The teacher asked the student, "what is the difference between ignorance and apathy?" The student answered, "I don't know and I don't care." "Exactly!" He hit it on the nose in more ways than one. This is also exactly attitude of much of American culture today--especially the youth. They have been fed garbage and hypocrisy for so long that it is hard to get many people even to care what their eternal destiny is. I have written before about apathy, but today I wish to speak more about ignorance. I do not meet many Catholics who are genuinely apathetic about what the Church says; though I have met many of them who are ignorant of what the Church says.
One of the spiritual works of mercy is to "instruct the ignorant". We often take "ignorant" as an insult, and are afraid to use it, but it really just means someone who does not know something. For example, I am ignorant of the technicals of rocket science; I am ignorant of the exact list of ingredients in Twinkies; and I am ignorant of why anyone would prefer the pagan view of abortion over the Church's view. There is nothing offensive to me in being ignorant here, it is merely a fact that I am not fully informed on these issues.
In some areas, however, ignorance is horrible. Ignorance over Who God is has eternal consequences. Ignorance of the Church's teaching about marriage can ruin your life. Ignorance about the rules of proper reverence in the Mass can destroy our souls. These types of ignorance are definitely "dragons" that need to be slain. All too often, however, people allow ignorance in areas like those listed above to remain, and do little to nothing to overcome it.
What does it mean to instruct the ignorant? It does not mean hitting them over the head with a copy of the Catechism, nor does it mean giving them a copy for free and telling them "read this". Instructing the ignorant means helping them to understand the truth. This is a merciful thing because it means that we are helping someone to know what is good and right as opposed to what is and wrong so that they can turn to the path of godliness. This, in turn, leads (quite often) to repentance and greater faithfulness. Who would not want to be able to do that?
This is not an easy task though. It means that we ourselves need to know what the truth is if we are going to be able to instruct someone else. The first step in instructing others who are ignorant, is overcoming our own ignorance. You cannot help others if you yourself are just as ignorant as those you wish to instruct. No, I am not saying that everyone needs to have a master's degree in theology. Yet, everyone of us can certainly grow in our knowledge of Christ and His Church.
Furthermore, I have met numerous people who think that they know what the Church teaches ("doesn't the Church teach x, y, and z?"), and yet are gravely mistaken. I have heard people say: "the Church doesn't believe in confession any more does it?" "the Church says that homosexuality is OK", and "the Church said evolution is true" (all of which are false--look it up). Maybe they heard a statement from a Catechist or even (God forbid) an errant priest, who said that something was true, but it is entirely contrary to official Church teaching. Ignorance is certainly the reason that someone would willingly approve of any politician who promotes the murder of unborn children. This mistaken understanding of Church teaching occurs more often than not today, and that means that each one of us should be willing to "verify" our beliefs, by deepening our own knowledge.
So where do you start? I already mentioned the Catechism--have you read it? Even part of it? Ever? Yes, it can seem daunting and overwhelming when you look at the entire thing. How about just one part of it? Look at the table of contents or the index and find a subject that really does interest you, then read about it. Just reading that one subject will increase your knowledge in that area of theology. If you do not find anything interesting, then maybe you need to spend some time in prayer asking God to help you know why this is so.
Moving from there, you can find other areas that you are able to study and learn about. Then, once you discover the wonders and the beauty of the Church's teachings on truth, you will find that the Catechism also references the Scriptures, the writings of the Saints, and the official documents of the Church. This is one of the reasons why I like the catechism so much--it is so wonderfully integrated with the rest of God's revelation. This is truly Tradition (with a capital "T") working rightly. Scripture, related to those things that God has revealed through the Saints, and they are both combined to make a perfect expression of the truth of God.
I see many of the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual, being carried out in various ways. The one that seems to be lacking the most today (and is so urgent given the poor catechesis of the last 40 years) is instructing the ignorant. Let each of us work to make sure that we are not ourselves ignorant, and then when we do encounter someone who needs some help in understanding the (accurate) teachings of the Catholic Church, we can do a wonderful work of mercy.