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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ignorance of the Wrong-Development of an Idea, St. Albert the Great

IN OUR LAST POSTING WE ENDED our review of the historical development of the role of ignorance of the law, the ignorantia iuris, by exploring the concept from Gratian through William of Auxerre and then its division into the Franciscan rigorist school (which maintained William of Auxerre's exceptionless dictum that any ignorance of the natural law was inexcusable) and the less rigorous Dominican school (which soft-pedaled but did not retract or contradict William of Auxerre's dictum).

We shall now turn to St. Albert the Great and his Commentary on the Sentences, where he directly approaches the question of whether ignorance of the law, ignorantia iuris, is sinful or whether there may be mitigating circumstances that may offer excuse. In addressing this question, St. Albert appears to depart from the early Dominicans and lapses back into a more rigorist position. For example, St. Albert opines that ignorance of those moral truths that are necessary for life in common and those necessary for salvation--the precepts against fornication, murder, and so forth--is always sinful and is inexcusable. Similarly treated is ignorance of that knowledge necessary for one's state or office in life, the ignorance of which is sinful and without excuse.

St. Albert the Great
(Sanctus Albertus Magnus)
[E]t est privatio habitus regentibus in moribus necessariis ad salutem: et haec est duplex, scilicet quaedam est habitus privatio instruentis ad ea quae necessaria sunt vitae in communi, ut ignorantia juris divini ordinantis mores in praceptis, ut fornicationem esse peccatum mortale, et homicidium, et hujusmodi: et haec est peccatum in habentibus usum rationis. Alia est privatio habitus practici intellectus regentis in pertinentibus ad officium, ut Pontifex factas litteras ad fidem et mores instituentes tenetur scire, et sacerdos ea sine quibus actus sacerdotalis non valet exerceri, et hujusmodi: et haec ignorantia habitu officio etiam peccatum est, sed non habito, non est peccatus.

And it is the privation of a habit of morals the guidance of which is necessary for salvation: and this is of two kinds, namely, there is a certain privation of the habit of which instructs as to those things that are necessary for life in common, as, for example, ignorance of the divine law which which precepts of the manners of such life, such as that fornication, or murder, or the like are mortal sins: and this is a sin in those who have the use of reason. The other is the privation of a habit ruling the practical intellect in the things pertaining to their office [state in life], such as the obligation of the Pope to know matters of faith and morals, and that of the priest to know those things without which his priestly acts are invalid, and such like, and this ignorance in the habit of their office [or state of life] is a sin, but if it is not in the habit, it is not a sin.

II Sent., D. XXII, I, art. 7.*/**

St. Albert distinguishes further between affective or voluntary ignorance (i.e., involving an act of will) and intellectual ignorance. If the ignorance is affective or voluntary, then the consequent act is sinful and without excuse. However, if the ignorance is intellectual and not voluntary, there may be an excusing cause. If the ignorance is one of fact alone, there is a complete excuse because the act would be involuntary. (If the fact were known, the wrongful act would not have been done.) This is not the case is the intellectual ignorance is an ignorance of law. Ignorance of the law may or may not excuse, depending upon its level of crassness.

Dicendum, quod ignorantia secundum quod est peccatum, sive de se, sive de annexo, aliquid habet in affectu, secundum quod affectata dicitur: et habet aliquid in intellectu scilicet privationem habitus regentis in operabilibus pertinentibus ad vitam vel officium.

Dicendum igitur, quod quantum ad primum, peccatum est. Quantum autem ad secundum non est peccatum, et excusat vel a toto, si est particularis et facti: vel a tanto, si est juris vel universalis, quod idem est: quia ex illa parte facit ignorare circumstantias in quibus est actus, et ita est causa involuntarii quod meretur ignoscentiam et misericordiam aliquam.

It must be said, that ignorance insofar as it is a sin, whether of itself (de se), or collaterally (de annexo), is something had in the affection, according to which it said to be affected, and such a person has something in the intellect, that is, a privation in the habit which governs practical matters pertaining to life or one's office [or state] in life.

It must be said, therefore, that in regard to the former, it is sinful. As to the latter, it is not sinful, and one may be excused in part or entirely, if it is [a privation involving] something particular and of fact; but inasmuch as [the privation] is one of law or something universal, which is the same: for that part done when ignorant of the circumstances regarding the act is an involuntary cause done in ignorance which merits a certain mercy.

II Sent., D. XXII, I, art. 9 & ad. 1.

St. Albert distinguishes different kinds of ignorance, though the most basic division is vincible ignorance from invincible ignorance. There is ignorance which invincible in the nature of things (invincibilis ex natura), such as those who do not have the use of reason (stulti, morionibus, et melancholicis), and such ignorance totally excuses. There is ignorance which is accidentally invicible (invincibilis ex accidente), and this is two-fold, depending upon whether the accidental aspect is separable or inseparable (aut separabile, aut inseparabile), that is temporary or lasting, the former existing as a result of inebriation or drug-induced states, the latter being something as a result of an illness. Here the great division is based upon whether such accidental states are self-imposed. If one has no fault in the accidental loss of knowledge, one is entirely excused. However, if the accidental loss of knowledge is knowingly self-imposed, then it depends upon whether the state of ignorance was the result of a licit or illicit act. If the temporary loss of knowledge results as a collateral effect of some licit act, there is an excuse. If, however, the temporary loss of knowledge is something venially illicit, one is excused, but if it is mortally illicit, then one is not entirely excused.

Vincible ignorance can be divided into ignorance of fact and of law, which is the same distinction as the particular and the universal. Law is nothing but the universal rule that governs life or governs one's office or state (quia ius vocatur hic regulae universales et regentes vitam, vel officium). When it comes to particular matters, that is, contingent matters of fact, even the wise can be ignorant. And as to particular or contingent matters--which are matters of fact--ignorance of such matters may entirely excuse someone from sin. Ignorance of the law, however, is assessed differently:
Juris autem est duplex: quia quoddam est jus universale, quod omnimbus imponitur ad sciendum: et quoddam est particular, quod non scitur nisi per studium: et puto, quod prima est crassa et supona, non excusans. Secunda autem excusat, vel a tanto, vel a toto, si est casus multum dificilis.

[Ignorance of] law, however, is twofold: that which relates to the universal law, which is imposed upon all and of which all have knowledge: and that which relates to the particular, such that it is not known except by study: And I say that the first [kind of ignorance] is crass and supine, and inexcusable. The second kind [of ignorance] is subject to excuse, whether in whole or in part, depending upon whether the case is very difficult.
II Sent., D. XXII, I, art. 10.

Manifestly, for St. Albert, ignorance of the basic, universal natural moral law is never excused. Such ignorance is always crass and supine and blameworthy.

*For St. Albert the Great's notion of habit, see our prior posting St. Albert the Great: Natural Law as Habitus.
**St. Albert's Commentaries are found at

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