14th Sunday of ordinary Time
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.”
One of the themes of Christ’s teaching that is particularly anathema to the secular intelligentsia is the clear truth contained in these lines from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus suggests that the truths revealed by God are more easily understood and faithfully lived by the simple and uneducated Christian than by proud and learned, the intellectuals, who are left in the dark. Given the fact that pride is the underlying cause of man’s rebellion against God and that pride grows as the result of man’s continued rebellion, we ought not to be surprised that the learned and clever in the world will often 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 even more so, because they look down on the simple and uneducated who are often wonderfully drawn to his teaching.
In the world of learning, deep knowledge is seen by the intellectual elites to be a high cultural artifact, the preserve of the highly educated, and thus the more widely any ideas could be disseminated among common people, the less value they could ever possibly have. So, if simple and uneducated folks can be seen to grasp the essential teaching of Jesus sufficiently well to base their very life upon it’s wisdom, then what kind of wisdom can this teaching possibly possess? That is, what value can it ever have for those who make their livelihood by peddling their own wisdom to other learned and clever people like themselves, the great secular ideas that the rabble, who seem so willing to follow Christ, could never grasp.
The essentially popular character Christian revelation, or what we might perhaps today refer to as the egalitarian character of Christ’s teaching, follows from the fact that it is addressed to all people as a wisdom that all can understand and really must come to possess in order to attain human fulfillment. This popular character of Christian doctrine has always been a great stumbling block to the proud, intellectually gifted who are so often taken with their own intellectual superiority. In Jesus’ own day, the learned scribes were the most contemptuous of Jesus and his “rabble” followers. In the early Church, this can again be seen in the Gnostic Christian sects which tried to hijack the teaching of Christianity and make the Church into a two tiered community: the first tier composed of the ignorant masses who clung to the simple, public teaching of Jesus; and the higher tier composed of a much smaller elite who were possessed of the hidden, higher knowledge that Jesus supposedly never proposed publicly to the crowds but revealed only privately to these chosen disciples. By their possession of this deeper, mystical wisdom, the Gnostics considered themselves to be a kind of illuminati – an enlightened class – within the Church, possessing their own secret doctrines intended only for the truly enlightened.
This arrangement allowed the intellectually proud to be at once Christian and yet above the rabble, and it allowed them at the same time to be respectable among their secular, intellectual peers. Of course these secret teachings led these Gnostics (the enlightened ones) into an intellectual and spiritual blindness which inevitably ended up in ever greater heresies and even extraordinary moral perversion at times – a fitting punishment. So they ended up in a worse condition than had they remained simply pagans.
Intellectual pride always leads in the 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 Scribes and many Pharisees thought in that same way, and that is precisely why they were closed to 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 little blind man act like he was somehow their equal when it came to teaching anything! How dare him argue with them! And they hated Jesus for exactly the same reason. After all, who was this wretched, uneducated son of a carpenter to be competing with them and 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 of, and wary of, the intellectually proud in her midst, even while she herself always has promoted higher learning in so many ways. The Church has long operated schools from the elementary level 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, for she knows that the deepest rebellions against her teaching and discipline have always been initiated by those who place themselves above the common lot and see themselves as the vanguard of the truly enlightened and holy in the Church.
This fact helps us to understand the troubles that plagued the Church following the 2nd Vatican Council. Dissent from Church teaching was largely generated from her own universities, seminaries, and learned journals. It then gradually trickled down to ordinary Catholics, laity and clergy. The intellectually proud have consistently led the religious rebellions against the Church’s moral teaching and her traditions and discipline, and that was also the case after the great Council of our day. In short, The Church has long suffered her own version of what the French call the “trahison des clercs”, that is, the betrayal of her intellectual elites, those who first dissent from Church teachings in their academies and then relegate to themselves the leadership of the popular rebellion which was always based upon the theological and moral dissent of these academics and other intelligentsia.
The result has been much great suffering: the shipwreck of the ecclesial mission of many Catholic intellectual institutions; the widespread disintegration of sound, basic catechesis, massive confusion among the broader Church public . And, as with the early gnostic Christian heretics, this massive dissent has inevitably descended into the sexual realm and has corrupted the moral life of many Christians who have embraced the sexual revolution of the present age. And so the Church has suffered through terrible scandals, including the disgraceful actions of some clergy. And now we see many Catholics approving the new laws that are undermining the institutions of marriage and the family, so that today we are witnessing the breakdown of the Christian family as never before in history.
And yet, quite marvelously, none of these calamities have been able to destroy the faith of many, many, simple believers. Indeed, unbelievers are always astounded by the refusal of so many “ordinary” Catholics to abandon their faith and the Church and to stand fast in spite of all the chaos. Indeed unbelievers are shocked because they have never really understood the faith of the “little ones” whom Christ so praises.
They cannot see what so many of the faithful little ones do see with their faith. The truly faithful Catholic, learned or unlearned, understands with the spiritual instinct of the Holy Spirit that the truth of the faith and the truth of the Church does not ultimately depend upon the character, sanctity or wisdom of the shepherds or the support of the intellectuals, but her truth stands upon the sanctity, wisdom and absolute fidelity of the Lord who sends the whole Church forth to proclaim the undiluted Gospel to the whole world. And so it surprises unbelievers, and especially the unbelieving intelligentsia, that many simple Catholics can make these distinctions and then ground their lives and activity firmly on the Church’s teachings and not on the teachers, at least if they turn out to be bad shepherds and bad teachers.
They can do this because such “little ones” truly possess a rock solid faith in Christ and His promises. It is this kind of faith that Christ marveled at, the pure and humble faith which enables them to grasp what the learned and the clever often fail to grasp: the divine character of the truth of God’s revelation, including the truth about the Church, what it is, and where it is. Do you recall Christ ever marveling at the learning of anyone?
In Franco Zeffirelli’s famous movie, Jesus of Nazareth, this offbeat director interestingly chose to portray just one of the apostles 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 reveals something, perhaps unintendedly, about what went wrong after the 2nd Vatican Council, and what has always been a problem for the Church, beginning with the rebellion of the Jewish intelligentsia against Christ himself.
Finally, while both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II are widely recognized by the intellectual world at large as great intellectuals in their own right, still, both of these gifted popes also had a great affinity and affection for the simple faithful, which was unmistakable. And they are still loved by masses of simple, faithful Catholics, and, paradoxically, they are often still despised in the Church’s own academies of higher learning.
That last mentioned fact perhaps speaks volumes about what is still wrong today in the life of the Church, but the other fact, that they were and still are loved by the faithful, both learned and simple Catholics alike, also holds out much hope for the future. In the end, it really is the humble and the simple who are blessed with an indestructible faith, as Jesus himself testifies in today’s Gospel, and these little ones really are a bulwark of the Church. After all, they ultimately have sufficient numbers and the great faith to survive even the latest “trahison des clercs.” And so it is that Christ protects their faith, the faith of the Church, and so these little ones bear great witness to Christ. That is the way that the Church survives and moves forward in every age.