This morning I gave this homily to the association of the parochial and diocesan schools of the Manila Archdiocese (MAPSA). I mentioned to them that if there is one form of intelligence that we should consciously nurture in our Catholic educational institutions, it is SPIRITUAL INTELLIGENCE. In the context of modern secularism there is a tendency to overlook this essential aspect of education. You might be wondering what I mean. I am talking about the age-old discipline called DISCERNMENT.
Discernment is what Jesus observed as seriously lacking in his detractors in our Gospel reading today. Imagine, they had just witnessed how Jesus had liberated a person from enslavement by an evil spirit. Instead of seeing the Holy Spirit at work in the man who had been healed, they attribute it to Beelzebul, the prince of demons.
In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus has even stronger words to say against the attitude of his detractors (Mt 12:31). He calls it a “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which, he says, is “unforgiveable.” (The thought that the Redeemer himself whom we call the face of the forgiving God should speak about an unforgiveable sin makes me shudder.)
When people cannot even distinguish anymore between right and wrong, good and evil, truth or falsehood, it can only mean their consciences are not functioning. Jesus is grieved by this serious spiritual disease. Sometimes he calls it a “hardening of the heart”. In medicine they’d probably call it a “sklerocarditis”, not of the physical but of the spiritual kind.
How would you even expect people in this kind of spiritual disposition to realize their error and seek forgiveness for it? When people attribute to the devil what is from God or to God what is from the evil one, it can only mean that they have become so blind. They have made it next to impossible for the Holy Spirit to lead them to the grace of conversion and the blessing of receiving God’s forgiveness.
In this age of digital technology, when students have as much access to information as teachers do, what they need most is not more information but the capacity to discern the distinction between INFORMATION, MISINFORMATION and DISINFORMATION. Nowadays, anyone can produce a very convincing video whose goal is not just the revision but even the distortion of history. They can suddenly resurrect villains and portray them as heroes. Their goal is to promote a kind of historical amnesia or an alzheimer’s disease of a different sort—the kind that makes us “dismember” rather than remember.
In the modern social media, many people have the tendency to take something as truth just because it has gone viral and has garnered a million views, a hundred thousand shares, and tens of thousands of comments. If our students are among the gullible “likers” and “sharers”, or the kind who will put a heart on something totally false or obnoxious, it can only mean we probably have not bothered to include the discipline of discernment in their education.
You see, many of our young social media users are not even aware that some of the “people” they encounter virtually on various social media platforms are not real people. They are told by their parents to avoid talking to strangers but they interact daily with virtual strangers who maintain hundreds of fake accounts on FB, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. They are often not even aware that they are dealing with a lot of scammers, trolls and cybercriminals who operate online. They have no way of telling them out. And yet it does not even take a lot of intelligence to distinguish between real or legitimate account holders and trolls who are paid a lot of money precisely to disseminate fake news or vicious political propaganda and whose main task is to control public opinion.
So why should we be surprised when many legitimate social media users end up mimicking the behavior of trolls, posting abusive comments, hurling cuss words, giving vent to the urge to actually imitate the language of bullies who may have psychologically abused them before?
In a pandemic situation where much of the education that our schools facilitate is happening through online learning, we have to shift our gears with regard to our approaches to education. The Lord once warned his disciples to “be innocent as doves and clever as serpents.” You see, the devil enjoys playing around with naive people. Satan is the type who, instead of immediately telling plain lies, usually begins with a few half-truths that he gradually twists into lies.
Remember that line that he threw at Eve in the form of a question? “Is it true that the Lord forbids you from eating of any of the fruits of the trees in this garden?” Half of it is true—that the Lord had set a prohibition, and the other half is false, that it applied to all the fruit-bearing trees in the garden. In fact, Eve would defend God in her answer by correcting the serpent’s false statement, which now gives the serpent the occasion to make a malicious insinuation.
First, he makes her feel good about asserting what she knows. But he will exploit this chance to put malice in her mind about God’s intention—that maybe God had kept from them what HE KNEW about the mystery of that fruit. That it had the power to open their eyes and make them like gods, who would know good and evil. That was all that it took for the serpent to be able to manipulate them into obeying, him instead of God.
And so you see why promoting rational knowledge in our schools is not enough? Do you see also why graduating with honors in a Catholic school is not a guarantee that our alumni will not use the intelligence that their alma maters had helped them develop for evil purposes, for corruption and for the politics of powerplay? You see, it also takes a lot of intelligence to be corrupt.
I know that many modern people are no longer that used to the language of angels and demons. Part of the wisdom of learning to deal with spiritual allies and adversaries is that we will never treat fellow human beings as enemies. Part of the wisdom of the Christian faith is the basic presupposition that all human beings are by nature good, even though we are capable of so much evil. We are taught to distinguish between the sin and the sinner, between person and action.
It was St. Ignatius who perfected what he called the strategies that we need to learn when engaging in spiritual warfare. After his conversion experience, he shifted quickly from literal soldiering to figurative or spiritual soldiering, applying the strategies and tactics that he had learn in the battles that he had fought, in the day to day struggles with the Evil one. Through the regular disciplines of prayer and discernment as contained in his famous Spiritual Exercises, he honed in his companions the gift of spiritual intelligence, teaching them to familiarize themselves with the movements of spirits from either sides of the spiritual realm.
I have mentioned on many occasions that we your bishops and priests should humbly admit that we have failed in the formation of consciences. This failure has serious implications in society, such as in the incapacity of many of our faithful to distinguish between a gift and a bribe, between praise and flattery, between self-confidence and arrogance, between humility and low self-esteem.
The few months ahead of us before the coming elections in May 2022 are a perfect opportunity to renew our commitment to the our participation in the formation of young people in spiritual intelligence, which should be the foundation of all other intelligences.