Last August, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi caused a stir when she made some questionable statements on Meet the Press. Pelosi described herself as an “ardent, practicing Catholic,” and said that abortion is an issue that she has “studied for a long time.” She then went on to say that abortion is an “issue of controversy” in the Church, one that has never been definitively decided one way or the other.
This statement is blatantly false. The Church is very clear about her teachings on abortion. Furthermore, modern science supports the Church’s teachings that life begins at conception. There is really no room for differing opinions on this matter.
With Catholic leaders being so explicit in stating the Church’s long-held beliefs, one has to wonder whether Pelosi truly believes her claims that the Church is undecided on the issue. Of course, I am in no position to judge my fellow human being, but I do know that any Catholic who has studied the subject on either the scientific or theological level will find that both point towards the truth: human life begins at conception.
Is Pelosi really ignorant of the Church’s stance in this matter? Again, I can’t say, but I do find this incident to be very relevant, even today, almost a year after it occurred. I have run into many Catholics, both young and old, who don’t really seem to understand some of the Catholic Church’s teachings. Some admit that they don’t know, while others make claims like that of Pelosi, arguing something contrary to Church teaching and trying to justify it with their faith.
Ignorance of the truths of the Catholic faith is very dangerous. The devil wants us to remain ignorant of Church teaching, so that we will believe the false ideas he suggests to us through the world. Ignorance can lead us to commit evil, sinful acts, and in many cases, our ignorance does not remove our responsibility for those acts.
The Catechism explains that if a person has “invincible” ignorance on a subject, meaning that the person had no way of knowing that his action was evil, then “the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.” In this case, the individual is not culpable for committing the evil act, but the act he commits is nonetheless evil. We must try to avoid such situations by educating ourselves on good and evil so that we do not unknowingly commit evil acts (CCC 1793).
But if the ignorance on the morality of an act is “vincible,” meaning that the person could have found out that the act was evil if he had looked into it, he is still responsible for committing the sin. This is the case when a person “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin” (Gaudium et Spes 16). In these cases, the person is accountable for their own ignorance, and they are still culpable for the evil act committed.
Invincible ignorance is something that may be understandable in a less-developed society. But in America today, there is very little reason for Catholics to be ignorant of their faith. It is true that people may be confused, taught incorrectly, or subject to bad examples given by others. But the truth is out there, and in modern times, it is easier than ever to find. Unprecedented numbers of people have internet access, giving them the ability to find a plethora of information. With online Bibles, catechisms, papal encyclicals, Church documents and other resources just a click away, can Catholics really claim to be invincibly ignorant of what the Church teaches? Is there really no way that they could have found the truth professed by the Catholic Church? Or is their ignorance vincible, simply resulting from their failure to properly form their consciences?
The Catechism counsels us on the importance of forming our consciences in accordance with the truths professed by the Church. It tells us that formation of conscience is “indispensable” for Catholics to fight temptation and choose the good. Furthermore, this formation of conscience is a “lifelong task,” something that we must constantly be doing as we grow in our faith (CCC 1783-1784).
As we form our consciences, we must heed Christ’s warning about the “false prophets” (Mt. 24:24) who will come in his name, preaching falsities and deceiving the people. Unfortunately, there are those who would claim to speak on behalf of the Church, but their message does not align with Christ’s teachings. We must exercise caution and beware of those who defy the truths proclaimed by the Magisterium. We must look for truth from the heart of the Church, trusting Christ’s promise to guide the Magisterium, and the faithful through them.
As young adult Catholics, we are surrounded by ignorance, but we must stand strong against the world. We must make a solid effort to educate ourselves and form our consciences, arming ourselves against the devil, preparing for the spiritual warfare that is sure to come our way on college campuses. This is true not only for abortion, but for all moral issues. If our goal is to be “ardent, practicing Catholics,” we need to give ourselves the tools to live a faith-filled life.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.