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, 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.