Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don't know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
As the prophet Jonah came to realize, there are many persons who “don't know their right hand from their left.” (Jonah 4:11)
I recall a bizarre situation which happened while I was teaching at my parish's RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in which a candidate for confirmation stood up and started yelling in the middle of class, saying that the Church has no right to determine truth and that the Bible was arbitrarily slapped together and full of error.
She had no facts to back her claims. She couldn't cite her sources. She couldn't answer any questions about the “facts” she presented. She lied several times as I questioned her — including insisting that she had several advanced degrees in history and theology — but later admitted she, in fact, did not. She ultimately admitted that she had overheard someone talking about a synopsis given by yet another person had who overheard someone speaking about Dan Brown's poorly researched potboiler, The DaVinci Code.
She was unconvinced not because my facts weren't in order, not because my logic wasn't impeccable, not because I couldn't cite my sources — but because (according to this woman) “I was simply wrong.”
Some people, intentionally or otherwise, confuse logic with histrionics and facts with feelings.
Even though I patiently explained to this woman that her meaningless tautology was illogical, she insisted vociferously that she was correct. I avoided asking her why she even bothered showing up to receive the sacrament of Confirmation in a Church she considered inauthentic, immoral and corrupt, as I thought it would be cruel. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn't need to, as several other students in the class did my dirty work for me.
I got the class under control and took the opportunity to explain the concept of “vincible ignorance”, saying that some people don't want to be convinced even when they have the facts calmly and succinctly explained to them. Some people prefer their emotional outrage rather than the facts.
The rest of the candidates simply nodded and the outraged woman sat down and kept her opinions to herself for the duration of the class.
Invincible Ignorance is a common, unproductive theme throughout the culture. They actually believe that knowledge is negligible while ignorance should be celebrated. Apparently there are people who believe that it doesn't matter what you know but merely how wildly emotional you are when “discussing” your feelings—this is all they need, so they “feel,” to help them win an argument. Oddly, they never explain why it's important to win an argument in a world that is devoid of objective meaning. Some people just want to be right despite the facts, logic, historical reality and scientific data — and if all of this is against them, they are keen to justify their lies. It's a symptom of what Pope Benedict XVI called “the pathology of reason.”
There's nothing intelligent, wise, rational or reasonable about intentional ignorance and wild emotions.
Catholic author and conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. often referred to the theological and logical concept of “invincible ignorance” in his writings and speeches. Calling someone “ignorant” is not an insult in and of itself. Ignorance is merely the lack of knowledge about something or some topic in a being capable of knowing. Rocks and clouds aren't ignorant because they aren't sentient. I, for instance, am ignorant of French haute-cuisine culinary techniques, Swahili, mid-20th century Soviet submarine warfare tactics and what the planet Jupiter looks like without its thick, high-pressured atmosphere. There is no shame or moral guilt in this kind of ignorance because it's the result of intellectual limitations or of the obscurity of the subject itself—we know extremely little about the universe around us. Morally and spiritually speaking, we're responsible only for the things we know about. For example, if a Christian didn't realize he wasn't allowed to attend séances and consult astrologers, he's not sinned even though those things might have a negative spiritual effect on him. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “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.”
However, there are things that everyone should know even if they say they're unaware of them. In other words, ignorance isn't always an excuse.
In terms of human responsibility, ignorance can either be “invincible” or “vincible.” Ignorance is invincible when a person is unable to rid himself of it. This doesn't include inadvertence and forgetfulness, for example. Such ignorance is obviously involuntary and therefore the individual is not morally responsible.
“Invincible ignorance” is a state in which people — such as pagans, non-Christians and children — are ignorant of Christ's message as laid out in the Gospels not because they refuse to believe, but rather because they've not yet had an opportunity to hear and experience it. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the topic in his Summa Theologica. Pope Pius IX used the term in his 1854 document Singulari Quadam and again in his 1863 document Quanto Conficiamur Moerore.
In his 1963 sermon, “Strength to Love,” Martin Luther King wrote, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Intentional ignorance is when a person deliberately aims to foster ignorance. This is affected, not because it is pretended, but rather because it is sought for by the individual so that he may not have to relinquish his purpose. Imagine such a situation where an individual refuses to listen to or otherwise seek out some pertinent information that would otherwise disallow that person from acting as he wishes. Consider a person who chooses to fire his rifle into a forest without first making sure the human beings weren't wandering there first. He wants to fire his rifle and has convinced himself that “not knowing” whether or not there are people in the forest somehow excuses him. It doesn't. This individual is considered “vincibly” ignorant and he is absolutely morally culpable for his actions. This kind of ignorance in which an individual makes practically no effort at all to gain knowledge thus dispelling his ignorance is merely crass, selfish or supine. In other words, there's a difference between ignorance and stupidity—ignorance is simply not knowing something—stupidity is reveling in that ignorance.
Though the sum of human knowledge is vast, the sum of human ignorance is orders of magnitude larger. Despite this, human ignorance is divided into three types:
- Ignorance of the law — being unaware of a particular law or not knowing whether a particular case of situation falls under its provisions or purview.
- Ignorance of the fact — being unaware of a particular fact, datum, situation, circumstance or development.
- Ignorance of the penalty — being unaware that a particular crime has a sanction attached to it.
In addition to these types of ignorance, ignorance may precede, accompany or follow a willful act. Thus, there are three kinds of ignorance:
- Antecedent ignorance isn't voluntary nor is the act resulting from it; it precedes any voluntary failure to inquire.
- Consequent ignorance is the result of a perverse frame of mind choosing, either directly or indirectly, to be ignorant. This individual is completely culpable in his actions and thoughts.
- Concomitant ignorance is an odd and truly unfortunate form of intentional ignorance. In addition, it's all too common. Though it's technically true that the individual in question is truly ignorant of the some information, it ultimately doesn't matter. The individual would still think, act and believe as he wishes even if he knew with the actual state of things. It's a “my-country-right-or-wrong” situation. An individual who persists in his mistaken beliefs despite obvious proof to the contrary has committed a graver sin than the individual who simply refuses to make an effort to find out whether or not he's incorrect.
If someone is truly invincibly ignorant, either of the law or of the fact, he isn't morally culpable simply because this nescient state nor its resultant acts are voluntary. However, Natural Law is understandable by everyone who has attained the age of reason and who is otherwise intellectually capable and thus any violation of it can't be said to result from invincible ignorance. Thus no sane, mentally-capable adult anywhere in the world and living at any epoch or culture can ever say, “I didn't realize it was wrong to kill someone/steal from someone/have sex with someone who wasn't my wife/cheat someone, etc.”
Ignorance is vincible if it can be dispelled by the use of normal “moral diligence.”
We know we're suffering from invincible ignorance when we defend our choices or those of others by claiming moral and/or intellectual relativism. If people believe that truth, especially moral, is subjective— just “your truth” is different from “my truth,” they'll most likely refuse to leave their ignorant state. If, however, we believe in objective truth and seek it out in our lives, we may, at times, be ignorant, we won't be invincibly ignorant.
Michael Buckley, in his Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, notes that belief in the attainability of objective truth is almost synonymous with belief in and submission to, God. If one claims there isn't such a thing as objective truth, then Christianity is perfectly worthless. But, by claiming there isn't such a thing as objective truth one is: 1) making an objective claim about truth and thus contradicting oneself and 2) when one is saying that nothing God says is any more important than what the individual is saying then that individual is claiming God is “redundant” and placing himself in a position high than Him. Thus, preferring one's feelings over truth is another form of the sin of pride.
It should be pointed out that people who claim there is no such thing as objective truth are attempting at making an objectively truthful statement about the nature truth thus contradicting themselves. If there is no objective truth then the statement “There is no objective truth” is automatically false. This is aside from the obvious fact that such words as “true,” “false,” “fact,” “lie” actually have meaning. The fact that we have language and a rational way of understanding both the exterior and interior world, and can discuss these issues means there is objective reality in the world and in human society.