Monsignor Charles Pope
As to its glory, it is one of the chief ingredients in the capacity of the human person to, as Scripture says, “subdue the earth,” to gain mastery over the many aspects of creation of which God made us stewards. So much of our ingenuity and innovation is rooted in our wonder and awe of God’s creation and in those two little questions, “How?” and “Why?”
Curiosity is one of those qualities of the human person that are double-edged swords. It can cut a path to glory or it can be like a dagger of sin that cuts deep into the soul.
Yes, we are curious as to how things work and why they work as they do. This curiosity burns within us and motivates us to unlock many of nature’s secrets. Curiosity drives us to learn and to gain mastery—often for good, but sometimes for ill.
What a powerful force within us, this thing we call curiosity! It is a passion to know! Generally, it seems quite exclusive to us who are rational, for animals manifest little or none of it. Occasionally an animal might seem to manifest curiosity: a sound might draw its attention causing it to look more closely. But the investigation is probably more motivated by seeing whether the sound is a threat or a food source rather than by curiosity. True curiosity asks the deeper metaphysical questions of what, how, and why. True curiosity seeks to explore formal and final causality as well as efficient and material causality. It seeks to learn, sometimes for learning’s own sake. Sometimes, and potentially more darkly, curiosity seeks to learn so we can exert control.
Of itself, curiosity can be a magnificent quality, rooted in the gifts of wonder and awe as well as in the deeply profound gift of man’s intellect or rational nature.
However, as a double-edged sword, curiosity can also wound us very deeply and mire us in serious sin. Indeed, it can be a very sinful drive within us. Eve grew curious of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus Satan was easily able to turn her curiosity into a deep dagger that has reached every human heart.
Understood this way (as a sinful drive), curiosity is a desire to gain knowledge of things we have no right to know. A more mitigated form of sinful curiosity is the desire to know things that are in no way useful to us. In this sense, curiosity is a form of spiritual gluttony that exposes us to innumerable tricks of the evil one.
Sinful curiosity causes us to meddle in the lives of others, to pry. This can then lead us to gossip, potentially defaming others and ruining reputations in the process. Nothing is a bigger invitation to sin and gossip than the phrase “Have you heard the latest news about so-and-so?” Heads turn, ears perk up, and meddlesome curiosity is immediately incited. Almost never is the news that follows such a question positive or even edifying. Sinful curiosity is at the root of almost all gossip, defamation, slander, and even calumny. The vast majority of what we hear through gossip is none of our business. And yet, through sinful curiosity, somehow we feel that we have the right to this information.
There is a whole branch of news, barely distinguishable from gossip columns and scandal sheets, that has emerged based on the people’s “right to know.” Too much secrecy can be unhealthy, but that is hardly the problem in this day and age. Today, too many people know too many things about too many people. Even what is reported (most of it unnecessary) about so-called public figures is not really helpful for us to know. This is not to say that we should have no interest whatsoever in what is happening in the world or in the character of our leaders; rather, it is an invitation to distinguish between what is truly useful and necessary for us to know and that which arises from sinful curiosity.
Sinful curiosity is also at the root of a lot of lust and immodesty. A man may be happily married, but when he sees a woman walk past on the sidewalk he may temporarily push that to the back of his mind. Part of his problem is lust. And in that lustful mindset, he reduces the woman—a person—to her curves and other physical attributes. But another aspect of his struggle is the sinfully curious question “I wonder what she’d be like?” Well, sir, that is none of your business! Now mind you he’s happily married, but he already knows his wife well. Pardon the expression, but the mystery of his wife has been unveiled. This other woman he sees, however, still has a shroud of mystery that incites in him a sinful curiosity. Immodesty also taps into the sinful curiosity of others by revealing more than it should. Modesty is reverence for mystery. Immodesty jettisons this reverence and seeks to incite sinful curiosity.
Sinful curiosity has been turned into a consumer industry by many talk shows that publicly feature topics that should be discussed discreetly. Further, many guests on such shows reveal details about their lives that should not be discussed in a public forum. Too many people discuss terrible struggles of a very personal nature and too many people tune in to listen. This is a form of immodesty as well, even if it does not involve sexual matters; modesty is reverence for mystery and it respects appropriate boundaries and degrees of intimacy in conversations. “Baring one’s soul” is neither prudent nor appropriate in all situations or with all people; it too easily excites sinful curiosity and sets loose a wave of gossip and uncharitable banter. Some things are just not meant to be dealt with in public, and many are incapable of handling such information without easily straying into sin.
A mitigated form of sinful curiosity is the excessive desire to know too many things all at once. This is a kind of “information gluttony.” This sort of desire, though not necessarily sinful, can become so by excess. It is catered to by the 24-by-7 news services. Being informed is good, but being over-informed can easily lead to becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. Generally speaking, indulging in such a steady stream of news (along with talk radio, etc.) provokes anxiety, discouragement, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Such news services tend to generate interest by inciting alarm. Bad and bloody news predominates; the exotic and strange are headlined; the titillating and shocking lead the news hour; that which generates controversy and ratings is emphasized. It’s not long before we have moved away from necessary and important news and back into the sinful curiosity that sets tongues wagging and heads shaking.
Sinful curiosity, even of this mitigated form, so easily draws us into very negative, dark, and even depressing places. News junkies would do well to balance their diet with other more edifying things than what is the latest scandal or threat.
St. Paul gives good advice to all of us when it comes to sinful curiosity and our tendency to collect unnecessary, unhelpful, and unenlightening news. In effect, he invites us to discipline our minds with the following good and solid advice:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).
Curiosity—the double-edged sword—so noble yet so easily ignoble, so wonderful yet so easily debased.