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).


At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“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”

I believe that we are born with an innate sense of right/wrong, maybe it’s what’s considered conscience. I find that the more I “stay close to the Eucharist,” the louder my conscience is.
When I violate the dictates of my conscience and do what it tells me is wrong, I feel dirty, stained; my conscience is “guilty.” Sometimes the last thing I want to do is seek out God, pray or go to church, because I know I have defiled myself. When I stay close to Christ, I recognize and respond to my conscience. When I don’t stay close to Christ, I violate my conscience again and again, making those violations part of my lifestyle. Eventually, my conscience quiets. Over time, I think it would lose its capacity to function as a warning system.

Having a loud conscience is sometimes a pain- it makes my life harder in some ways. But, I’d rather be anxious with a healthy conscience than peaceful with an unhealthy one.

I think the current state of our society perfectly demonstrates what happens when a collective conscience becomes seared by ignored sin.

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter asked me a question that I’m not sure I answered correctly. She learned about the parts of the Mass in school and asked why we need to go to Confession if we have the penitential rite at the beginning of the Mass. In thinking about it, the penitential rite does sound like Confession (minus absolution). We are told to call to mind our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. I told her that absolution must be granted to be fully reconciled with God, and that’s why we go to Confession- to be reconciled. But I can see how some might think they don’t need confession if they reflect on their sin and ask for forgiveness each Mass. She went on to ask, if people are recalling their sins but not going to Confession, shouldn’t most people there NOT be receiving the Eucharist. I told her to ask her teacher about that one.

Adding to my daughter's question, if I remember correctly, in other churches absolution IS granted with the penitential rite, and the church does not say those people will not go to Heaven. If God is going to welcome other non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians into Heaven, and they don’t go to confession, why do I need to?

At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've asked a bunch of stuff this past week, but I've had extra time to think about a few things. A lot has come to mind...

I have a group of friends who like to argue issues. Favorites among these are topics regarding fertility. Several don't agree with the Church on some things. Some are Catholic. On issues of birth control, for example, they believe certain methods (beyond NFP) are fine. I’m not going to get into the debate, because that’s beside the point. My question is about knowledge and sin. For those who know the Church’s teachings on a particular act but believe the teaching is incorrect, do they have “full knowledge” that the act is wrong? My friends who employ those methods of birth control would tell you that they have no belief that they are doing wrong and thus have not sinned.

Similar arguments could be employed regarding attending regular Sunday Mass, voting, bioethical issues, etc. where some do not agree with the Church’s teachings and believe the dictates of their consciences are contrary. I often debate this point with my husband. I’ll say, “That’s a sin,” and he’ll say, “But I don’t think it’s wrong.” So, what constitutes “full knowledge” of sin and culpability?

At 9:09 AM, Blogger fran said...

Aon 9:43-
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has the answers to your questions. You can probably even find a site and read it online. I recommend owning one. It is an invaluable resource.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger CynthiaBC said...

Anon 2:59

I can't speak for other non-Catholic denominations, but for Lutherans one is not required to make satisfaction for one's sins (i.e., do penance) in order to be granted absolution. It isn't that we think one shouldn't try to set things right (e.g., returning a stolen item); it's that we believe that nothing WE can do merits our salvation. The de-coupling of absolution from satisfaction is derived from the philosophy that one is justified only through one's faith.


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