Vincible Ignorance – Ignorance is NOT a synonym for stupid


There’s a joke that goes:  a missionary has just catechized a native, and the native asks, “‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ Priest: ‘No, not if you did not know.’ Native: ‘Then why did you tell me?’

There is a good answer to this. I hope the priest responded, “For the sake of the JOY of the Gospel!!!!”

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.

CCC 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.

CCC 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.

CCC 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.

It is important to distinguish between two types of ignorance. Invincible ignorance is ignorance in which a person, through no fault on his or her part and due to a number of reasons, is unaware about the goodness or evil of an action. On the other hand, a person who has vincible ignorance has an opportunity to know what is right or wrong, but purposely keeps an “ignorance is bliss” approach. Such people would rather remain ignorant about the goodness or evil of an action than attempt to discover the truth, which could result in a major change in life. This type of ignorance does not excuse a person from responsibility for his or her actions, since the opportunity to know the truth is available, yet the person chooses not to engage or seek it.

This ignorance stifles any work of the Spirit in our lives, leaving us downcast and enslaved to our own set ways. Gradually, the ignorance itself becomes our very choice—the rejection of God’s purpose for ourselves. Disciples of the truth are not ignorant and have a choice, yet they also have freedom in this decision. With ignorance, there is no freedom; with ignorance, there is no bliss!

Vincible ignorance is imputable because it could be overcome by a reasonable effort, but, for some cause attributable to the agent, that effort is not made.  The ignorance is therefore due to a culpable negligence or a deliberate bad choice on the part of the agent. This may come about in several ways.

For example, from deliberate negligence when a man refuses to find out the truth, so that he may be at liberty to go on as he is going, or when, because of pleasures and other distractions, he cannot be bothered to find out. Or it may come about from a deliberate will to indulge a particular passion, which later, in its heat and fury, clouds and obscures the mind, and so brings about a state of ignorance. Or again, ignorance may be the result of an evil habit, which has so blunted the conscience that the sinner is, or thinks that he is, ignorant of the wickedness of his actions. Lastly, ignorance may be caused by a refusal to stop and consider further, although a doubt has arisen; this is characteristic of hotheaded and impetuous people who are impatient of reflection.

This vincible ignorance admits of three degrees of seriousness, dependent on the way in which it has been brought about:

  1. First, it may be “simple“. That is, it is caused by a simple, not gravely culpable negligence. For example, a clerk misreads a price.  In Church terms, he is given bad theology or catechesis, or is not guided by qualified instructors.  This is not a case of total negligence – he looked for and – saw a nearby price/a heretical or inferior theology.  He made an honest mistake.  How was he to know?
  2. Secondly, this vincible ignorance may be “crass” or “supine“.  Here the negligence is total or relatively so, in a matter in which care was a clear duty and easy of fulfillment.  The clerk, too lazy to care, is content with a mere guess. He makes up his own theology.  He disregards Apostolic Tradition, of any kind.  The gravity of the blame due to “crass” ignorance depends on the gravity of the matter at stake.
  3. Thirdly, such ignorance may be “affected” or deliberate.  That is, it is the result of a direct conscious act of will.  The agent deliberately keeps himself in ignorance, lest by finding out the truth he should be prevented by his conscience from doing what he wants to do.  He doesn’t care what the Truth is.  He doesn’t want to find out, because he fears its implications.  He is willfully ignorant, deliberately.  He doesn’t want to listen.  He doesn’t want to hear.  He doesn’t care.  This is the worst, most blameworthy, form of vincible ignorance.

-by Greg Witherow, Holy Trinity Parish, Gainesville, VA

“To begin with, the teaching that “there is no salvation outside of the Church”1 is a “de fide” (what must be believed) dogma2. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated, “The universal Church of the faithful is one outside of which none is saved”. This was the teaching also of the Union Council of Florence (1438-1445), Pope Innocent III, Clement VI, Benedict XIV, Pope Boniface VIII in the papal bull Unam Sanctum, Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius XII in the Encyclical Mystici Corporis3. But does the Magisterium address exceptions to formal membership to the Church?

This question is answered by reviewing the excommunication of Father Leonard Feeney, Feeneyism, in 1953, a recent yet pre-Vatican II4 case that illustrates the Church’s teaching. Father Feeney was excommunicated because he rejected the teaching of baptism of desire, either explicit or implicit. As baptism is the gate into the Catholic Church, he held all the unbaptized are undoubtedly lost. This was in direct conflict with the teaching of the
Church. It has always been held that salvation is possible for the unbaptized, assuming the person has either an explicit or implicit desire for Christ and his Church. Such people are mystically (not formally) attached to the Church, if indeed they are in a state of
grace5. The Feeney case illustrates two things. First, there are exceptions to formal membership and secondly, such exceptions are not a post Vatican II invention.”

“Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ.”
St. Athanasius

“Turn your thoughts away from a non-Catholic, turn away your ears, so that you may have strength to grasp life everlasting through the one, true and holy Catholic Church. Our Lord warns all the faithful: they must not put any faith in heretics or schismatics. “
-St. Augustine


  1. Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed this in the papal bull Unam Sanctum in 1302.
  2. The Fundamentals of the Catholic Faith, page 312.
  3. Taken from The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (by Dr. Ludwig Ott) on page 312.
  4. I will use as many pre-Vatican II examples as possible as some are suspicious of the post-Vatican II era.
  5. The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 depicts a non-Christian who was a true follower of God. In the story we see Cornelius is neither a Christian (he hadn’t heard the Gospel yet) nor a Jew (he was considered by Peter to be a Gentile). Yet he was in a state of grace before he received the Gospel or was baptized. We know this because his prayers were heard and his alms were accepted as pleasing to God, as Hebrews 11:6 states, “without faith it is impossible to please God”. This means Cornelius must have had faith, which can only be obtained by the work of the Holy Spirit on someone’s soul. Cornelius had the Holy Spirit in the same manner pre-Pentecost believers had Him. With baptism he received a post-Pentecost portion of the Holy Spirit. Characteristics Cornelius had marking him as a man of God included prayer, fasting, almsgiving, the fear of the Lord, righteousness AND upon hearing the Gospel, he did not reject it – i.e. it was not because he was “a good person”. Baptism brought him into a full, formal communion with the Church.