The Spirituality of Study


In 1975, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Paul VI issued a document on a theme that has come to dominate the language and thought of the modern Church. It was entitled, On Evangelization in the Modern Word. Quoting a previous document, the pope reminded us,

“We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.”

He then wrote,

“Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity.”

From the pontificate of Paul VI to the present time, we have heard and seen countless references to what is now called, the “New Evangelization.” It is an expression that, unfortunately, has been used ad nauseam, to the point that it has lost the force of its actual meaning. The New Evangelization has now come to include not evangelizing, not bringing the faith to non-believers, but rather, celebrating the immense diversity of theological and religious viewpoints in some sort of ecumenical inter-religious spasmodic fit.

The Church must evangelize because she has been commissioned by Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel to all people – without exception – that they may be saved by the truth and grace of God. This also implies a seemingly unmentionable teaching of the Church: the possibility of the eternal loss of salvation. The world needs the Church to evangelize, because the world needs the Gospel of salvation.  To state what should be obvious, then – Christ sent the Church to teach and preach to non-believers.  She must do far more than merely make the Gospel available to those interested.  She must also bring it to those who are definitely not interested in it, and offer it, therefore, with persuasive arguments.  None of this entails force of any kind, for the Church is commissioned to draw souls to God, not drag them kicking and screaming.

In the same document, Pope Paul VI stated,

“The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.”

The importance of this last statement cannot be emphasized enough. If the Church is to preach and teach the truth of the Gospel, then her individual members must first be evangelized. They must be prepared to evangelize others by being thoroughly instructed themselves in the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith. One cannot effectively bear witness to a faith of which one is ignorant. The required knowledge can be gained in part by attending lectures and listening to recorded presentations, but it is gained primarily by assiduous personal study.

Tragically, Catholics often have an aversion for study. The notion of spending an hour or two reading the Bible, Catechism, magisterial documents, or other essential sources of Catholic truth, is considered mundane and unspiritual, as if such intellectual activities were a danger to personal faith and devotion. Supposedly, the truly pious Catholic – the one who loves God deeply and prays to Him fervidly – should not be attracted to reading religious books because the intellectual life is, by nature, a threat to the spiritual life. This is perhaps the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard from fellow Catholics. It’s detrimental to the mission of the Church and, therefore, to every confirmed Catholic’s dutiful participation in that mission.

I’ve often heard Catholics say, “I’m not an intellectual person. I have a simple faith and that’s enough for me.”  This statement reveals a laxity disguised as piety.

If you have an intellect, then you are an intellectual!  The only question is, will you use your intellect for sacred purposes, or only for profane purposes?

Why should every Catholic study the faith with substantial depth? For many reasons, but let me mention only two. First, because, if you truly love someone, you will seek out every means of coming to know that person better. We come to better know God – motivated primarily by a love for Him – by studying the record of His Word, the Bible, and the writings of His Church, including the Fathers, the great theologians and commentators, the catechisms, and the documents of the magisterium. These teachings are available on all levels of difficulty, from simple to sophisticated.  In coming to know God better through study and prayer, we enable ourselves to love Him more by knowing and understanding more about the salvific plan that is the Gospel.  That is, we acquire more reasons to love Him.  As St. Faustina wrote in her diary,

“I took part in this retreat, as I very much desire to know God more deeply and to love Him more ardently, for I have understood that the greater the knowledge, the stronger the love” (#974).

In coming to better know God, we also learn how He wants us to live – what we should do, and equally important, what we should not do.  For we cannot serve a God whose will is unknown to us due, not to His silence, but to our ignorance.  Ignorance is not a form of intellectual purity; rather, it is the result of mental sloth.  It is due to a laziness of the mind.

This first reason for studying the faith concerns our own sanctification and salvation, but so does the second reason. We should study also so that, knowing the faith well, we will then be able to effectively bring it to others. For a full two thousand years, the world has been sharpening and refining its methods and arguments to an impressive degree in opposition to the faith. The world is brilliant at resisting and undermining the Christian religion, and its dedication to the cause puts us to shame.  Responding to such arguments requires serious preparation through study, including both biblical catechesis and apologetics. We must know how to explain the faith and also how to defend it. This will make us effective missionaries in the New Evangelization, in the battle for souls waged by the spiritual army that is the Church of Jesus Christ.  Such study is not some sort of dry insipid exercise for high brows.  Rather, it is an act of devotion to God and to the truth He has purposefully revealed to us.  Which is to imply yet another truth: namely, the only person who is served by religious ignorance is the devil, who revels to see the human mind deprived of Gospel truth and absorbed primarily in the things of this world.  For religious ignorance is not a virtue, but a vice with awful consequences.

In other words, we must know the faith first for our own salvation, and second, for the salvation of others. And yet, our own salvation is actually dependent on our personal witness to Jesus Christ before others and on striving to bring salvation to others. Salvation is not an individual solitary pursuit, but a matter both of the love of God and the love of others. Hence, the person who says, “I’m not an intellectual person. I have my simple faith, and that’s enough for me,” has quite a self-centered view of the whole scheme of salvation. As if to say, “I’ve got mine. What else or who else do I care about?”

The highest purpose to which one can devote the human mind is the contemplation of God and His truth. It would be sacrilegious, then, to reserve the mind entirely for mundane things – for work, business, culture, politics, and recreation – to the neglect of the things of God. True piety requires that we make use of all that God has given us for His glory and His purposes. And this certainly includes the human intellect, which is the highest faculty possessed by man; it is the “place” where the individual knows God and has a relationship with Him.  It is entirely proper, then, to speak of the spirituality of study, and many teachings of the faith could be cited in support of this notion.

The Sermon on the Mount (found in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapters 5-7) is the most complete and elaborate body of our Lord’s teachings found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, the popular view holds that this sermon is a impenetrable theological treatise for sophisticated scholars alone. And yet, the Sermon on the Mount was addressed by Jesus to the crowds of ordinary folk. They constituted His regular and most devoted audience. Jesus constantly instructed the people and declared that He was sent by the Father to teach the masses. This teaching continued, not only until the Last Supper, but even beyond it to the Ascension. And in those last few moments before He departed this world, what did He do?   He commissioned His Church to go out and baptize and teach.

How strange it would be – considering the tremendous importance that Christ placed on teaching – if it were not equally important for us to receive this teaching, to learn its contents. Such an arrangement would make no sense whatsoever; which is to say that Christ’s primary activity during His public ministry would have been a pointless waste of time and effort.

On the contrary, it is the revealed will of Christ that we should study His teachings and learn from the Church their meaning. We must do this for our own salvation and for the salvation of others. In other words – as Pope Paul VI stated – we must first be evangelized ourselves, and then we must evangelize others. Such is the authentic Catholic program.

Study is not unspiritual; rather, it is profoundly spiritual and a participation in the divine plan of salvation. For, again, in order to witness to the faith, we must know the faith, and in order to correct the many lies told about Catholic teaching, we must know what the Church really teaches, and not merely in a vague or general way. The view held by many Catholics that a state of ignorance is equivalent to a state of purity – this will find no precedent in the teachings of the Holy Gospel. Religious ignorance renders a person substantially useless in the divine plan, but quite useful in the diabolical one.  It makes us “useful idiots” in the hopeless demonic attempt to prevent the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Now consider the Church’s catechetical tradition. Of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, four especially concern the intellect: wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. Consider also the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. Three are especially intellectual: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, and admonishing sinners. Finally, consider the sacrament of Confirmation. At #1303 the Catechism says,

“[Confirmation] gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the cross.”

In light of this excerpt, an unavoidable question comes to mind: Considering the dedication and sophistication of those who seek to refute Catholic doctrine and confuse even the faithful, how effectively will a poorly instructed Catholic be able to “spread and defend the faith?” Not effectively at all. Ignorance will terribly hinder them in the complicated cause of evangelizing others, and it will even render them vulnerable to the clever arguments of anti-Catholics. The most immediate proof of this is seen in the success with which the promoters of same-sex “marriage” have transformed a large portion of the Catholic population into a reliable voting bloc. This is Catholic ignorance on display, and it will have a devastating effect in the very near future on religious freedom, on our freedom not merely to worship, but to publicly proclaim the Gospel and openly debate the moral issues of our age.

Will the Holy Spirit compensate for this ignorance? Should we wait for the proverbial bolt of lightening through which the Spirit will supernaturally infuse into our minds a deep knowledge of the mysteries of faith? On the contrary, the Holy Spirit gives us grace – moral conviction and the supernatural strength to act on it – so that we may overcome the sloth that renders us too lazy to study.

It is the teaching of both Scripture and Tradition that we should strive to acquire a deep knowledge of the Catholic faith. It is the will of God that we should possess this knowledge, and the Holy Spirit assists us with many gifts and graces related to it. To learn the faith, to study divinely revealed truth and constantly meditate on it, is exceedingly spiritual. To dedicate oneself to such a lofty pursuit is to consecrate one’s mind to God; it is to sanctify one’s intellect with the truths of the God who is Truth Himself.

“He who has ears, let him hear.”