One of the most dangerous things that we can get wrong in Catholic theology is what the Church means by invincible ignorance. The Catechism reaffirms the traditional teaching that “outside the Church there is no salvation” and then explains that “this affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church,” quoting the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 16) that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (847). This ignorance—“through no fault of their own”—is what the Catechism means by invincible ignorance.
Understood properly, this is what Catholics have always believed, and what Scripture plainly teaches. But it’s possible to misunderstand the teaching in two serious (and dangerous) ways.
First, let’s consider what this teaching does mean. In short, it means that we’ll be judged based on what we knew (or should have known), not for what we didn’t have the power to know. Jesus gives the standard that “every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). God gives some people more helps than others, but he also expects more of those people. In the parable of the talents, the Master (clearly representing God) “called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matt. 25:14-15).
In his commentary on the parable, the Lutheran scholar Arland Hultgren points out that “the sums distributed to the three slaves are enormous,” since a single talent was worth 6,000 denarii (a denarius being the standard daily wage for a laborer), or about sixteen years’ worth of salary. In other words, there is no one whom the Master leaves empty-handed or ill equipped. There are only those to whom “much is given” and those who to whom even more is given. When it comes to divine assistance, no one is poor: there are only the rich and the super-rich. Everyone has at least natural law and conscience, as St. Paul points out (Rom. 2:13-16):
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
The first error, then, is thinking people are more ignorant than they are: imagining that there are people out there living in some sort of state of blissful ignorance, unaware of the moral law or the demands of conscience, and that this ignorance is a sort of “Go Straight to Heaven” card. Outside those with severe mental impairments, that’s a terrible misunderstanding of what Scripture and experience teach about those who have never heard of Christianity. Instead, we find people trying to make it through life with only conscience and natural law, without the aids of divine revelation or the saving waters of baptism or sacramental confession or any of the other tools Jesus gives us to aid us in our journey. The truth is, the gospel really is good news, capable of saving non-believers (not endangering their salvation), which is why Christ commands that we “make disciples of all nations” while “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
But the second error is thinking people are less ignorant than they really are: that invincible ignorance means only those who lack information. The biblical evidence paints a different picture. Jesus, on the cross, cries out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Reading that, we might think of Malcolm X mocking the nonviolent approach of many in the Civil Rights Movement: “You sit there when they’re putting the rope around your neck saying, ‘Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do.’ As long as they’ve been doing it, they’re experts at it, they know what they’re doing!” Likewise, how can Jesus say “they know not what they do”? Who knew crucifixion better than the Romans, and who knew theology better than the high priest and scribes and Pharisees? Yet St. Peter says the same thing, telling the “men of Israel” that they “denied the holy and righteous one, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the author of life,” but that “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:12-17).
It’s easy to think of “ignorance” as those who have literally never heard the gospel. But the people the Bible is calling ignorant did hear. Jesus reminds those who arrested him about how “day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me” (Matt. 26:55). They had been closely watching and listening to him. We hear throughout the Gospels about how “the Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him” (Mark 8:11), and how “the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him” (Luke 6:7), and how they debated among themselves what to do about him by saying, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:47-48).
When we talk about those in “ignorance” about the gospel, we might imagine someone on a desert island who’s never heard of Jesus Christ. The scribes and Pharisees were nearly the opposite, yet somehow both Jesus and Peter can say they acted in ignorance.
Instead of lacking information, it’s probably better to think of invincible ignorance with regard to understanding. Think about it this way. In the fourteenth century, the election of Pope Urban VI was disputed, meaning that two different men (Urban and Antipope Clement VII) both credibly claimed to be the pope. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “the saints themselves were divided: St Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Sweden, Bl. Peter of Aragon, Bl. Ursulina of Parma, Philippe d’Alencon, and Gerard de Groote were in the camp of Urban; St. Vincent Ferrer, Bl. Peter of Luxemburg, and St. Colette belonged to the party of Clement.” Both the saints who chose correctly and those who chose incorrectly possessed the same information (the basic facts were known to all), but some of them understood that information, while others, through no apparent fault of their own, misunderstood.
A Catholic who knew that Urban was the true pope and refused to submit to him would be sinning gravely and endangering his own salvation. But both these fourteenth-century saints, and the first-century Jewish leaders demonstrate that there is such a thing as an ignorance of understanding, even among those who have all the right information.
In the last analysis, the question of which people are and aren’t “ignorant” (and which types of ignorance really are “through no fault of their own”) is known to God alone. I’m reminded of the Seal of the President of the United States, which has an eagle on it with olive branches (representing peace) in one talon and arrows (representing war) in the other. We hope for the best but prepare for the worst. We have been shown enough to know that we need to share the good news widely, and that we need to entrust others (including especially those who seem to knowingly reject the Faith!) to the justice and the mercy of the God who knows their heart.