Invincible Ignorance

When Jesus cried out from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he was not exaggerating. Many involved in the Crucifixion must have been laboring under what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1793), using an old Catholic term, defines as invincible ignorance: “If the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.”

Presumably only a minority of Jesus’ attackers were motivated by hatred and maliciousness. Most of them just didn’t know what to make of Jesus.

One can imagine the confusion, even among some of the Pharisees, when Jesus, brought to trial before the Sanhedrin and asked if he was the Son of God, answers affirmatively. They were expecting the Messiah, the son of David, who would free the Jews from foreign domination, establish the kingship of Israel in the world, and rule gloriously as a light to the nations. 

But standing before them was an itinerant preacher and healer, claiming to be the “son of God”? On the face of it, this was blasphemy. Poor Pilate, confused by the Jewish allegations that a trouble-making Galilean was an insurrectionist, condemned Jesus to death.

Pity the Roman Procurator and the other poor SOBs who got caught up in the riotous scourging, mocking, and crucifixion of the “King of the Jews.” Surely, if most of them realized who he was and what they were doing to him, they would have frozen in horror.

We, as well as they, are all immersed in the post-original-sin fogginess. Our thinking is clouded up by habits of sin, which often make good ethical judgments difficult – not to mention the less-than-average IQ that half of us are saddled with. And not to mention the peer pressure, media propaganda, and cultural nostrums that impinge on us daily.

Thus, possibly without evil intent, many in our society cannot make the requisite ethical connections to see that: 

  • abortion is not just the “removal of tissue,” as the friendly people at Planned Parenthood tell troubled pregnant females
  • contraception with the pill is just as much an unnatural blocking of procreation as the use of condoms, diaphragms, intrauterine devices, etc. The fact that the latter methods are unnatural efforts to prevent conception has always been clear to most people; but the pill changes the natural fertility patterns of women, and even at times prevent fertilized eggs from nourishment – a much more subtle type of blocking.
  • voidance of conception with contraceptives is not the same thing as abstinence during fertile periods, in conjunction with methods of Natural Family Planning.
  • “gay” sex, in which non-sexual orifices of another person of the same sex are used to simulate male-female sexual intercourse, is unnatural, and is not even sexual intercourse.        

The Abyss of Hell by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500

In the religious sphere, we can only try to understand the additional and widespread cases of fogginess:

  • the rejection of Christianity by many Jews, who are still awaiting the kind of Messiah that they have been told will come as the descendant of King David to restore Israel to its rightful glory among the nations
  • Protestants who simply can’t wrap their head around the scandals that Jesus warned would come “necessarily” (Mt. 18:7; Lk. 17:1) in the Church, and thus do not investigate what the Church teaches, but have turned to a book (the Bible), a very fallible source for direction and salvation
  • the Sister Churches of Orthodoxy, still nursing grievances from past millennia, and, despite agreement with Catholics on many doctrinal and moral teachings, eschewing Christian unity because of disbelief that the Apostle Peter could have made the mistake of conferring primacy on the Church of Rome rather than an on Eastern capitol such as Constantinople
  • Muslims and Mormons who are completely engulfed in the close embrace of a massive and tightly knit post-Christian cult, facing social ostracism or worse for “apostasy”
  • pagans who have simply never been exposed to the beauty of the faith, or have been forcibly kept away by authorities from any opportunity of exposure           

We all know persons who don’t understand, can’t understand, and probably will never be able to understand that, yes, the Son of God actually came down to earth to live and die like other human beings, and establish a visible Church, which like Noah’s ark was meant to provide the means of eternal salvation for all, good and bad, and would last impregnably until the end of the world. 

As the prophet Jonah came to realize (Jon. 4:11), there are numerous persons who, “do not know how to distinguish their right hand from the left” when it comes to serious matters of ultimate choices in life.

How do we know that we ourselves are not steeped in ignorance? If we believe that all truth is relative – just “your truth” or “my truth” – the odds are not very good, short of a crisis, for emerging from ignorance. If, however, we believe in truth, and seek the truth, we may be at times in ignorance, but not invincible ignorance. 

Jesus has assured us that those who seek the truth will find it. Michael Buckley in Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism notes that belief in the attainability of truth is almost synonymous with belief in, and submission to, God.

In the face of the numerous examples of invincible ignorance we encounter in our world, we should echo Christ’s prayer on the Cross: that God forgive them, for they really do not understand what they are doing.

In heaven, there will be no doubt vast multitudes of persons who during life just didn’t “get it,” but lived a life “according to their lights,” and entered into heaven in one of the other classifications pertaining to the “many mansions” available for occupancy – “good thieves,” “anonymous Christians,” and even more exotic types.

Let’s just pray that we’re among them.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    As Pascal reminds us

    “This is what Scripture points out to us, when it says in so many places that those who seek God find Him. It is not of that light, “like the noonday sun,” that this is said. We do not say that those who seek the noonday sun, or water in the sea, shall find them; and hence the evidence of God must not be of this nature. So it tells us elsewhere: Vere tu es Deus absconditus (Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself) [Is. 45:15]”

    “ There is sufficient clearness to enlighten the elect, and sufficient obscurity to humble them. There is sufficient obscurity to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clearness to condemn them and make them inexcusable. Saint Augustine”

  • Manfred

    Howard: Why don’t you parse out for us just who the “vast multitudes” who {lived a life according “to their lights”}and the “anonymous Christians” are? If this were true, it would seem to obviate the need for Christ to have ever come into this world in the first place. As a matter of fact, it would seem to point that there is no need to be Catholic at all! Cdl Dolan recently admitted that the Church had not taught catechetics for the last forty years. I think reading your column above would be a good place for the hierarchy to start.

  • Arnobius of Sicca

    “Protestants who simply can’t wrap their head around the scandals that Jesus warned would come “necessarily” (Mt. 18:7; Lk. 17:1) in the Church, and thus do not investigate what the Church teaches, but have turned to a book (the Bible), a very fallible source for direction and salvation.”

    I think you may want to clarify this. Some might misinterpret it to mean the Bible itself is filled with error. I know you don’t mean that of course.

  • Craig Payne

    Dear Arnobius of Sicca: Thank you.

    I believe the meaning was that the multitudinous interpretations of the Bible are very fallible, si?

  • Br. David Minot OSB, STL

    Dr. Kainz, I’m not so much on par to debate with a philosophy professor, but I’m a little confused about what you’re trying to say about the current religious fogginess. Are suggesting that the Bible is a fallible source of information? Doing so would be contrary to doctrine stating that it is divinely inspired… That the Sacred Scriptures ARE the Word of God. The Bible most certainly does provide us with instructions. Error falls into play when it is interpreted outside and contrary to the Magisterium.

    Also, your implication about the Orthodox seems to a bit harsh and exaggerated. Any path towards unity involves adaptation on the part of each party. There is MUCH that we Catholics can learn from the Orthodox, and vice versa. It would also seem to me that it was Christ who conferred primacy upon Peter, and not Peter claiming it for himself.

    Finally, I would like to stress that harsh language, albeit rather civil, gets us nowhere. Your reference to SOB’s is uncalled for. There are many other ways to express what your are trying to say without using a curse-word, implicit or not. Such discourse has no place in an educational environment and even less so in written form. I have been reading this site with much enthusiasm for several years and am pretty sure that I will continue to do so. But the use of such language and condemning terms seems to me not to be up to the standards of this site.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Manfred: I go rather extensively into Aquinas’ discussion of this question in the last chapter of my book on the Existence of God. Basically, he says we have to presume that God will always supply the means for salvation to those who can’t be evangelized. One thinks, e.g., of the people in North Korea or many Islamic regimes.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Arnobius of Sicca: As you know, there are thousands of Protestant denominations, often with incompatible doctrines, based on different interpretations of the Bible. As St. Peter warns (2 Peter 3:16) the unlearned and the unstable can very easily wrest the meanings of Scripture to their own destruction.

  • Susan D.

    I am an Orthodox Christian. The rather flippant description of our “eschewing Christian unity because of disbelief that the Apostle Peter could have made the mistake of conferring primacy on the Church of Rome rather than an on Eastern capitol such as Constantinople” is just plain wrong. The ancient, undivided Church recognized the See of Rome as first among equals, as Peter was among the Apostles. What we don’t accept is the overriding supremacy of the Roman Church, which it tried to impose non-canonically on its sister churches.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Doctor Kainz: I aam afraid that you might have misrepresented the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the position and role of the Bishop of Rome as descendent of Peter. The Orthodox do not claim that one of the other Patriarchs should have been named head of the Chruch. The Orthodox do recongize that the Bishop of Rome should be considered Primer Inter Pares of the original pentarchy, but they also claim that there is no basis for the Pope to have doctrinal or canoncial authority over the Universal Church. In other words they claim that none of Patriarchs has the charisms and authooirty we believe are logically proper to the one who occupies the Chair of Peter.

  • will manley

    Thank you for this. It’s the culture, stupid.

  • I am not Spartacus

    Catena Aurea Commentary for Luke 23:

    34. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.

    CHRYS. Because the Lord had said, Pray for them that persecute you, this likewise He did, when He ascended the cross, as it follows, Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them, not that He was not able Himself to pardon them, but that He might teach us to pray for our persecutors, not only in word, but in deed also. But He says, Forgive them, if they should repent. For He is gracious to the penitent, if they are willing after so great wickedness to wash away their guilt by faith.

    BEDE; For must we imagine here that He prayed in vain, but that in those who believed after His passion He obtained the fruit of His prayers? It must be remarked, however, that He prayed not for those who chose rather to crucify, than to confess Him whom they knew to be the Son of God, but for such as were ignorant what they did, having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, as He adds, For they know not what they do.

    GREEK EX. But for those who after the crucifixion remain in unbelief, no one can suppose that they are excused by ignorance, because of the notable miracles that with aloud voice proclaimed Him to be the Son of God.

  • Manfred

    @Howard: Aaah! Your book. I must have missed it. Why would I have an interest in it if the Bible itself, in your words, is “a very fallible source of direction and salvation.”? You are not writing for a North Korean or Islamic countries audience; but rather for an American audience whose Church is rife with heterodoxy and error. I would assume a writer on TCT would want to be as clear as possible.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Bro. David Minot: I agree basically with the points you make: “The Bible most certainly does provide us with instructions. Error falls into play when it is interpreted outside and contrary to the Magisterium.” As regards the Petrine primacy conferred by Christ, I was referring to the perspective of the Orthodox at Constantople and/or Moscow that the Roman pontiff was arrogating excessive authority to his See, as Susan D. and Thomas Coleman bring out in their above comments. Orthodox have a different interpretation of “primacy.” As regards the reference to “poor SOBs” that was a substitution made by the editors for my expression, “poor bastards” — a phrase often used colloquially to express compassion for persons unable to extricate themselves from unintended miserable situations. (For some reason, the phrase is also used by a lot of pop celebrities as self-designation.) When I meditate on the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary, that’s the phrase that sometimes comes to mind. But something like “poor souls” might have been a better choice.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Manfred: St. Thomas’ discussion of the salvation of those who haven’t been evangelized, which I discuss in my book, is of course very much informed by the Scriptures, as you might expect. But to establish a religion on the basis of one’s interpretation of a book (the Bible) might not be a surest road to salvation or orthodoxy. The Catholic emphasis is, of course, on the Bible in connection with tradition.

  • Arnobius of Sicca

    @Howard Kainz

    As I said, I was just pointing out that how it was phrased could lead some to think you were claiming the Bible itself and not the concept of individual interpretation.

    Just pointing out that clarification might be useful to avoid having people misinterpret what you intended.