St. Bernard on Ignorance and Sin

Fr. Sylvester Tan, S.J.’s brilliant paper on unconscious sin in Chrétien’s Li Contes del Graal makes the following point about how St. Bernard understood the role of ignorance in his theology of sin:

Unlike some of the scholastic theologians of his day, Bernard is not interested in using ignorance to justify the failings of those who do not know God. Rather, out of a genuine concern for the well-being of those sinners, Bernard sees ignorance as an impediment to salvation that must be removed before any person is to attain true life, whether in this life or the next. Bernard takes to heart the words ‘be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48) and exhorts all his listeners to rid themselves of all that would keep them from loving God, regardless of whether they can find an excuse whereby they ought not to be held accountable for indulging, or having indulged, in this or that vice.

There are some remarkable parallels between the controversy between St. Bernard and Abelard on this point, the controversy between Jansenists and Jesuits recounted in Pascal’s Provincial Letters, and current debates on Amoris Laetitia. One of these days I hope to write at length about them.


One thought on “St. Bernard on Ignorance and Sin

  1. One could write every week about St. Bernard and Abelard, and not be done with them for decades, at least. I always regret the many things I do not have time to read or write about, and the Bernard-Abelard dynamic is at the top of the list — especially as Abelard sets the stage for so much of scholasticism, and as he establishes the centrality of several evaluative categories (like the regulative role of intentionality in ethics) that were not central before, and which have carried into the modern period rather whole and intact. We are all Abelardians, in a sense, and live on this side of the changes he inaugurated, seeing the alternatives he displaced as fundamentally foreign (we look at the canons in some older penitentials about being responsible for, say, things that happen to the Eucharist beyond our power as almost unintelligible, because our intentions were not involved, nor our involuntary agency), but if one’s heart is not moved by St. Bernard, it is quite possible that one is not human.

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