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The Idolization of Learning

It is to get rid of doing God's will that we have invented learning . . . we shield ourselves by hiding behind tomes. Kierkegaard 40

Now we have to analyze still another error which is widespread at the present time, one which is also responsible to a large extent for the mutilation of the liturgy: the idol of learning and knowledge.

This is expressed on the one hand by the notion that it is undemocratic and discriminatory for a person not to be able to go to high school, college, or a university. It is forgotten that study only has a meaning when a corresponding talent is present. When one considers how a farmer, an artisan, an employee, or a laborer can be a much more intelligent and fulfilled person than a weak, ungifted teacher, or even professor,  41 then the madness of this idolization of learning and knowledge becomes evident. The greater the tension between the immanent claim of an activity and its vocational fulfillment, the more unfulfilled is the life of this man, and the more unfortunate it is for others, and the less is his work a source of happiness for him.

In this sense Mortimer Smith has written in his excellent book, And Madly Teach, “Thus arises competence without intelligence.”

A further symptom of this idolization of learning is the fact that one has completely forgotten the difference between the things of which knowledge, however interesting it may be in itself, does not make a man richer, fuller, or happier, unless he has a special talent for them. If we ask ourselves honestly whether it enriches every man to know what an imaginary number is, or that there are cosmic rays, or certain facts of chemistry, then one cannot deny that it makes no great difference for his life, for his understanding of the world, for his personality, whether he knows it or not. If he has no special interest in these sciences, no clear talent for them, then this knowledge does not enrich his life.

But there are many things, whose knowledge really does mean an enrichment, an expansion of the horizons for every man. To these belong, for example, the knowledge of different languages, at least to the extent of being able to speak and read them. We are not thinking in the first place of the practical utility of the knowledge of different languages, but rather of the enrichment deriving from contact with the “world,” the atmosphere of other nations as expressed through their languages. 42 The same is true of the knowledge of history. Here also the knowledge of great and important events of the past is an enriching factor for everyone.

What we have just been considering, however, is more the question of what contributes to true “education,” i.e., what belongs to an educated man. This only concerns the question of what should receive more emphasis in general education; but does not concern our actual problem, which is the exaggerated cult of learning.

It cannot be denied that a simple, uneducated man can be much more interesting, personally rich, and intelligent than one who has studied a good deal. I am not here questioning the value of education itself; but to esteem it highly is in no way to succumb to the idol of learning. One makes an idol of learning when one maintains that the education which has been gained by study is the only form of learning in the broader sense, and even that it is the only way of enriching, fulfilling, and giving meaning to human life.

Up into the nineteenth century, the pater familias among Italian farmers, especially in Tuscany, often sang a canto from Dante's Divina Commedia to his family, although he could perhaps hardly read and write. This was certainly a striking sign of authentic education. Certainly he must have become acquainted with the Divina Commedia through his father, or someone else, but this obviously occurred in the form of tradition, not by study in school, and even less in university courses.

But a much worse consequence of the idol of learning is the killing of common sense, which is being undertaken on a widespread scale in grammar schools, high schools, and colleges. 43 One forgets the great source of wisdom which lies in our immediate contact with being, and how pernicious it is to replace the resulting world view, with instruction which draws its nourishment from doubtful psychological and sociological theories, and false, flat philosophies. Every immediate, true experience in which the voice of being speaks to a person, is much more interesting than the questionable theories he has adopted concerning the world and life.

Thus it is that a simple, unlettered man, when he speaks about the world and his life, is much wiser, much truer, and more genuine than all the half-educated people who simply repeat the stupid theories expounded by their professors. 44 The statement of a simple person may be clumsily expressed; it may be incomplete, and even contain errors. But it will always have a kernel of truth, always the freshness of a genuine contact with reality, and be free from the arrogant presumption of establishing a valid theory in the sense of looking “behind the scenes” of reality, and being able to “explain” everything. The dangerous error of the cult of teaching and learning reaches its climax in the ambition to improve, modify, or even replace natural, immediate, organic contact with the world and life, by an artificial contact based on so-called “scientific” theories.

A sad example of this is the nonsense of “enlightenment” in the schools with regard to sexual matters. It is believed that the laboratory attitude is the causa exemplaris (model) of a rational, healthy attitude towards all things and all questions. According to such a view, neutral “objectivization,” the attitude of a detached observer is not only the only source of true knowledge already a sufficiently catastrophic error but also the desirable form of all immediate contact in life, and of the experiencing of everything.

The idol of teaching and learning bears within itself the seeds of destruction of all true education, of all true upbringing, of a humanly healthy, genuine life, and of all true happiness.

And now it is not difficult to see that the penetration of this idol into the Church bears part of the blame for the unfortunate mutilation of the liturgy and the destruction of the organic structure of the liturgical year.

One is coming more and more to believe that the important thing at Mass is knowledge, and that for true participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass the understanding of every word is more essential than recollection, than going into one's personal depths, than the reverent immersion of oneself in the mystery of the unbloody Sacrifice on the Cross. For true participation at Holy Mass, it is important for the faithful that the priest as an individual person become completely absorbed in his role of representing Christ, that everything else disappear except the incredible mystery of the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of the Cross. The dialogue of the priest in the holy Mass, the Dominus vobiscum, Orate Iratres, and the dialogue before the Preface, are all one dialogue which is built into the sacred happening of the Mass; it is precisely a sacred dialogue and not an imparting of information about the kind of Preface and Canon being used. Today it is becoming more and more common for the priest to interrupt the service to speak to the faithful, to instruct them about the progress of the Mass. This should take place beforehand, in catechetical classes, or at most in the sermon, but never in the course of the sacred action, where the priest represents Christ, and the faithful are completely caught up in participating in the sacred event. 45

This indicates a misunderstanding of the fact that there is an abyss between the attitude of being instructed and of studying on the one hand, and of participating in an event or happening, or expressing an inner attitude on the other hand. In the case of learning, of profane instruction, there is a “consciousness of” something, but in performing some act, although I am certainly directed to an object, and although there is also a transcending of myself as in the case of knowledge, nevertheless the response which I give interiorly is of a different nature, it is itself a conscious entity, a cooperation with the object. Adoration, and the inner participation in Christ's sacrifice on the Cross in holy Mass, must be inwardly lived out, and if the priest interrupts with comments about the Mass which are related to practical details, then the faithful are necessarily taken out of the attitude of participation and drawn into an attitude of being informed. Indeed, they are taken out of the sacred dialogue which is part of the holy Mass.

The difference between the attitude of participation, and of being informed in a neutral way, becomes clear if we draw a comparison from the natural sphere. If someone who deeply loves a woman declares his love for her for the first time, his declaration is not neutral information, but a declaration of his love; the words have a completely different function here than in a lecture or a textbook. They are, as it were, the medium through which the ray of his love penetrates into the soul of the beloved, really touching her. The theme is not a mere piece of information about a fact, but an affecting of the soul of the beloved. And if she receives the declaration of love in the way it is meant, it is no instruction, but a deeply moving and unique experience of being loved. Obviously this is separated by an abyss from merely finding out about a fact, from receiving mere neutral instruction or information. Therefore, it is completely meaningful and even required that this declaration of love be repeated over and over again.

But even the public reading of the Epistle and the Gospel in the first part of the holy Mass, the so-called “Mass of the Catechumens,” is not “instruction” in the strict sense of the word. The reading should enlighten our mind and draw us into the sacral world of the mystery of the Mass. What happens and should happen here is not a neutral imparting of information about the holy Mass, as for example a comment by a deacon on what the priest is now doing, or a technical instruction about something concerning this particular Mass. Rather it is the word of God coming to us through a prophet or an apostle, a summons which should awaken us, drawing our soul into God's presence (conspectus Dei). This is true to a still greater extent, i.e., we reach yet a higher level, when the holy Gospel is read, when it is the words of the same Christ who after the consecration is bodily present and whom we receive into our souls in Holy Communion. It is the inconceivably Holy One, the God-Man Jesus Christ, who speaks to us: to each one of us individually, and to all of us together. No one can overlook the abyss which even on a purely formal level separates this proclamation of the words and deeds of Christ and our hearing of them, from a neutral instruction.

If a sermon is given on Sundays and holy days, then it should awaken the souls of the faithful so that they might be illumined by the incomprehensible glory of the Gospel. The sermon ought to show in detail the call of Christ and all the consequences of this call, as well as point out the dangers which hinder the growth of the true seed of Christ in the soul. We need only think of the sermons of St. Leo, St. Augustine, or Cardinal Newman in order to see clearly how the sermon organically fits into the preparatory part of holy Mass and how greatly it differs from a purely informative instruction.


40. Kierkegaard, quoted in Lowrie, Kierkegaard (New York: Harper, 1962), Vol. II, p. 539.

41. One could object that this perhaps used to be true, but that in an industrialized world, in which so many workers must exercise a completely mechanical function every day for hours on end, one cannot deny that such work cannot enrich any man or be a source of happiness for him. That is certainly true, but it is only an objection to the industrialization of the world, but no justification for the idolization of learning. For it is doubtful whether academic studies are the only way to fill up the emptiness which has arisen through an over-mechanization in the life of man.

42. Latin is in a unique position here. First, Latin grammar has an uncommon clarity, and to know it, is an incomparable training for our thinking. Secondly, Latin has a great beauty, a spiritual nobility of quite a special sort. This is also true of medieval Latin, which moreover produced works of highest poetical art and religious depth. One need only think of the Dies irae, which is ascribed to Thomas of Celano, of Jacapone do Todi's Stabat mater, of the magnificent hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, of the sequences of Venantius Fortunatus, and many others. The role which Latin has played in history, especially in the liturgy, and the universality which it possesses, gives the learning of Latin quite a special place.

43. Cf. Marcel de Corte, L'Intelligence en Péril de Mort (Paris: Collection du Club de la Culture Francaise, 1969).

44. “Your modern educator is anti-intellectual and anti-cultural, prao tical and narrowly scientific.” Mortimer Smith, And Madly Teach.

45. All explanations by the celebrant during the Preface and Canon have been forbidden by the Instructio of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, issued on April 27, 1973, and approved by Pope Paul.


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