Sense and Nonsense: On Being Sinfully Ignorant

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Unlike many contemporaries who do not even recognize the concept, Socrates made sin simply a question of ignorance. To get rid of any disorder in our souls, all we need to do is to teach the truth. Ever more education is the ticket. We need method and diligence. If only we knew better, we would never sin. This view is one of the world’s most dubious assumptions. The growth rates of “higher” education and of the more sophisticated sinning of its recipients are, in fact, roughly parallel.

Socrates was not wholly wrong. He is almost always right, even when he is wrong. An element of knowledge is a factor in the (presumably) pleasant art of wickedness. Aristotle was more hard-headed. He saw, as Socrates did, that the worst men were often the most intelligent men. He also understood that we ourselves first select the knowledge component of a particular sin.

Knowledge by itself is good. We are supposed to know what sin is, even its depths. Naïveté is not a Christian virtue. We cannot know what is good without knowing how that which is bad relates to it. Prior to a sin, the will has before it any number of options that it may choose to guide its action. Thus, if we want to do something that is wrong, we can always come up with a plausible reason that will explain, to our own satisfaction at least, why what we do is “all right.”

But the question of whether ignorance itself can be sinful is an interesting one. Take, for instance, the question of whether Catholics worship the Blessed Virgin as “god.” Or the claim that Catholics possess three gods. These and similar accusations are given as reasons why Catholicism is not true.


No doubt Catholic apologists love to hear that such wild claims made against the Faith are the reasons it is rejected. If the Catholic Church said that Mary was precisely god or that there were indeed three gods, none of us in our right minds would be Catholics. People who insist that Catholics worship Mary or adore three gods usually do not want to know what Catholics do maintain on these issues. To be Catholic requires, at a minimum, the use of one’s brain.

Or take the opposite situation: Catholic teachings—say, on birth control or abortion—are said to be irrational. They are anything but irrational. Indeed, they are the most rational positions in the whole field. Almost always, the arguments of Catholicism are said to be irrational because no one wants to confront the serious rationality that grounds them. If one wants abortion or birth control to be true, one better not look too carefully at why they might not be valid.

The whole issue of the Da Vinci Code brings up another aspect of this question of sinful ignorance. The fanciful pseudo-history about Judas, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, and reconstructions of the Passion as it might have been are the raw materials of novels. But if someone is shaken in his faith because of the supposed “scientific logic” of Dan Brown, something more contorted is at issue. It is not that Catholic scholarship has not anticipated or examined such claims in a most sober light. It is rather not having the enterprise to discover where to go for sensible answers.

One thinks of the thousands and thousands of students in our high schools and colleges, public and private. Students should know ahead of time that these academic places are mini-battlegrounds. They should know where to turn. Simply to do nothing, to make no effort to examine the validity of anti-Catholic views, is a sinful ignorance. The adequate balance is out there. We must know where to turn to find it. Not to know means that we have to rely on what we already do not know. “What did you go forth to see, a reed shaken in the wind?”

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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