“Silence is not the exile of speech. It is the love of the one Word.” —Robert Cardinal Sarah 

I go to look up a newspaper article on a dispute between a high-ranking judge and a popular journalist. In the middle of the article, I find some unexpected headlines inviting me to click. The frankness of this would-be enticement makes it laughable, and gives me little pause as I continue on with my article. But it serves as a reminder of the noise that characterizes our present age. Sin is not only easy to find, but it comes after you. We are prompted and guided to distraction, coaxed into desiring things we never thought we needed or needed to know.

Earlier Christians had a word for this: curiosity. Curiosity might be the besetting sin of our time. On the face of it, such a statement seems absurd, or perhaps it belongs to a more legalistic period of Christian life that modern believers have happily outgrown. Curiosity is the desire to understand, which we consider a good thing; schools and responsible parents encourage it, and our economy rewards it. But earlier Christians recognized that the desire for knowledge is not necessarily pure. This should not surprise us, since we recognize that our other appetites can go astray in a number of ways. In his Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul Griffiths notes that all Latin Christians from Tertullian through Bossuet in the seventeenth century recognized curiosity as a disordered appetite for knowledge that we do not have or need to know. This they distinguished from studiousness, an eager and rightly ordered pursuit of the truth.

In On the Trinity, Saint Augustine of Hippo makes the distinction this way: The studious are prompted by a love of what they know. The curious hate what they do not know with “anxious hatred,” wanting to reduce the number of unknowns to zero, to extinguish them. Curiosity wants new knowledge or intimacy with something so it can use that knowledge to control and dominate. It is the appetite for the ownership of new knowledge. It is concerned with novelty and knowing what others do not know.

The studious want to participate lovingly in what they know and respond to it as a gift, with intimacy. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls studiousness a kind of temperance, a moder­ation of our natural desires, like chastity or moderation in our food and drink. By contrast, the philos­opher Hans Blumenberg notes, the curious seek their enjoyment not in the objects of their knowledge or study, but ultimately only in themselves.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but we see it all the time when on the internet or even as we wait to pay for our groceries in the supermarket. The headlines we see appeal to our propensity to gossip, lust, and anger. They call us to look at beautiful bodies, read the juicy news of the downfall of others, and fuel our rage at the triumph of our political enemies. But the handmaiden to all these sins is that small desire to know more when we have no good reason for knowing it. Our study of our faith and the information proper to our vocations have a gathering effect. They concentrate the mind and, with effort, create clarity. Curiosity, by contrast, scatters and produces noise, not fruit.