The old manuals in moral theology made a distinction between two kinds of ignorance, culpable and inculpable. The latter, also termed invincible ignorance, was seen as something which excused one from sin and moral blame.
For those who consider such distinctions medieval casuistry, there are Christ’s words at the time of his crucifixion: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23,34). Jesus, himself, refuses to consider anyone a sinner who acts in ignorance.
Nobody can sin in ignorance … and this has implications beyond those immediately evident. My own hunch is that there is, in fact, a lot less sin around and a lot less need to assign moral blame than both the critics of the new and old morality suspect. We are all morally inept. We all do things that we shouldn’t do and we all neglect to do things that we should do.
However, while the damage to others and ourselves that arises out of this is real, there is, I submit, habitually an extenuating ignorance and naiveté. For the most part, we are innocent because we don’t know what we are doing! Not because, many times, we do not know that we are doing something wrong, since we do know, but because we are ignorant of how much we are loved. If we knew how deeply we are held in love, we would be very different persons.
All sin is a betrayal of love. Accordingly when there is no real felt experience of love there can be no real felt experience of sin either. This is true as regards our relationship towards both God and community. When we don’t experience ourselves as loved by community, we cannot sin against community. When we don’t experience ourselves as loved by God, we cannot sin against God. To not know love is to be unable to sin. When we don’t know that we are loved then we don’t know what we are doing morally either.
Several years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Being a loved sinner”. A woman wrote to me shortly afterwards commenting: “I liked the gist of your article; but the expression loved sinner is a tautology. One can only sin if one is loved. I am 49 years old and can honestly say that for the first 46 years of my life I did not commit a sin. This is true not because I didn’t, during those years, do many bad things, but because during those years I never felt loved. Three years ago, I fell in love. Now, when I do something wrong, I know I am sinning. I can truly say that, until I had an experience of being loved, I didn’t know what I was doing even when I thought I did!”
When Christ asks God to pardon his executioners on the basis of their naiveté and ignorance “they do not know what they are doing” the excusing darkness is not so much an ignorance of right or wrong or even of the fact that they were crucifying the Christ, but of the fact that they, and those who had put them up to this, did not know how they were loved.
Not realizing how we are loved is the real darkness, the real inculpable and invincible ignorance. In ignorance we crucify the Christ! In ignorance we compromise ourselves! In ignorance we sell ourselves short, settle for second best, abuse others and ourselves, abandon our ideals, fill with rage and jealousy, and give in to every kind of masturbatory compensation and paranoia. When we do these things, many of us know that we are doing wrong … and we are! What we don’t know is how much we are loved! Most of what, in the full light of love, would be sin is, in the darkness of our ignorance, nothing more than the acting out that follows upon despair and resignation. We are not so bad or malicious as we are wounded and despairing of love.
Christ’s words: “Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing!” are a challenge to us to let some light into our darkness. But the light that leads to a real moral sense does not emanate, first and foremost, from the realization that we have been, in ignorance, crucifying God’s presence on earth, nor does it depend upon achieving the correct sensitivities and moral tuning. Rather, we will realize that we have been in ignorance and darkness, crucifying Christ and others and compromising ourselves, when we sense how much we are loved and how precious we really are. That realization is the root of all morality and its absence is the inculpable darkness which lets us go on naively crucifying Christ, others, and ourselves.
Morris West once wrote: “All miracles begin with the act of falling in love.” Christ’s executioners acted in a darkness that resulted from never properly having had that experience.