In Catholic moral theology, there are two types of ignorance to grasp: vincible and invincible. Both play a role in determining a person’s moral responsibility for their actions.
Here’s a breakdown to help you understand these concepts in everyday terms!
Imagine there’s a book you’ve been told you should read because it contains important information. If you don’t bother to pick it up, despite having easy access to it, that’s akin to vincible ignorance. Essentially, it’s ignorance stemming from a lack of effort. If you act on this ignorance, you’re considered responsible because you had the means to know better but chose not to. As the saying goes, “Ignorance of the law excuses no one.” This kind of ignorance can be:
Of law: Not knowing the law or how a situation fits into it.
Of fact: Not knowing a specific detail or circumstance.
Of penalty: Being unaware of the punishment attached to a crime.
Depending on how much effort was made to dismiss this ignorance, its impact on one’s moral culpability can range. Minimal effort means the ignorance is termed “crass” or “supine”, reducing guilt only slightly. However, if one deliberately chooses to remain ignorant, it can even increase guilt.
On the other hand, think of a rare book in a foreign language that you’ve never heard of. If you’re unaware of its existence or can’t understand it even if you tried, that’s similar to invincible ignorance. It’s ignorance that’s impossible (or nearly impossible) to overcome. In the words of moral theologians, “An action committed in ignorance of the law or the facts is not a voluntary act.” So, if you act based on this ignorance, you’re not held morally responsible.
The concept of invincible ignorance isn’t just a modern idea. Historic figures like Aquinas mentioned it in his “Summa Theologica” in the 13th century. Even earlier references trace back to Origen in the 3rd century!
While invincible ignorance clears you from blame, vincible ignorance doesn’t let you off the hook completely. It’s essential to recognize the difference and the role knowledge plays in shaping our moral choices.