The arrogance complex

by Alice von Hildebrand

Chesterton wrote that the twentieth century was a century of “uncommon nonsense.” Had he lived longer, he could have added that it is a century characterized by complete confusion. Innumerable examples could be brought forward to illustrate this thesis, but I shall limit myself to just one that I shall call “the arrogance complex.”

When I started teaching at the City University in New York (a young foreign girl, coming from a sheltered Catholic background, totally unprepared for the challenges that teaching in a secular college would bring her), I was informed by one of my colleagues-suspecting rightly that I would not live up to the “spirit” of the foreign planet on which I had landed-that “it was arrogant to claim that truth was objective, that moral values were absolute, that one can know what is true or false, good or evil.” According to the ethics he was propounding, there was only one absolute: arrogance was absolutely intolerable.

In his view, to say that truth is objective was to claim that “one’s truth” was universally valid, and therefore could be imposed on other people. Such a claim was overbearing, anti-democratic and arrogant.

Apart from the fact that he was unwittingly reintroducing an absolute through the backdoor (namely, the evil of arrogance), the professor fell prey to a confusion. He lowered truth to the level of error.   Every man should be given a patent for his errors and mistakes, for these aberrations are truly his “private property.” But the proclamation that a statement is true precisely implies that it is not the “property” of the person stating it. By its very essence a truth cannot be a personal possession. Truth is not “mine,” but “ours.” A true statement is one that harmonizes with the fact to which it refers, and facts are not personal possessions. It may happen that one man can see it whereas another is blind to it, but the latter’s misfortune changes neither the reality of the fact nor the truth of the proposition stating it. Truth itself is necessarily a common possession. For this reason, no valid communion, or community, can be built upon error, for error isolates. Truth alone can unite people. A true proposition is as true for the one who sees it as for the one who does not see it, for it is not “seeing” that makes it true, but its harmony with reality.

In the aftermath of Vatican II some Catholics have caught the “arrogance complex,” and shrink from declaring that the Catholic Church has the plenitude of revealed truth. The claim strikes them as “arrogant” and “triumphalistic.” Alas, they have fallen into the same confusion.

When the Jewish people say that they are God’s chosen people, they are not being arrogant. It is as true for non-Jews as it is for Jews. One only need read the Old Testament to be convinced of this fact. They did not choose themselves; God chose them. And who is to question God’s decision?

When the Holy Virgin told us that “God has done great things in me,” she was in no way arrogant. She was humbly informing us of the incredible privilege she had received. She did not say that she had done great things; she said that God had done great things in her. All she had done was to say “yes” to God’s invitation. Mary engendered the Savior of the world by her total receptivity to God’s grace. She was the chosen one, the privileged one. She did not claim that this was due to her own merit. She merely acknowledged, with humility and gratitude, what God had accomplished in her.

When St. John tells us repeatedly that he was “the disciple that Christ loved,” far from being arrogant, he too is humbly acknowledging that he was favored by a special love. He knew that this privilege carried with it a call to respond with a greater love, for he who has received more should give back more.

The Holy Catholic Church claims that She has the plenitude of revealed truth. She bases this claim on the fact that She alone was founded by Christ; She alone goes all the way back to the Apostles; She alone is protected by Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against Her. She has kept this holy teaching in all its purity in spite of the constant attacks which have been waged against Her from the very beginning. Why should one be a Roman Catholic if it were not because one believes that the Church has this unique privilege: Peter has been given the keys of the Kingdom and the Church has the means of sanctification in the sacraments. Far from being arrogant, She is inviting all men, independent of race, to join Her for the glorification of God, and for the good of their immortal souls.

Unfortunately some Catholics have responded to the privileges they have received as members of the Bride of Christ by assuming, arrogantly, that they were somehow “better” or “superior to non-Catholics.” The term “triumphalism” (introduced in Vatican II by Bishop De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium) was perhaps meant to cope with this error, but it led to some deplorable confusions. It was now assumed that to claim that the Church has the fullness of Truth is arrogant and overbearing. This is a fatal confusion. One can give a wrong response to an unmerited privilege-e.g. an unwarranted feeling of superiority-or one can give the right response, the Catholic response, which is gratitude and humility.

The more one receives, the more one should humble oneself. The Holy Virgin, the most blessed of all creatures, is also the most humble. Each time St. Teresa of Avila was graced by new visions and new insights into the infinite beauty of God, she humbled herself more. Instead of imagining she was “superior” to others, she experienced herself as the worst of all sinners. This is the Catholic attitude. All Catholics conscious of the unfathomable gift they have received (the fullness of revealed truth, the infallible Magisterium of the Church, the sacrament of penance, the possibility of receiving Christ’s Holy Body every single day of the year) should live in fear and trembling, because, having received more, more will be expected from them when they appear before the awesome throne of God.

Let us not fall into the illusion that we are humble because we refrain from proclaiming the holiness of the Bride of Christ. This acknowledgment is a “response to value” (to use my husband’s terminology). But to assume that one is superior because one has been granted a gift that so many have not yet received, is to fall into an aberration which plainly clashes with the authentic spirit of Catholicism. Let us liberate ourselves from the confusion that it is arrogant to sing the glory of the Church. We cannot think highly enough of the holy Bride of Christ. We cannot think too little of ourselves.

Dr. von Hildebrand, widow of Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, is a trustee of Franciscan University.