Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ignorance of the Wrong-The Modern Rude

INVINCIBLE IGNORANCE OF THE NATURAL LAW must be admitted; however, there must also be care in how far one extends this principle. Can one say, for example, that men can be invincibly ignorant of the foundational precept of the natural law--that one ought to do good and avoid evil? Or that men may be invincibly ignorant of some of the first principles? Can there be a man who is invincibly ignorant of the principle that one ought not to take the life of an innocent man? What about the more remote conclusions or determinations? Can there be men who are invincibly ignorant of the natural moral law that would prohibit the procurement of a direct abortion under all circumstances as a necessary corollary to the principle that one ought not intentionally to take the innocent life of another human being? When in this intellectual movement between the general and the particular, between theory and practice, between the abstract and the contingent does the possibility of invincible ignorance of the natural law (and hence excuse from formal sin) begin to exist?

The common answer, now part of Catholic tradition, is that first principles--that which is ensconced in the seat of conscience or the Thomistic synderesis--cannot be the subject of invincible ignorance. "This conclusion has come down intact [from the Scholastic theologians such as Sts. Thomas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, etc.] through Suarez and the post-reformation theologians and is now unanimous." Bertke, 65-66. Excepted from this view are those who do not have the normal use of practical reason--infants, the insane, and so forth. What is meant by conscience or synderesis in this context is the "constant disposition [i.e., a habitus] of the intellect by which it immediately sees first principles . . . in the practical order," and this includes the self-evident principles and the intellectual feltness that the fundamental inclinations in all men are inclinations to the good.

Knowledge is lost when one steps down from the universal to apply the law to particular instances, i.e., in the exercise of practical reason in the prudential decisions required by man in the various contingent situations in which he may find himself. Here, not only is there internal static which may frustrate the proper application of the general principle to the particular situation (disordered will, inherited predispositions to certain sins), there may be external static as well (evil customs, bad moral formation, habitual participation in sin which deadens sensitivity to violation of principle).*

Though not invincibly ignorant of first principles, men may be invincibly ignorant of some of the direct (or proximate) conclusions derived from the self-evident first principles. However, we may say that the majority of men will not be invincibly ignorant of such direct conclusions such as the prohibitions against murder, adultery, or stealing for example. There are however a minority of men (extraordinary cases) that may be invincibly ignorance of one or another of these fundamental precepts, and this because of evil traditions or customs, education, or depraved habits.

Whether this ignorance will be invincible or not depends on the individual person. But when we consider the overpowering weight of long tradition and custom justifying an action which may be objectively contrary to the law and yet the object of a strong lower appetite, inculpable ignorance may be possible. In such circumstances it is only with great difficulty that the conviction of the surrounding culture could be discarded; that is, more diligence would have to be exercised than required for ordinary invincible ignorance. Theologians generally admit the possibility of invincible ignorance in the case of rudes or the uncultured. The term rudes may very well be applied to the finished products of some modern education where all values are relative and the moral order is considered a collection of taboos and customs.
Bertke, 71.

It follows that if men may in extraordinary situations (which may still be quite common) be ignorant of proximate conclusions, that they will be a greater tendency toward invincible ignorance in the area of more remote conclusions. Even Saints--whose good will and formation cannot be gainsaid--may find themselves in situation where there is uncertainty, and yet where one would seem to have got it wrong. Bertke gives the example of the difference of opinion between St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure on what a judge ought to do if, under the admissible evidence in a judicial forum, a defendant is judicially guilty, but he is known by the judge as a result of matters outside the forum to be innocent. Ought the judge condemn the defendant as part of his sworn obligation to follow the positive law and procedures or not? St. Thomas would hold the judge bound in justice to condemn. St. Bonaventure finds this conclusion impossible to maintain as consonant with justice. Bertke, 73.
*In distinguishing between an incontinent man and an intemperate man, Bertke notes that the "constancy of action attained by the intemperate man through habit," is different from that "unsteadiness of the incontinent" who has not lost the force of "universal moral principle." In the intemperate man (of which there are many) "the habit of sin is so ingrained that the subject finds a certain equilibrium in sin." Bertke, 69. This is a horrible, yet unquestionable reality: that many of our fellows operate in this moral limbo, this "equilibrium in sin." Yet even in the intemperate, invincible ignorance of the fundamental principles cannot be said to exist. "True, obscured by habits of sin, the universal moral principles do not affect the immediate question of action. However, speculatively, when no action is involved the intemperate man will still admit the first principles." Bertke, 69. This is evidence that they are not wholly inoperative and the subject of invincible ignorance. The ignorance lies in the particular domain (he is blind as to his own intemperance), but not in the universal domain.

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