die," said Pope John XXIII toward the end of his life. He was affirming that within the perspective of eternity every day is significant, and for each individual any day may be momentous. He was not denying that within the perspective of time certain days seem particularly eventful or particularly symbolic--a war starts or ends; a new year or a new century or a new millennium begins.

Jan. 1, 2000, is surely one of those symbolic days. No doubt it is properly to be considered the closing year of the 20th century rather than the opening year of the 21st. All the same, the world has seen the last of the 1900's, and this prompts people to look backward or forward. Christians will do that from the standpoint of the New Testament, and how should it be otherwise? It is the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the Christ, that is marked this year.


A retrospective reflection on the second millennium has its uses. It can help to define in the broadest way some of the world's hopes for the future. This can conveniently be done by picking up a theme from each of three Catholic Christians--a historian, an economist and a philosopher.

It is news to no one that the second millennium saw awesome advances in technology and the productive power of human labor. The conquests made possible by new machines began in Europe, spread gradually around the world since the 16th century and have expanded exponentially since the 19th. By now they have produced something very like a global civilization and economy.

Less often noticed is a reality to which Carlton J. H. Hayes (1882-1962), a Columbia University historian, pointed in his short book Christianity and Western Civilization (1954). Between a dynamic Christianity and a dynamic Western civilization there has been a parallelism that was more than merely coincidental. Rapacity did inflict checks and stains, but overall technological and material progress in the West was not put primarily to the service of despots--to building royal palaces and tombs--but to raising the general economic level and to humanitarian compassion.

Outside the Atlantic nations, however, there remains horrifying poverty because those material gains have been inequitably distributed. The British economist Barbara Ward (1914-81) used to point out that in the developing countries hundreds of millions still lack access to so basic a necessity as pure drinking water. Like a winning and persuasive prophet, she did a great deal to awaken the affluent societies of the North to a sense of global responsibility. Of her 1962 book, The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations, Lyndon B. Johnson said, "I read it like I read the Bible."

In many books and speeches, Barbara Ward argued with optimistic eloquence that world poverty could be eliminated if the rich nations moderated their conspicuous consumption, shared their resources and conserved the natural environment. If the third millennium proves her right, humanity will have lifted itself to its highest plane so far.

That is more likely to happen if in the new millennium the nationalism that has dominated the political history of the past four centuries is balanced by a general and effective conviction that all people belong to a worldwide human family.

In the middle of the 19th century, when the great European nation-states were roaring over the earth and creating colonial empires, an Italian Jesuit moralist, Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio (1793-1862) was talking like what the Old Testament would call a far-seeing oracle. He reasoned that by their very nature, human societies tend toward an international organization--that the natural law requires as much.

A world trading system already exists; a world government does not, and in many quarters the very concept evokes resistance. Fifty years ago, the John Birchers were sure that the United Nations aimed to subvert U.S. sovereignty. In Seattle last month, demonstrators denounced the World Trade Organization as globalization without representation. All the same, it is possible that in the centuries to come, the nations of the world, without surrendering their identities and sovereignty, may find a way, as the Second Vatican Council put it, to "lay international foundations under the whole human community."

Christians believe that neither this nor any other hope for the future can be realized without grace, and so until the end of the ages they will continue to pray: "Thy kingdom come."


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