Priests Need to Study

A while ago, I was given the task of explaining why priests ought to study. As preparation for this presentation, I studied the nature of knowledge in general. In doing so, I came across a remarkable observation in Time magazine (June 10, 1935), by a former chancellor of New York University — in praise of ignorance. He pointed out that Samuel Morse would never have been able to invent the telegraph, the precursor to the telephone and all other electronic communication systems, had he studied the science of his day.

The chancellor said, “Samuel F.B. Morse’s ignorance of the best scientific thought a century ago saved him from impediments in his early experiments with the telegraph.” Furthermore, “Had Morse been a physicist with a physicist’s specialized knowledge of [contemporary] theory. . .it is quite possible that his great plan. . .might never have passed beyond the stage of a dinner-table conversation. It reminds me of the validity of a recent saying by Mr. Owen D. Young that ‘our greatest assets are the things we do not know.’” Thus, in light of this statement, from none less than Mr. Owen D. Young — I do not know who he is, but he sounds important — I propose to give you some reasons why priests don’t need to study.

1. Study wastes time. You could be doing real good for people instead of sitting inside all day staring at ink on a page. Recall what Jesus says in the book of Matthew: “When I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was in prison, you visited me.” He does not say, “When I was hungry, you studied; when I was thirsty, you wrote a paper; when I was in prison, you read a book.”

Now some people might say that we should study first and, second, perform good actions: first contemplate, then do charitable works. But this leads me to my next point.

2. Study is boring. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon — the wisest man who ever lived — said, “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18). He also said, “Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness to the flesh” (12:12).

Sure, people talk about the pleasure of learning new things, and some say that we all have a wonder and curiosity about the world that is like an itch that never goes away, but we all know how difficult learning is. Instead of boring yourself to death — and God doesn’t want you to be distracted or sleepy — why not do something you enjoy, like chatting about the haircuts of Hollywood stars or a politician’s latest flub?

3. Study is about learning from others, which means “it’s not about you.” People enjoy hearing your speculations. Whether preaching or giving personal advice, ignorance is always a sure way into a person’s heart. People think you are such a genius that they would rather hear you make up something on the spot than for you to parrot someone else.

Knowledge is old and dead, but your ideas are alive with zip, buzz, and pizzazz. You don’t want to be weighed down by other people’s thoughts, and your audience is breathlessly waiting to hear even the smallest, unformed, barely cogent idea that just occurred to you. If you must study, why not be efficient at it and let others do the heavy lifting for you. You would be practicing what economists call the division of labor. Why hone your understanding of some theological subject when, with half the work, you can seem like an expert?

4. Study means teaching. Your job isn’t to teach people new things or to put things they already know in a new light. Your job is to make them feel good about themselves, to affirm their prejudices, and to not budge them out of their ruts. You don’t want to make your congregation unhappy; that might mean losing money or esteem.

If you study, that means you’re getting ready to teach people things, and if you teach, that means that the people you know might have to change. And they don’t want to change! Let’s say some parishioners take your teaching to heart. If that happens, they might need your help in some way. Then you could be a lot busier than you already are.

So it would be better not to study, since study puts you on the road to teaching and all the hassles that entails. If people must learn, by all means let them learn — just not from you. In our age of communication, the average person has plenty of resources to consult: a local library, the Internet, television evangelists. Don’t these suffice?

5. Study can lead to pride. St. Paul warned the early Christians against vain speculations, and he specifically told the Corinthians that “knowledge puffs up, while charity edifies” (1 Cor 8:1). When a fellow studies too much, his head gets so big that he can’t bend down to help others without falling over. A motto of the world is, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” but few people are more annoying than know-it-alls. Very often, a man who gives unlooked-for advice can’t take any advice himself.

So avoid the dangers of vanity, and take pride in ignorance. Of course, some might say that having knowledge in itself is not bad, it’s just how we use it. They might point to God and say, “He knows everything and He’s perfectly good, so clearly knowledge doesn’t hurt Him.” To adequately answer this, we have look at the next point.

6. The Christian life is all about love, not facts and head-knowledge. The point of all study is to do something else — we don’t read for its own sake; we read to become better preachers, or to know God better, or for some other reason. Thus, reading is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. God doesn’t care about how much you know, but how much you love.

Yes, great priests, following St. Thomas Aquinas, never tire of repeating that “You can’t love what you don’t know.” They realize that knowledge is the basis of love, knowledge is the wood that makes the fire of love blaze higher, knowledge is the food that nourishes our charity. But instead of thinking about this, it would be easier to keep in mind that “Ignorance is bliss.”

7. God can help us even if we don’t study much. There were plenty of saints who were given special gifts of knowledge: St. John Vianney was a poor student, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the great Curé of Ars; St. Catherine of Siena had only a paltry education, but that didn’t stop her from writing her Dialogue or many feisty and intelligent letters to popes and cardinals. Can’t God infuse knowledge into you as well?

Additionally, the Holy Spirit can help you study. He can make up for the deficiencies in your study, and He can even give you knowledge completely apart from your study. So reading seems unnecessary, since there is always the gift of infused knowledge. Sure, the saints studied as much as they could, and they never relied on God to compensate for their laziness, but we’re not saints, are we?

8. If God had wanted priests to study, He would have commanded them to study. In all of my lack of reading, in all the Church Councils I didn’t bother to research, in the Catechism I didn’t touch, and in the Canon Law I ignored, I haven’t found one instance where God or the Church commands a priest to study. And, if I don’t read more and don’t listen what other people say, I’ll never find anything to contradict me.

Now, at this point, someone might say to me, “Father Ezra, you’ve convinced me that most priests don’t need to study, and if possible should avoid study. But sometimes I have to study, or at least I need to give the impression that I have studied. What should I do?”

To this I would reply: Don’t worry, my good man. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to get out of anything! If you refuse to study, you’re already halfway along the road to the place where fools reign as kings. In order to complete that journey, however, there are a number of specific things you can do.

First, avoid reading whenever possible. Never read something when you can get your opinions second-hand, and never learn from someone else when you can create your own ideas out of nothing. Next, always pontificate about ideas you don’t understand very well or grasp only vaguely. You don’t have to learn something that you can pretend to know.

If you feel that you cannot avoid reading, at least distract yourself while doing so: study while watching TV or look up from your book ever couple of minutes to check the weather outside. If, despite your best efforts, you feel knowledge seeping into your brain like water into a leaky building, don’t despair. You can still forget most of what you have learned.

Develop Powers of Forgetfulness

To develop your powers of forgetfulness, treat a new idea like food you can’t stand to eat: leave it alone. Don’t repeat new ideas to yourself or talk about them with others. Don’t ponder them or try to puzzle through their complexity. Instead of building upon what you already know and adopting a coherent system of thought and action, develop opinions and feelings about ideas that you can’t describe, explain or defend.

Finally, a word about the effects of not studying. If you follow the advice I have given, I am sure that you will develop a robust and healthy ignorance, an ignorance that will slowly develop into rashness and, if you apply yourself, into stubbornness and pride.

These vices — rashness, stubbornness, and pride — are important for everyone, but particularly for priests. With rashness, a person proclaims a doctrine he doesn’t adequately understand, which affects people in ways he cannot predict. With stubbornness, a person sticks to his opinions, prejudices and feelings for which he can give no account and to which he will stick despite good reasons to the contrary. With pride, a person lords his power and position over others. Since virtue is the natural “ecosystem” in which a priest thrives, these vices have to be cultivated in order for them to take root in your life.

In addition to alienating yourself from your parishioners — thereby gaining you more free time to devote to yourself — your lack of study will also alienate you from God.

All friendships thrive on communication. Through study, especially sacred study, when we delve into Scripture or the works of great saints and teachers, we become friends with the great Christians of the past, and with them we become friends with Christ himself. So if we do not study, our holy friendships are sure to waste away, which means that we won’t be bothered with all the troubles and heartache that relationships can bring.

In sum, if a priest does not read, he will be soon become like a man at a church conference that was headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller. The man began to rail about the evil effects of higher education, thanking God that his own mind had never been “polluted by contact with a university.”

Justice Fuller interrupted him: “Are we to understand that the speaker is thanking God for ignorance?”

“Well, yes, I suppose you can put it like that,” was the reply.

“In that case,” said Fuller, “the speaker has a lot to thank God for.”

FATHER SULLIVAN, O.P., a Dominican Friar of the Province of St. Joseph, is assistant pastor at St. Gertrude parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received his M.Div. degree from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C.