St Francis Q&A

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ignorance is (not) bliss

Eucharistic Adoration, tonight, 7-8 pm, SAA Church. Please join us!!
An anonymous blogger asked the following questions:

“If I am unsure whether or not something is a mortal or venial sin but I chose to do it anyway, wouldn’t I then be guilty of a mortal sin? In the same way, if I am aware that I don’t know the church’s teaching on something (and knew I was unclear of that teaching) and I continue to act anyway, wouldn’t I also be guilty of a mortal sin- because I’d surely be acting with the knowledge that I might be committing a sin, which seems equally wrong. If someone deliberately remains in the dark on an issue, can they really stand behind the thought that they’re without sin because sin requires full knowledge that something is wrong?”

OK, this might get into some pretty heady stuff, but let’s tackle a few terms from moral theology here: invincible ignorance and vincible ignorance. Basically, invincible ignorance means that a person is ignorant of moral law through no fault of their own. He/she is not responsible for his/her error in moral judgment (i.e., sin). However, a person who is vincibly ignorance is responsible for his sin. This is true because he “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin” (Gaudium et Spes 16, Vatican II).

Let’s take the example (that this Anon used in his/her post) of missing Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation (HDO) in trying to answer the Anon’s questions. A Catholic who knows it is a sin to miss Mass on a HDO but is unsure of whether it is a mortal or venial sin is much closer to having vincible ignorance, especially if he does little to find out the gravity of the matter. He has some kind of knowledge, so he is culpable for missing Mass on a HDO. But, he still has to know that it is a mortal sin for it to be a mortal sin (grave matter, full knowledge, full consent).

The large majority of Catholics know about HDOs. A smaller number might know when the HDOs are, especially because HDOs have changed so much over the years (and continue to change annually, it seems). But, Church calendars clearly show when HDOs occur. Every Catholic should have a Church calendar handy in his/her home or office. At St. Andrew’s, Church calendars were available for pick-up by parishioners at the start of the New (calendar) Year. The calendars are good not just because they have beautiful works of art or pictures; they show all of the different feast days and HDOs throughout the Church year. There are many different sources of information available to Catholics about HDOs – Internet, prayer books / devotionals, priests, catechists, etc. So, even if someone misses the announcement at Mass about an upcoming HDO, they can’t claim invincible ignorance because of all the resources available to them to know about HDOs.

In general terms, Catholics who are aware of their ignorance (about Church teaching, moral laws, etc.) are culpable for their actions. There is some knowledge there - they know that they don’t know – so they can’t claim invincible ignorance. They know that they should “find out what is true and good” and to not remain in the dark. If they freely choose to remain in the dark regarding serious sin, then their sin would be mortal, in my opinion. “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1859).


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