Unforgivable Sins/Invincible Ignorance

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Ever since the days of Adam, man has been hiding from God and saying God is hard to find.”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen

We do what the heart tells us, and then we go to confession.”
Cara, Brideshead Revisited (2008)

The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?
Jeremiah 17:9


God is all-merciful and has both the power and the will to forgive the most heinous sins, provided that we truly repent. God’s mercy reorientates us to the rule of Divine Love, restoring our friendship with God and others.

However, there are six sins against the Holy Spirit, which are known as the eternal or unforgivable sins constituting blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). These are Final Impenitence, Presumption, Despair, Resisting the Known Truth, Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good, and Obstinacy in Sin.1

How do we reconcile these two doctrinal teachings?

The sins against the Holy Spirit are unforgivable in that they prevent God’s grace from reaching us. They are hardened attitudes which render us unable to receive the forgiveness He is continually offering us. “The unforgivable sin is not a single isolated act. It is an ongoing deliberate and habitual rejection of grace.”2 In accordance with Aquinas, Pope St John Paul II wrote that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit “consists… in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross.” (Dominum et Vivificantem, #46).3

Just as it is necessary for someone to admit that he is physically sick before he allows a doctor to treat him, it is necessary for us to admit that we are spiritually sick before we allow the Divine Physician to heal us. Also, it is necessary for us to trust the doctor!

In the cases of Obstinacy in Sin, Resisting the Known Truth, Final Impenitence, and Despair, the sick soul refuses to recognise his ailment, to seek treatment, or to believe that he can even receive treatment and healing. A classic case of despair is Judas. Both Peter and Judas betrayed Christ, but Peter was reconciled to the Risen Christ, while Judas scuppered any chance of that by committing suicide. Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote:

“Our Lord warned both of them that they would fall; He even told them that each would be a devil. Both did deny the Master and both repented or were sorry. But the Greek word used in the Scripture is not the same in both instances. Judas repented unto himself—he had self-pity. Peter repented unto the Lord—he had penitence, sorrow and a desire for amendment. Peter cleaned the weeds out of the garden, but Judas killed the nocturnal brood of remorseful serpents in his breast by hanging himself.”4

In Presumption, the sick soul thinks that just because God wants to forgive all sins, he can keep wallowing in sin. It’s like someone who has just survived lung cancer returning to smoking because he thinks he’ll be sure to beat it again. Without true repentance, there cannot be true reconciliation.

With the Envy of Another’s Spiritual Good, one becomes like Cain, harbouring murderous resentment in his heart against his own brother. One becomes unable to enjoy one’s own gifts from God, being discontented and questioning God’s goodness and wisdom in giving someone else different gifts. Like an obstreperous patient demanding different treatment to what the doctor has prescribed, this ailing soul is unable to accept God’s grace for himself, believing he deserves the grace given to someone else.

“It was through Satan’s envy that death entered the world (cf. Catechism, no. 2538; Wis. 2:24). When one is envious of the spiritual good of another, he places himself on the level of Satan who wanted God’s glory for Himself rather than humbly accepting the gifts God had given him (Ezek. 28:11-19).”5

Invincible ignorance works in a similar fashion, just in the opposite direction. “Inculpable ignorance is not a means of salvation. But if by no fault of the individual ignorance cannot be overcome (if, that is, it is inculpable and invincible), it does not prevent the grace that comes from Christ, a grace that has a relationship with the Church, saving that person.”6

“…the fact that someone is invincibly ignorant of the true faith is not a ticket to heaven. A person who is not culpable for sins against faith may still be culpable for other mortal sins — the same ones people of faith can commit — and may be damned on that account.”7

“…those who are truly unaware of what God requires of them are not held responsible; rather they are judged by what they did with the truth they had.”8

Unforgivable sins are an impermeable membrane preventing the flow of the Holy Spirit into our hearts; invincible ignorance is a semipermeable membrane allowing God to enter the hearts of the uncatechised, preparing them for union with Him. For “God has bound salvation to His sacraments, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments.”9 “Those who are innocently outside the Church but are also seeking to follow the will of God are thus the proper object of the Church’s missionary activity.”10

Let us maintain a pliable, permeable membrane over our hearts, that the Holy Spirit may move in and out freely, bringing divine grace and new life to us so that we may give it to others.

Harden not your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did at Massah in the desert.
Psalm 95:8


1 Kevin Kukla, “Abortion and the 6 Sins Against the Holy Spirit”, ProLife365.

2 J. Cecil, “The Unforgivable Sin”.

4 Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “Self-Pity”, in The Nature of Our Minds.

6 Rev. Michael Müller C.SS.R., “Invincible or Inculpable Ignorance Neither Saves nor Damns a Person”, The Catholic Dogma.

7 Jimmy Akin, “Ignorance — Invincible and Vincible”, Catholic Answers.

8 Sebastian R. Fama, “Salvation Outside the Church?”, in And You Will Know the Truth: How to Explain and Defend the Catholic Faith.

9 Catechism of the Catholic Church #1257, quoted in Jim Seghers, “Outside the Church There is no Salvation”, Totus Tuus Ministries.

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a Singaporean living in Australia. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after university. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She has also written at Aleteia, MercatorNet and The Daily Declaration.

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6 thoughts on “Unforgivable Sins/Invincible Ignorance”

  1. Avatar

    Having worked 25 years in the field of mental health I find it repugnant to claim that the 21st century CC
    considers Despair unforgivable. Gone are the days when Roman Catholic leaders denied church burial
    rites to members of the flock who took their own lives. Judas overcame the auto response of self preservation
    for his role – penance enough. Peter never formally confessed his denial, it was brought up and out by Jesus
    who used tact in asking 3 times if he loved Him. No formal forgiveness is recorded. If you look up the definition of Presumption in a Douay bible it clarifies the common understanding “ … but in its usual form, so acting as to appear presumptuous, it may be venial. In closing, I postulate what is truly an unforgivable sin and occurs so regularly as to constitute a vice. The scene is John 8 where a mob is about to stone a woman for adultery. From the legal perspective there was no doubt she had committed the sin. The proper number of witnesses had testified, the penalty was clear. Jesus not only forgave her but put her on parole “Go and sin no more.” Now enter stage left, the classic profession of lawyer who (for the sake of this offering) arrives just before our Lord and questioning the witnesses and dismissing those who do not add weight to the defense and using points of secular law to cloud the obvious,convinces the mob of reasonable doubt. When Jesus arrives she is not only free to go, but unforgiven, guilty in fact and unrepentant. Her sin was washed over (still there) and emboldened and the victims of her sin, the families involved, the true wife of the male adulterer and all connected to the scandal by ties are not only denied justice but suffer the effects: anger, hatred and rage over a verdict which should have never been. Apply that sin to the crime of murder, armed robbery and extortion to name but few. Now that’s unforgivable.

    1. Avatar

      There is despair in the spiritual sense, and there is despair in the mental sense. They may be interrelated, but they are not the same. It is the consequence of free will, that if one chooses not to trust in God’s mercy, one precludes it, since He will not force His mercy upon us. As St Augustine said, “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”

      Mental illness and other circumstances (like abuse or physical illness) may diminish the culpability for a spiritual state of despair. But even in the dark night of the soul, one can make acts of faith, as St Thérèse did:

      “No doubt, dear Mother, you will think I exaggerate somewhat the night of my soul. If you judge by the poems I have composed this year, it must seem as though I have been flooded with consolations, like a child for whom the veil of Faith is almost rent asunder. And yet it is not a veil—it is a wall which rises to the very heavens and shuts out the starry sky.

      When I sing of the happiness of Heaven and the eternal possession of God, I do not feel any joy therein, for I sing only of what I wish to believe. Sometimes, I confess, a little ray of sunshine illumines my dark night, and I enjoy peace for an instant, but later, the remembrance of this ray of light, instead of consoling me, makes the blackness thicker still.

      And yet never have I felt so deeply how sweet and merciful is the Lord. He did not send me this heavy cross when it might have discouraged me, but at a time when I was able to bear it. Now it simply takes from me all natural satisfaction I might feel in my longing for Heaven.”

      “It’s only natural to be impressed at the power of nature, and of God’s power over nature. It’s something supernatural, however, to allow God to have power over oneself. This is the sort of faith Jesus is asking for from His disciples. Faith is a gift freely given, but it’s also a gift that must be freely accepted. Jesus will not calm our souls without our consent, or rather, our faith in His power to do so. The disciples marvel at Jesus as one “whom even wind and sea obey”. Even more marvelous, however, is a disciple who obeys Jesus as His Lord.”
      — Fr Thomas Hoisington

      1. Avatar

        ” Faith is a gift freely given”

        Faith is a gift and not everyone has it bestowed on them – at least that’s how the good Sister’s
        of Notre Dame explained it to us kiddos.

  2. Avatar

    “In Presumption, the sick soul thinks that just because God wants to forgive all sins, he can keep wallowing in sin ” This sums up the problem with Amoris Laetitia–and why the Dubia require answers.

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