Invincible ignorance (Catholic theology)
Invincible ignorance is used in Catholic moral theology to refer to the state of persons (such as pagans and infants) who are ignorant of the Christian message because they have not yet had an opportunity to hear it. It is the opposite of the term vincible ignorance. The first Pope to use the term officially seems to have been Pope Pius IX in the allocution Singulari Quadam (9 December 1854) and the encyclicals Singulari Quidem (17 March 1856) and Quanto Conficiamur Moerore (10 August 1863). The term, however, is far older than that. Aquinas, for instance, uses it in his Summa Theologica (written 1265–1274), and discussion of the concept can be found as far back as Origen (3rd century).
Doctrine of invincible ignorance
"Invincible ignorance excuses from all culpability. An action committed in ignorance of the law prohibiting it, or of the facts of the case, is not a voluntary act." On the other hand, it is culpable to remain willfully ignorant of matters that one is obligated to know (vincible ignorance). In this case the individual is morally responsible for their ignorance, and for the acts resulting from it. The guilt associated with an offense committed in ignorance is less than it would have been if the act were committed in full knowledge, because in that case the offense is less voluntary.
Protestants diverged from Catholic doctrine in this area during the Reformation. Martin Luther believed that invincible ignorance was only a valid excuse for offenses against human law. In his view, we are ignorant of divine law because of original sin, for which we all bear guilt. John Calvin agreed that ignorance of God's law is always vincible.
The theological term "invincible ignorance" should not be confused with the logical term Invincible ignorance fallacy. When and how the term was taken by logicians to refer to the very different state of persons who willfully refuse to attend to evidence remains unclear, but one of its first uses was in the 1959 book Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument by W. Ward Fearnside and William B. Holther.
- Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia IIae q.76 a.2
- George Hayward Joyce, “INVINCIBLE IGNORANCE,” ed. James Hastings, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh; New York: T. & T. Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908–1926), 403.
- Fearnside, W. Ward and William B. Holther, Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument, 1959. ISBN 9780133017700.