Editor’s Note: This article was originally accepted for publication in August, 2014. Due to changes in the administration of Seminary Journal, its print publication was delayed. 

The origin of this article is a formation conference that I delivered to seminarians in the pre-theology program at the Pontifical College Josephinum back in 2007. At that time, several seminarians were requesting a conference from the formation directors on the topic of intellectual pride. I volunteered to deliver the conference, not because I wanted to harangue the seminarians, but because in my own familiarity with this particular sin of the intellectual life I thought I might be able to offer some reflections to men involved in serious academic study where intellectual pride is always a danger. If a seminarian succumbs to this danger it can severely limit the benefits that he can derive from seminary formation, and in turn, he can pose a danger to himself and others in his future pastoral ministry. This article, based on the conference, is written from the perspective of a theologian, and not a clinician or a therapist. As such it is written in a manner that denotes theological and personal reflections instead of clinical judgments.

Defining Intellectual Pride

Intellectual pride can be thought of as a disposition of conceit and arrogance according to which I think that I already know all that I need to know. Thus intellectual pride is an unhealthy confidence in my own level of knowledge. Blinded by intellectual pride I can convince myself that I know more than I really do. I can also convince myself that I know more than others, even those from whom I am supposed to learn. Even if I happen to be quite learned, intellectual pride causes me to prioritize my point of view over anyone else’s, fostering conceit, pompousness, and elitism in my soul. In this way, intellectual pride involves an unhealthy attachment to my own opinions and view of reality, being convinced that my perceptions and judgments are the only ones that are correct. In the extreme, if I allow intellectual pride to increase within me unchecked, I can subtly and implicitly convince myself that I even know more than God because, ultimately, I know how God ought to do things. In this way, intellectual pride is most certainly an aspect of the “pride of life” spoken of in 1 John 2:16. It is good for seminarians to recall that it is the sin of intellectual pride that is at the root of all heresies, and that all of the major heresies in the history of the Church were started by ordained ministers. 

Negatively, one can define intellectual pride as a lack of humility, the virtue that allows me to have a truthful and accurate knowledge of who I am in relation to God. If I am guilty of intellectual pride, I often conveniently overlook the truth that God is everything, that He made me from nothing, and that anything good in me is a gift from God for which I must be profoundly grateful.  Intellectual pride also entails a lack of docility, the virtue that prompts me to be teachable. If I am guilty of intellectual pride I am reluctant to assume the posture of a true learner because I think I already know the truth, or at least as much of the truth as I deem essential to know. Intellectual pride is therefore destructive of true intellectual growth and of Christian discipleship. 

Some Causes of Intellectual Pride

While the causes of intellectual pride are numerous, a few of the origins of this vice should be discussed openly in the context of seminary formation. Obviously, being over-affirmed in youth can foster intellectual pride. If I have suffered from spoiled-child syndrome, or “Johnny can do no wrong,” this can certainly lead me to believe that I know more or better than others. This type of over-confidence, having its origins in an overinflated ego, is very difficult to remediate. Yet, it needs to be addressed in seminary formation if a man is going to benefit from his time in seminary and grow to be an effective pastor.

Although it can be fostered by being overly affirmed, intellectual pride can also have its origin in a sense of inadequacy or insecurity. If I lack a sense of self-worth, then my presuming to know more than others and posturing myself as an authority may be used as a defense mechanism or “deflector shield.” This type of behavior can be heightened in an all-male environment, which inevitably breeds competition and the almost instinctual need to compare myself to others to see if I measure up.

Related to insecurity, the fear of being wrong or falling into error can also be a source of intellectual pride. If this is my struggle, I tend to overreact to the slightest hint of error, or what I perceive to be an error, without listening to further explanations because I am ultimately afraid of being corrupted by falsehood. This reactionary and defensive disposition can arise out of a fear that I don’t have all the answers when I sense that the truth is being challenged, whether it really is or not. This can be a common struggle for nascent converts or for those who have an “awakening” to the truth of the faith. Having acknowledged that my past life was lacking in truth, I can become hyper-sensitive to being wrong, because deep down I am afraid of being wrong ever again.

Intellectual pride can also result from bitterness over having been denied the truth. If I perceive that I have had the truth unjustly withheld from me, I can overreact by becoming overly tenacious for the truth. I can even become an intellectual “pit-bull.” I can become so angry and bitter over the injustice of not being presented with the truth, now that I have it, not only will I never let the truth go, but I will make sure that everyone else gets the truth, whether they want it or not. I treat intellectual arguments like no-holds-barred wrestling matches and make sure than no one leaves my presence without being told what it right, and wrestled into intellectual submission so I can claim victory.

A distorted sense of zeal for the truth can also be a source of intellectual pride. With this type of zeal, I see the truth as a club to wield instead of as an undeserved gift to be shared with others in order to lead them to freedom and happiness in Christ. This zeal is a certain type of Phariseeism according to which I think I have mastered the law and how to apply it, without seeing and seeking to reveal God’s mercy through the law (Mt 23:4). It is also a sort of Saduceeism according to which I set myself up as the ruling class and fail to see the power of God because I try to control Him and His truth for my own purposes or agenda. My zeal is not so much for others to come to a knowledge of the truth that sets them free (John 8:32) as it is a zeal for me to be right. Thus, again, my zeal is really a form of intellectual elitism. And, it should be noted that this elitism can exist equally among those who view themselves as progressives or conservatives (political labels which in reality have little meaning when discussing matters of faith, where the real issue is truth).

Results of Intellectual Pride

If I succumb to intellectual pride, this vice can lead to behaviors and attitudes that result in my becoming a barrier rather than a bridge for others to come to know Jesus. First of all, I become excessively judgmental, measuring others according to my own rigid standards of orthodoxy, which are not necessarily the Church’s standards. I become convinced that I know how to fix what is wrong with the Church and the world, implicitly prioritizing my own ecclesial agenda. While imposing these personal ideologies or agendas (whether they be “left” or “right”) I can end up categorizing anyone who disagrees with me as unfaithful or even heretical. I can also be unwilling to impute charitable motives to others whose behavior is objectively sinful or whose intellectual positions are manifestly false, preferring to simply write them off as unfaithful. Thus judging according to my own personal ecclesial standards I can become an ideologue.

Intellectual pride can also lead me to be excessively militant. By this I mean that my conviction that I am right leads me to wield the truth like a hammer, beating people over the head with it until they submit. This militant disposition seeks conquest and not conversion through love. Adopting this militant and serious approach to the faith, I become a proponent of an “in-your-face” Catholicism according to which I seek to “out Catholic” everyone else. This type of militant, strident, and aggressive practice of my Catholic faith not only lacks charity, but it also underutilizes or ignores the virtue of prudence to transmit the beauty of the truth.

Sadly, intellectual pride also results in isolation. This occurs because I have set myself up as an island, always judging the rectitude (or lack thereof) of others. If intellectual pride becomes habitual, I will find it hard to maintain friendships because I lack love in my approach to the truth and will consequently alienate others. I will be intolerant of perceived flaws in my friends and will not be able to deal with disagreements in a respectful manner. I will also lack the ability to be appropriately vulnerable in personal relationships because of my unbending adherence to my prideful positions.

Ultimately, intellectual pride inhibits my ability to grow in any area of formation. I will be resistant to human formation because I am convinced that I am already a well-integrated person. Furthermore, I will be threatened by the thought that I might not “have it all together” and therefore will be reluctant to be introspective. I will derive minimal benefit from intellectual formation because I think I know all that I need to know. Any questions I ask will be mostly by way of challenge instead of by way of honest inquiry. I limit my progress in the spiritual life because it would cause me too much turmoil if God would act in a way that is not according to my expectations. My spiritual life also suffers because I tend to over-intellectualize the faith. Finally, I limit my ability to grow in the area of pastoral formation because I am more worried about “being right” than I am about truly understanding others and being willing to suffer with them. I invalidate others’ feelings because they are wrong and I am right, and that is all that matters. Adopting this disposition, I cannot share in another’s sufferings, and therefore I cannot exhibit true compassion, as long as I am concerned about judging them.

Personal Reflections

I think that intellectual pride is a particular temptation for those who have lived the majority of their lives as post-Vatican II Catholics. Falling into this category, I have had my own struggles with intellectual pride. Although I was born a Catholic, I did not receive any substantive catechesis before my high school years. Upon being convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, I adopted a very militant and strident posture, constantly judging the orthodoxy of others and adopting an “us vs. them” mentality regarding faithful Catholics versus everyone else. This attitude continued into my college years as my adherence to doctrinal purity caused me to be suspicious of others, especially those who claimed to be Catholic.

When I decided to pursue graduate studies in theology, I had a graduate school professor call me a “hand grenade thrower,” explaining that he thought I treated the truth like a hand grenade that should be thrown into a room. He noted my combativeness and the fact that I was preoccupied with winning intellectual arguments instead of communicating the beauty of God’s truth. I was guilty of a definite lack of charity in wielding the truth, and in fact did not mind the idea of heretics suffering for their errors. When another wise graduate school professor told our class, “Students will forget ninety percent of what you tell them, but they will never forget how you make them feel in your presence,” I thought this advice was little more than pious drivel. However, I can now acknowledge the truth and importance of this statement, and looking back, it is also clear to me that many of my rigidly adhered to positions had nothing to do with doctrinal orthodoxy, but were based in intellectual pride.

Although the pitfalls of intellectual pride were becoming clearer to me, it was during my first faculty appointment that I realized the need to change. During my first few weeks of teaching in my first full-time position, I approached a seasoned faculty colleague to ask her what advice she would give me as a new teacher. This holy Dominican sister looked me in the eyes and simply said, “Love your students.” She went on to say that she sensed some militancy in me, and that I needed to stop wielding the truth as a weapon, or feeling like I had to defend the truth. Instead, she explained that my job was to present the truth as one would present honey to bees. The bees do not need to be forced to accept the honey; they simply need to be presented with it in all its sweetness. This wise professor explained that by presenting the truth in this manner I would be loving my students. She went on to say that I also needed to be vulnerable enough to allow my students to love me in return. Another long-time professor reminded me that I do not know enough about my students to judge them. He explained that I simply needed to stand confidently in the truth without alienating others. He reminded me that if others turned away from the truth of Jesus Christ it should not be because of me. All of this advice was incredibly helpful to a new professor and should be helpful to anyone struggling with intellectual pride.

Once I began teaching in seminary, intellectual pride became a temptation in another way. Surrounded by people who were convinced of the truth of the faith, I wanted to prove myself. Largely out of insecurity, I wanted to evidence my intellectual ability to my students and to my faculty colleagues. However, I soon realized that this too was a form of intellectual pride because it presented a type of exhibitionism that threw the focus onto me instead of onto Jesus.

Antidotes to Intellectual Pride

The first antidote to intellectual pride is to truly trust in the truth. It is necessary to believe that not only can no one hurt the truth, but that God has also not given me the responsibility to keep it from being attacked. God needs me to invite others to encounter Him, not protect Him. Furthermore, when God’s truth is attacked, I need to understand that the times for outright rebuke will be very few and far between. I should recall that on the occasions that Jesus rebuked others he sought to correct, but not to offend. Likewise, I must always respond in love, seeking to show others the beauty of what they are attacking.

Another remediation of intellectual pride involves adopting a disposition of gratitude. Instead of acting as if I am the arbiter or guardian of the truth, I need to be grateful for the gift of the truth. I need to acknowledge that the truth is a gift that I have received and that it does not belong to me. Furthermore, I serve this gift by presenting its beauty with uncompromising clarity and charity, not by acting as its overlord or wielding it as a weapon.

Adopting gratitude fosters the virtue of humility because I know “it’s not about me” or about me being right. Instead, being grateful for the gift of the truth I will know myself as a child of God and experience His love. I need to contemplate the humility of Jesus (Mt 11:29), the Word made flesh, who humbled himself to be born a helpless child and later presented us with children as the model disciples (Mt 18:3). I should recall that in perfect humility Jesus never lashed out or became defensive with those who attacked Him, who is Truth himself. I must ask for humility as the most desired virtue. I need to examine my conscience frequently, always being willing to consider that I might be wrong or that I might be misunderstanding those who appear to me to be in error. Even if I confirm that they are in error, my reaction should be to pray for them, and impute charitable motives on their behalf. If I find myself guilty of intellectual pride, I need to confess this sin and ask for an increase in humility.

A corollary to praying for an increase in the virtue of humility is to pray for an increase in docility. I need to pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace of docility, the virtue to be teachable, to allow myself to be led into a deeper knowledge of and experience of the truth instead of presuming that I have mastered it. Docility allows me to assume the disposition of a true learner at the feet of Jesus.

Growing in gratitude, humility, and docility will lead to gentleness both with myself and with others. I will realize that although I can never compromise the truth, I need not have all of the answers, and I will cease being overly demanding of myself. I will further realize that the gift of God’s truth is not meant to be wielded as a hammer, but instead is the sweetest honey. Then I will allow myself to delight in this sweetness, rest in God’s love, and invite others to experience this rest with me.

Living a life of faith is about more than just the intellect. Furthermore, proud intellects foster hard hearts. To keep from fostering hard hearts, seminarians need to be encouraged to pray for the grace to overcome intellectual pride. If they pray for this grace, seminarians will be more open to the formation, intellectual and otherwise, that the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish in them.

Dr. Perry Cahall is Professor of Historical Theology and Academic Dean of the School of Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH. He is the author of The Mystery of Marriage: A Theology of the Body and the Sacrament and Living the Mystery of Marriage: Building Your Sacramental Life Together.