“It’s a creative approach to saving souls,” Dingwall said.
“What is?” I asked.
“Invincible ignorance,” Dingwall replied.
Although we often talked about Church teaching, this was the first time he had mentioned invincible ignorance.
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.
“Invincible ignorance is a deficiency of knowledge that you can’t reasonably overcome and consequently are not responsible for,” he explained.
“I know what it means,” I told him. “I’m not sure I understand what it has to do with saving souls.”
“If you’re invincibly ignorant about Church teachings on faith or morals,” he said, “you can be saved even though you violate them.”
I couldn’t help but agree that this was a creative approach. I had always thought that truth, not ignorance, was the preferred route to salvation.
“Of course it is,” he said, when I told him. “But truth demands obedience, sacrifice, virtue—all sorts of difficult discipline. Ignorance doesn’t. It’s much easier.”
“You have Biblical support for the creative approach?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote that, although people sinned before God gave the law to Moses, it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break.”
“But, Dingwall,” I protested, “today we not only have the mosaic law but the teachings of Christ through the Church he founded. How could we be invincibly ignorant?”
“We might be,” Dingwall suggested, “if the clergy who shepherd us were to dissent from Church teachings or keep silent on them.”
“I can’t imagine why our shepherds would do either,” I replied.
“For pastoral reasons,” he said. “In caring for souls, our shepherds strive to apply demanding doctrines compassionately.”
“But I always thought that the pastoral and the doctrinal shouldn’t conflict,” I said. “Are you suggesting that some clergy misapply Church teaching, or remain silent about it, so the faithful who commit serious sins can plead invincible ignorance on judgment day?”
“It seems so,” he said.
“Where ignorance is blessed, it is folly to be wise?”
“I don’t know how else to explain the Episcopal response to the teaching against contraception,” he said. “The Canadian Bishops stated that anyone who sincerely tries, but fails, to follow the teaching ‘… may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.’”
“Not in good conscience,” I objected, “in erroneous conscience.”
“True,” he said, “but if the error is not his fault, he’s off the hook. Hence, the saving power of invincible ignorance.”
“Lack of knowledge is power?”
“Why do you think seminaries have taught future priests not to trouble the consciences of the faithful about contraception? When did you last hear a sermon against it?”
“I don’t know why or when,” I replied. “But it seems to me we’re talking about indulgence, not compassion.”
“Although the Church holds that contraception is gravely immoral,” he continued, “a Catholic columnist wrote in a national newspaper that it is not generally considered a confessable infraction.”
“It’s only a venial sin?”
“But within a year,” Dingwall said, “he changed his mind.”
“It’s now a mortal sin?”
“It’s neither mortal nor venial,” Dingwall said. “He now thinks that the teaching against contraception is not a prohibition of sin that we are bound to obey. Rather, it is a counsel of perfection that we are free to ignore.”
“But to avoid scandal,” I said, “his Bishop must surely have corrected him in the same newspaper.”
“Not that I noticed,” Dingwall said.
I was beginning to wonder how far invincible ignorance as a creative approach to saving souls might extend. I couldn’t help noticing that Catholic politicians who publicly support in vitro fertilization, abortion and same-sex “marriage” rarely incur public Episcopal correction.
“It’s not just sex-related teachings that appear to attract this form of pastoral care,” Dingwall said, when I voiced my concern. “The precept requiring that we assist at Mass on Sundays and other holy days also seems to attract it, as does the precept that we abstain from meat on Fridays.”
“I thought the Church abolished Friday abstinence following Vatican II,” I replied.
“You’ve just proved my point,” he said. “Friday abstinence remains, although Bishops can substitute some other food or other forms of penance, like charitable works and pious exercises.”
“I guess I, too, will have to plead invincible ignorance on judgment day,” I said.