John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus what he wants, and the latter’s response is unambiguous: “Master, I want to see.” And Jesus gives him back his sight.
The episode of Bartimaeus is one of several healings of the sightless in the Gospels, the most famous being the man born blind, found in John 9, which is a standard text for Christian initiation on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. In that text, Jesus draws a powerful contrast between the man born physically blind, who recognizes that the hand of God has touched him, and the spiritually blind Pharisees, who stubbornly insist that the hand of God does the work of the devil. (The text also includes an aside with the parents of the blind man, who see but won’t speak).
Catholic moral theology makes a distinction between what it calls “invincible ignorance” and “vincible ignorance.” To commit a sin requires both knowledge and consent: I know X is wrong but I want to do it. That’s where ignorance as a factor affecting moral responsibility comes in.
“Invincible ignorance” is a lack of relevant knowledge which I do not have and could not be expected to have. If I honestly did not know something was wrong, and no normal person would be expected to know something was wrong, my responsibility is diminished, perhaps even excused. In my best judgment, that animal on the other side of the forest that I shot at looked like a deer, acted like a deer, and behaved like a deer. I could not be expected to know it was some weird guy in a deer suit. On the other hand, I cannot plead ignorance and say, “I didn’t know plunging a knife into somebody’s back wouldn’t be good for them.”
“Vincible ignorance” is playing dumb: not obtaining morally relevant information I could have and readily obtain in order to feign ignorance, “I didn’t know.” It’s not asking something because I might not like the answer.
Bartimaeus tells Jesus, “I want to see.”
The question for many contemporary Catholics is, “Do I really want to see?”
How often do we prefer not to know? Pretending we don’t see what’s happening under our noses?
Humanae vitae is 50 years old this year. It reflects and expresses Catholic sexual and marital ethics.
We hear a lot about “dissent” from Humanae vitae. But how many Catholics can honestly explain what the encyclical teaches . . . and why?
Sure, there’s the stock answer: “the Church says contraception is bad.” In the most basic sense, that’s true. But can you explain why the Church teaches what it does?
Lots of people have a stock answer about Humanae vitae, but have you ever bothered to read it? (For those willing to take the challenge: here it is.)
Do you really want to see?
Why the same Church that protects fertility as a gift from God also opposes artificial techniques of reproduction, like in vitro fertilization?
Other than perhaps calling it the “rhythm method” (a false and inaccurate term), do you understand the basis of modern natural family planning?
If somebody asked you, “Why do you Catholics oppose surrogacy /abortion/ cloning/ fetal experimentation/ etc. could you make a plausible defense of what your Church teaches?
And, if you couldn’t, are you willing to find out why?
Do you really want to see?
Or do you prefer to feign vincible ignorance?
Two years before he became Pope himself, John Paul preached the 1976 Lenten retreat for Pope Paul VI and the papal court. That retreat became the little book, Sign of Contradiction. During that retreat, the future Pope told the incumbent that Humanae vitae and Persona humana (a declaration issued in 1975, reaffirming the Church’s teaching on premarital sex, masturbation and homosexual activity, which by then was also under attack) were “signs of contradiction.” “We are in a lively battle for the dignity of man,” Wojtyła said.
What the Church teaches about sexual morality is not just the “Church’s opinion” or “my business.” The Church says that what is at stake is nothing less than human dignity itself. Even if you may not at first think so, isn’t that a serious enough claim to warrant some investigation?
Do I really want to see?
From “a little bit of contraception” in “some circumstances” in 1968, we have come to the point where: 60,000,000 babies are dead in America because of a pseudo-“right” to “choose”; several hundred thousand embryos exist in a frozen world, conceived but unable to be born because they were not chosen in the “most likely to succeed” beauty contest of IVF; the very notion of sexual differentiation, “male and female He created them,” is being written off by the culture and elite opinion as a vestige of “discrimination” to be “overcome”; 11-year-olds are being given puberty suppressants and healthy 16-year-olds are undergoing mastectomies and genital mutilation because they think they are the “wrong” sex; “Catholic” politicians, whose Church teaches that “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et spes, # 51) vote for abortion and funding those who do them, all the while advertising their “Catholic social justice” credentials; marriage has lost its normativity as the institutional expression of the man/woman relationship; family has been severed from its biological roots; and babies are trafficked in the name of “surrogacy.”
Master, do I really want to see?
Or was Bartimaeus really a fool, because it’s better being blind?
Right now, the Church is reeling from a putrid scandal because too many people—including too many bishops—turned a blind eye to the perversions of homosexual clergy, including other bishops. The Church’s ability to teach on sexual ethics, in a world that desperately needs that instruction, is compromised because those people – those priests, those bishops, those cardinals, maybe even some popes – were more cowardly than Bartimaeus and preferred not to see.
Now, as St. Paul reminds us, “every one of us will have to give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:12). So, the question to the vast majority of Catholics who themselves live as spouses and/or parents:
Do I want to see?
In this year of Humanae vitae, resolve that you want to see what the Church teaches about marital and sexual morality – and why. For those willing to open their eyes, here are some suggestions for reading: here, here, here, here and here.
Because, as Jesus reminds us elsewhere, “there is none so blind as he who will not see.”