Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

…as I went away, I thought to myself, “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” [Apologia 21d]


Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes Translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb., vol. 1 (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1966).

Knowing less than you think you do is a dangerous situation to be in. It leads a person to act on what they wrongly think is real. When this happens, people reach wrong conclusions, perform the wrong actions, assume the wrong motives. The result is some sort of harm done to oneself or others. 

In some fields, it is apparent to most people when they are in over their heads. Take medicine. Doctors study for years to learn how the body functions, how it can go wrong, and how it can be made right—but even with all that knowledge, mistakes can be made. Now imagine the average person thinking he knows more about medicine than he does. Such a person might guess how to handle a simpler diagnosis, but not always. The more complicated the procedure, the more likely this person is to commit an error, and the more serious the condition, the more serious the consequences of an error.

Most of us know our limitations when it comes to obviously technical fields. But in other fields—especially when it comes out to determining the truth of how we ought to live—people act as if they are experts. They pass judgment on what they think is right, with no consideration as to whether their knowledge of truth or the situation might be lacking.

This is especially the case when it comes to determining the moral way to live. Human beings, by nature, tend to interpret things based on what they want. The assumption is that what they want is good, and those who interfere with that want is bad.

But, if you’re a parent who’s had to childproof a house, you know that what a child wants and what is good for the child are two different things. The child wants to put dangerous items into their mouth, or stick their fingers in dangerous places. He or she resents the parent interfering. The parent’s rules keeps them alive and eventually the child learns why the parent made the rules, learning it is not arbitrary, but based on truth about what causes harm.

In a similar manner, the person who rebels against the moral rules, thinking they know better, endangers souls and sometimes bodies. In assuming that the one who issues these rules are wrong, they think they know more than they do. To be clear, I’m not talking about a blind adherence to any rule. Yes, it is important to understand what the rules are. But it is also important to understand why the rules exist.

This is especially true when the Church teaches. As Catholics, we know that the Church has authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Because of that, we know that Church teachings create a boundary between living as we ought and living contrary to what we ought. But if we don’t understand the reasons for the teaching, we run the risk of resenting those rules or of reading more restrictions into the rules than actually exist.

Take, for example, the Church teaching on social and economic justice. Certain Catholics resent these teachings—they’re at odds with their political preferences—and say that the Church should work on saving souls, not meddling in politics. The problem is, the person who says this is ignorant of our obligation as Christians to create a society that is just and not a hardship to do what is right. As Vatican II points out:

5. Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.


Catholic Church, “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: Apostolicam Actuositatem,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

Reforming society is not separate from our mission to save souls—it’s part of that mission. But if we’re ignorant of the what and why of Church teaching, we can end up fighting the Church while thinking our actions right. 

And that’s a major danger. Whether it is a liberal Catholic who resents teaching on sexual morality or a conservative Catholic who resents a social justice teaching, we have a person who thinks they know more than they do and demands that the Church follow his lead. But, because they know less than they think they do, it is dangerous to put trust in their views.

Laxity is not the only danger. Rigorism is another danger. When we start thinking that only those who act like us can be saved without considering whether the Church allows for more options in being faithful, we can wind up falsely accusing the faithful of error. We can start assuming that mercy is the enemy of justice. So, when the Church shows mercy, we run the risk of resenting it instead of rejoicing.

We cannot start to set limits on God’s behalf; the very heart of the faith has been lost to anyone who supposes that it is only worthwhile, if it is, so to say, made worthwhile by the damnation of others. Such a way of thinking, which finds the punishment of other people necessary, springs from not having inwardly accepted the faith; from loving only oneself and not God the Creator, to whom his creatures belong. That way of thinking would be like the attitude of those people who could not bear the workers who came last being paid a denarius like the rest; like the attitude of people who feel properly rewarded only if others have received less. This would be the attitude of the son who stayed at home, who could not bear the reconciling kindness of his father. It would be a hardening of our hearts, in which it would become clear that we were only looking out for ourselves and not looking for God; in which it would be clear that we did not love our faith, but merely bore it like a burden.


Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, ed. Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnür, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 35–36.

From what I have observed watching critics who want to “purify” the Church is they don’t seem to grasp the mission of the Church. Some of them want to reduce the Church to a charitable organization that discards the demands of morality Others want to turn the Church into an exclusive club where they are members, but sinners of a certain type are excluded—that type generally reduced to those who commit different sins from what the critic thinks acceptable.

Neither group seems to remember that the Church was established for bringing Our Lord’s salvation to the world. Neither group seems to remember that we need that salvation ourselves. The temptation is to demand the immediate repentance of others while deciding our own sins are not sins or are not important enough to repent of.

I think this ultimately describes the danger we face in not knowing that we don’t know—that our lives require a constant turning back to God, and that we cannot write off the sinner we deem worse than us.  Our Lord warned the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of Heaven before them. (Matthew 21:31b). Our Lord didn’t say that because he thought they were morally good. He said that because they were repenting while the Pharisees thought they had nothing to repent of.

In other words, the Pharisees did not know that they did not know how God was calling them to live. As a result, they assumed whatever was different from their views was error. When we err in that manner, refusing to hear the Church (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16) we are ignorant about our ignorance. But since we, as Catholics, have no excuse for not knowing that Our Lord made the Church necessary and authoritative, our ignorance is vincible and can endanger our souls. And that is more dangerous than not knowing that we know nothing about medicine.

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