A Meditation on the Sins of the Intellect

Maarten van Heemskerck, 1550
Maarten van Heemskerck, 1550

When I was in the seminary, my Moral Theology Professor, Fr. Robert Zylla (R.I.P.), encouraged us to meditate on the sins of the intellect during the third sorrowful mystery (The Crowning with Thorns). In his years of teaching he had surely witnessed the intellectual pride that could beset theologians and seminary students who figured they knew a few things. And added to this human tendency to intellectual pride was the rather prideful sense of the 20th century that we had somehow “come of age.” Dissent from church teaching was rampant and what came to be called the “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity” was in full flower. Many dismissed things merely because they were “old” and “pre-Vatican II.” Our advanced technology, tall buildings, terrifying weapons of war, and astonishing techniques of medicine had mesmerized us; we confused mere knowledge with wisdom. Knowing how to get to the moon and back is impressive, but only wisdom and humility, with lots of grace and mercy, can get us to Heaven.

Yes, the sins of the intellect must be consistently monitored and curbed with proper humility and docility (the Latin root docile means to be teachable) to the teachings of the Church. Garry Wills, a noted dissenter during those heady times, coined the phrase Mater si, Magistra no (Mother yes, Teacher no) to indicate that there was no need for him or others to accept the Church’s teaching authority. So sad, yet so emblematic of our times. Many today simply sniffle and dismiss the need for any teaching from the Church.

Our intellect is our greatest strength yet also our biggest struggle. We think we know a few things. And we do know a few things, very few. And insisting that we know so much, we shut down and will no longer listen to the Wisdom of God in His Church, time-tested, stretching back for millennia, the glory of the saints, and a treasure more precious than gold for those who love the Law of the Lord.

For meditation during Holy Week, I read through Jesus of Nazareth, Part II (Holy Week) by Joseph Ratzinger. In it, he writes of the dangers and sins of the intellect as he meditates on Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Consider this teaching on the sins and limits of the intellect from one of the great intellects of our time:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). … The theme of “not knowing” returns in St. Peter’s sermon in the Acts of the Apostles … “Now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (3:17). … The theme of not knowing also appears in one of St. Paul’s autobiographical reflections. He recalls that he himself “formally blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Jesus” then he continues, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13).

This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder. It reveals the whole problem of a knowledge that remains self-sufficient and does not arrive at Truth itself.

We encounter the same combination of knowledge and failure to understand in the story of the wise men from the East. The chief priests and the scribes know exactly where the Messiah is to be born. But they do not recognize him. Despite their knowledge, they remain blind (Matthew 2:4–6).

Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension occurs in every period of history. For this reason, what Jesus says [from the cross] about ignorance … is bound to be unsettling for the supposedly learned today. Are we not blind precisely as a people with knowledge? … Ignorance diminishes guilt, and it leaves open the path to conversion. But it does not simply excuse, because at the same time it reveals a deadening of the heart that resists the call of Truth [pp. 206-208].

Consider well, especially as you pray the third sorrowful mystery (the Crowning with Thorns), the sins of the intellect; it would make Fr. Zylla happy. As a parting thought, I ask you to ponder the danger described by St. Paul: For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:21-22).

Save us, Lord, from our foolishness and transform our minds!

I’ll admit this video is a little on the light side given the topic, but the point is that we don’t even understand those closest to us. How, then, can we understand that which is above us?

23 Replies to “A Meditation on the Sins of the Intellect”

  1. Absolutely one of your best posts, Father. I must admit that this is a prideful, common sin of which I constantly struggle and the one I regularly confess. Meditating on it praying the third sorrowful mystery will be most useful. Thank you for this great lesson! God bless you and yours.

  2. So when we, like the blind man calling out “Jesus son of David, have mercy on me” will be saved by our faith.

  3. Of all the terrible things that happened in the late 20th century in the Church, I think it was the “dissent” that was the most difficult and most hurtful to me, a simple person with no great intellect. I depended on those which much more brain power than I have to grasp and teach me the things of God. During the 1970’s it took me a long time and led down a lot of false paths before I was able to understand I probably had to go back to things written before 1960 to read anything consistent with true Church doctrine. I couldn’t even ask priests or nuns, because they just led me back to the dissenters! Thank God for John Paul II, because as he began to set things right, the distinction between theologians true to the Magisterium and the dissenters became much more clear.
    How many of us were injured by false teachings in religion classes at Catholic universities? Too many to count. And where are many of those who were all the rage back then? In retirement, or passed on, I suppose. They themselves knew the truth, had been taught the truth, but deprived the next generation of knowing it. Very sad.

    1. There are many generations that have been deprived of the Truth. We have a long road back to knowing Truth which feeds Faith which draws us to the reception of the Sacraments. I teach 4th grade CCD. So much has been absent for so long. There is so much that isn’t known. We are lost sheep because of the silence of what hasn’t been taught. But we live with great hope because of what has been written in our hearts and it waits to be unleashed once again through the guidance of His Church. There is always great hope where there are true believers working to know, love and serve God.

  4. Monsignor, you rang my bell. When I discovered the thrill of reading, I became in my own way, a smarty pants, know it all. It has led me astray in so many ways. Thankfully, I am becoming grounded in the Catholic faith again.

  5. I’ll probably get this story and quote a little bit wrong because it comes from memory, but I once read that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was asked what she thought of theologians. She said, “They talk too much. Pick up a broom and sweep a room. That says enough.” Amen.

    1. EXACTLY!

      Mother Teresa….truly a woman well before her time who had lived and brought the light of Christ to the existential peripheries well before Pope Francis even mentioned it. She didn’t need to, because she gave the example so eloquently. She IS the example.

      And as to the culture wars, she too already said in 1979: (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1979/teresa-lecture.html)

      “Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child – what is left for me to kill you and you kill me – there is nothing between.”

  6. The words of my father ring in my ears, “There’s only one thing worse than a man who doesnt know much, the man who knows enough to think he knows it all”.

  7. Love it! Any chance a future post might enlighten us to our intellectual sins more fully? I fear we are too smart to see it on our own.

  8. I think any prayer that is truly prayer has to chasten the intellect in some good way.

    1. I’m not sure who said this prayer, but the person was truly a saint: “Lord, enlighten my mind, strengthen my will, inflame my heart, purify my body and sanctify my soul.”

  9. “Dissent from church teaching was rampant and what came to be called the “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity” was in full flower.”

    According to Cardinal Müller, the current pontificate and St. John XXIII lack sufficient theological “structure”.


    Yes, we are in a sorry state. HOWEVER, the Holy Spirit still loves us!

    I wish the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith just call me up already. For the Tree of Life is the Third Name of God the Son! https://youtu.be/t0dQOYMkZOo

  10. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Monsignor, for this post which I’m badly in need of pondering! My spiritual director has told me for years that my intellect is both my greatest strength & my greatest weakness, & it’s been a source of immense trouble for me in the spiritual life. Fortunately, I have a very prayerful & humble & wise director who knows exactly how to “take me down a notch,” with compassion & charity when I get off-track on a theological topic. I’m in great need of sincere humility.

  11. Msgr. Pope:

    Thank you for this eloquent and hard-hitting post. All your work has been inspiring, informative and necessary!

  12. For most adults in advanced nations, it isn’t WHAT WE DON”T KNOW that is most dangerous to our life and final destination; it’s what we know THAT ISN’T TRUE. Consider the spread from justifying the use of contraceptives to justifying abortion. Some Church intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s – in the “spirit” of Vatican II – provided convenient justifications for Catholic elected officials to ignore Church teaching on this and related matters, and we’ve been living with horrendous consequences ever since.
    In the words of Yogi Bear, “I’ve got a lot to be humble about.”

  13. Thank you Msgr. Pope! This was wonderful and taken to heart. Know that in many ways you are helping to form the next generation of men coming out of the Mount.

    May the soul of Fr. Zylla and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.

  14. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

  15. Thank you, Padre. I’ve always held the belief that knowledge can be dangerous
    This has further strengthened that position

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