What is Invincible Ignorance?
An Article by Scott Windsor

First, let us begin this with a discussion of ignorance and culpability, in the eyes of the Church. For this, we will need to cite official Church documentation. I will begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter "CCC"):

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "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." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

1793 If - on the contrary - 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. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.

1794 A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time "from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.

These teachings deal primarily with ignorance of morality and whether or not an individual can be seen as culpable for their privations/disorders if they are not aware of them. This really has little to do with the teaching of Incincible Ignorance as it relates to the defined dogma of "There is no salvation outside the Church," (in Latin that's "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" and hereafter I will refer to the phrase as "EENS"). So. let us look at the CCC references to this subject:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.

So, we have the current teachings on the subject, let's look again at the definition of "ignorance."

Ignorance is lack of knowledge about a thing in a being capable of knowing. Fundamentally speaking and with regard to a given object ignorance is the outcome of the limitations of our intellect or of the obscurity of the matter itself.

So far as fixing human responsibility, the most important division of ignorance is that designated by the terms invincible and vincible. Ignorance is said to be invincible when a person is unable to rid himself of it notwithstanding the employment of moral diligence, that is, such as under the circumstances is, morally speaking, possible and obligatory. This manifestly includes the states of inadvertence, forgetfulness, etc. Such ignorance is obviously involuntary and therefore not imputable. On the other hand, ignorance is termed vincible if it can be dispelled by the use of "moral diligence".

Invincible ignorance, whether of the law or of the fact, is always a valid excuse and excludes sin. The evident reason is that neither this state nor the act resulting therefrom is voluntary. Catholic Encyclopedia

We're getting a clearer picture now on Invincible Ignorance. Such ignorance cannot be something that is voluntarily ascribed to. If one knows the teachings of the Catholic Church, with regard to salvation and membership in the Catholic Church, then one cannot claim Invincible Ignorance, for rejection of this knowledge has become willfull and voluntary. Invincible Ignorance applies to one who, "through no fault of their own" are ignorant of the Church's teachings in this regard.

Pope Pius IX says:

It must likewise be held as certain that those who are affected by ignorance of the true religion, if it is invincible ignorance, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the eyes of the Lord (Singulari Quadem of December 9, 1854, Denzinger 1647).
Again we must stress, such ignorance is not voluntary. For one to know the teachings of the Church regarding salvation and membership in the Church, to willfully reject the Church after attaining such knowledge, makes them culpable of the rejection. I repeat the teaching in the CCC: Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

It must also be added, the teaching on Invincible Ignorance is not a teaching that anyone will be saved, only that they may be saved. The teaching of Invincible Ignorance is a statement of the Church, not of God. Ultimately the judgment of any given soul is left to God. The Church has never made the teaching of Invincible Ignorance a dogmatic teaching and has never declared someone a Saint under the auspices of Invincible Ignorance.

There is a real danger that those who go about preaching Invincible Ignorance may be actually damaging souls, for they may give some a false sense of confidence that God may not hold them culpable for remaining outside the Catholic Church, even if they are willfully outside the Church. The truth of the matter is, as the CCC teaches, basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation. That is the teaching that Faithful Catholics should be preaching and evangelizing the world with, not some sense of complacency that one may be saved, even if they voluntarily have removed themselves from or never joined the Catholic Church, especially after having knowledge of the teachings of the Catholic Church in this regard.

Clearly, "ignorance" is a lack of knowledge - so whether someone is "ignorant" or not is not really the issue here. The real distinction comes in when we discuss whether the issue is "invincible" or "vincible." Let us borrow from www.m-w.com (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary):

Main Entry: in·vin·ci·ble
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Late Latin invincibilis, from Latin in- + vincere to conquer
: incapable of being conquered, overcome, or subdued

Main Entry: vin·ci·ble
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin vincibilis, from vincere to conquer
: capable of being overcome or subdued

One is considered "invincibly ignorant" only if the ignorance is incapable of being overcome. Thus, those who have never heard the Gospel and/or have never heard of the Catholic Church and her teachings may not be held culpable for the teachings. A point must be made here as well, even when the Church "teaches" on invincible ignorance, she says "may not be culpable," and never states such a person definitively will not be culpable. There is no guarantee for anyone whom the Church might see as invincibly ignorant, God is still the Judge. So, one who has never heard the Gospel and/or Church teaching is primarily whom the teaching on invincible ignorance is directed. There are some, however, who believe that even if they know the Gospel and/or Church teaching, that they too could be considered invincibly ignorant.

Let's look again at "invincible" vs. "vincible." One is vincible IF their position has the possibility of being overcome. If it is possible that the position they profess is wrong, then they are vincible. Now, unless someone is claiming that they can personally be infallible - then they must acquiess that ANY position they take is vincible. Thus, one who openly rejects the Gospel and/or Church teaching cannot at the same time state that the Church might see them as invincibly ignorant.

We must also not overlook the part of the teaching that states, "through no fault of their own." Once one has made a choice in this matter, especially an informed choice, then invincibility is gone.

If we consider the logic, or illogic of a given argument, then for an argument to be "logical" it must also be falsifiable. It would then be illogical for one to make an argument that he/she is invincibly ignorant since to be "invincible" it would not be, by definition, falsifiable.

When presented with a "tough question" how do we answer? For example:

What of someone who "heard" the Gospel message from her mother, who beat her regularly when she failed to say her rosary at night. Could this person be considered "vincible" if she were to reject the Church and its teachings, which were delivered to her by an abusive madwoman?
The operative part of this question is the word "could." Certainly she "could" be held "vincible" but her culpability would likely be diminished. When "vincibility" is considered, we must also consider the methodology used to deliver the message. If the only exposure to the Gospel and Church teaching/authority is an abusive mother, then she is not receiving true Catholic teaching. It would be highly unlikely, however, that this was her only source of Catholic education. If she were taught appropriately then she would also have the resource of her confessor and/or spiritual advisor to help her cope with the difficult situation at home, and even perhaps get direction on how to help her abusive mother - a few too many unknown tangentials to fully answer that question, but that is the type of questions some of our detractors will ask.

We must keep in mind that this teaching of Invincible Ignorance is an interpretation of men in the Church. It has never been "defined" as a dogma, but rather has been used as an explanation of how some who, no fault of their own, have not accepted the Gospel and/or the Apostolic Church that was founded by Christ on the Twelve Apostles, MIGHT be yet saved. Every time this teaching is taught from official responses by Rome (from councils and/or papal encyclicals) the teaching is they MAY be saved, not WILL be saved. I stress again the teaching in CCC 846, that the message we, as Catholics, must be presenting is not a "loophole salvation" of Invincible Ignorance but that "the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church." To preach anything less would falsely represent both traditional and the modern teaching of the Church.


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