14th Sunday of ordinary Time
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants”
One of the aspects of Christ’s teaching that is anathema to the secular intelligentsia is the clear truth contained in these lines from Matthew’s Gospel, that often the truths revealed by God are more easily understood and faithfully lived by the simple and uneducated than by the learned and the clever who are left in the dark. Given that pride is the underlying cause of man’s every rebellion against God and that pride grows as the result of man’s rebellion, we ought not to be surprised that the learned and clever in the world would be closed or hostile to the teaching of Christ. This is the case not simply because Christ’s teaching so often contradicts their own subjective views, but also, and perhaps more so, because the simple and uneducated are wonderfully drawn to it.
In this sense, deep knowledge is seen by the intellectual elites to be a high cultural artifact, and thus the more widely it could be distributed among people, the less value it could possess, and the less it seems worth possessing. If simple and uneducated folk can grasp the essential teaching of Jesus sufficiently well to base their life upon it’s wisdom, then what kind of wisdom can it possibly be, that is, of what value can it be to those who make their livelihood by peddling their own wisdom to other learned and clever people like themselves and not to the rabble who seem so willing to follow Christ.
The essentially popular character, what we might call today the egalitarian character of Christian revelation – that is, the fact that it is addressed to all people as a wisdom that all can and really must come to possess in order to attain human fulfillment – has always been a great stumbling block to the intellectually gifted who are so often suffused with pride in their own intellectual superiority. In the early Church, this can be seen in the gnostic sects which tried to hijack the teaching of Christianity and make the Church into a two tiered community, the first composed of the ignorant masses who clung to the simple, public teaching of Jesus, and the smaller elite who were graced with the hidden manna Jesus supposedly never proposed publicly to the crowds but revealed privately to the chosen disciples only. By their possession of this deeper wisdom they became a kind of illuminati – enlightened class – within the Church, with their own secret doctrines intended only for the true gnostics. This arrangement allowed the intellectually proud to be at once Christian and yet respectable among their secular intellectual peers at the same time. Of course these secret teachings led these gnostics (the learned ones) into an intellectual and spiritual blindness which inevitably ended up in heresy and extraordinary moral perversion at times – a fitting punishment – and they ended up in a worse condition than had they remained simply pagans.
Intellectual pride always leads in this direction of unbelief. After all, what self-respecting intellectual wants to be forced to mingle with, let alone stand shoulder to shoulder with, the ignorant masses? The Pharisees thought in that very way, and that is precisely why they were closed to and cut off from the saving message of Jesus. Recall how they responded to their being stood up to by the simple man who was born blind, after he was cured by Jesus: “They answered and said to him, ‘You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?’” [John 9:34] How dare that wretched, phony blind man act like he was somehow their equal when it came to teaching anything! And they hated Jesus for exactly the same reason. After all, who was this wretched, uneducated son of a carpenter to be competing with their teaching office! But Jesus knew them well, and it was as much a chiding of them as a praise of the Father when he said that day: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to mere children…”
The Church has always been aware and wary of the intellectually proud in her midst, even while she herself promotes higher learning in so many ways. Today the Church operates schools from elementary to university, and in certain past ages provided the only secure place for learning in her monasteries. She has long been a patron of the arts and promoter of human culture. And yet, the Church never loses her founder’s healthy suspicion of the intelligentsia in general, and knows that the deepest rebellions against her teaching and discipline are always led by those who place themselves above the common lot and see themselves as the vanguard of the truly enlightened in the Church.
This fact helps us to understand the troubles that have plagued the Church following the 2nd Vatican Council. The intellectually proud have consistently led the intellectual rebellions against the Church’s moral teaching and her traditions and discipline. All these rebellions and divisive dissent had their roots in the Church’s own centers of learning, her own universities and her own seminaries. The Church has long suffered her own version of the “trahison des clercs”, the betrayal of her intellectual elites, who first denied her teachings in the academies, and then took to themselves the leadership of the popular rebellion which was always based upon the theological and moral dissent of the academicians.
The result has been great suffering: the shipwreck of the ecclesial mission of these Catholic intellectual institutions; the breakdown of Christian family life; and now the scandals involving the disgraceful actions of some clergy and the early, disgraceful inaction of the Church’s leaders in dealing with these problems. Yet, marvelously, none of these calamities has been able to destroy the faith of the simple believers.
The unbelievers are always astounded by the refusal of so many ordinary Catholics to abandon their faith and the Church, because they never have really understood the faith of the “little ones” Christ praises. They cannot see what the little ones with faith do see, that the truth of the faith and the truth of the Church does not depend upon the character, sanctity or wisdom of the messengers and shepherds, but upon the sanctity, wisdom and absolute fidelity of the Lord who sends them, the same Lord whose Church it is that they only serve, for better or for worse. It surprises the unbelievers, especially the unbelieving intelligentsia that the simple can make these distinctions and ground their lives on them, because the little ones truly possess the faith rock solidly, the faith Christ marveled at, the pure faith which enables them to grasp what the learned and the clever cannot: the divine character of the truth of God’s revelation, including the truth about the Church, what it is, and where it is.
In Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, Jesus of Nazareth, this great director chooses to portray only one apostle as a self-absorbed intellectual snob, and it is that apostle who commits the ultimate “trahison des clercs.” That pride filled apostle was Judas. There is no biblical evidence that Judas was a learned man, but this portrayal of the betrayer says something about Zeffirelli’s own understanding of what went wrong after the 2nd Vatican Council, and what has always been a problem for the Church, beginning with the rebellion of the Pharisees against Christ himself.
Both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II are recognized as great intellectuals by the intellectual world at large, very learned men, and yet both, like the present Pope, had a great affinity for the simple faithful that is unmistakable, and for that affinity they are still loved by the masses of faithful Catholics, and often still despised in the Church’s own academies of higher learning. That latter fact speaks volumes about what is still wrong today in the life of the Church, but the former also holds out much hope for the future. In the end, it really is the simple who are blessed with indestructible faith, as Jesus himself testifies in today’s Gospel, and these little ones really are the bulwark of the Church. After all, they have the numbers and the great faith to survive even the latest “trahison des clercs.” Christ protects their faith, and they bear witness to Christ. That is the way the Church survives.