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?