There are many different causes that can be linked to the decline of religiosity— particularly in the Catholic Church—in the Western world, but perhaps one of the leading (and not much talked about) causes would be indifferentism.
Many people might scratch their heads upon hearing the word indifferentism. Is it like apathy? Or relativism? In a sense yes, but as the Catholic Encyclopedia describes it, the type of indifferentism we are talking about here is what is known as “latitudinarian indifferentism”. This is described as the error which states that the “particular Christian Church or sect one belongs to is an indifferent matter; all forms of Christianity are on the same footing, all are equally pleasing to God and serviceable to man.”
How many non-Catholic Christians, or even fellow Catholic Christians, have you heard say something like, “We all believe in Jesus, we just do it in different ways”? Sadly, the answer is often “too many”. Consider the words of our Lord Jesus:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Jesus is not exuding indifferentism here. How can there be multiple truths when Jesus declares there is only one truth? Perhaps a case study, gleaned from multiple, real-life experiences of my own, would be helpful here.
It’s about More than What’s Right for You
Let’s suppose your longtime Catholic friend converts to Evangelical Christianity. Or Mormonism. Or another religion. What do you say? Congratulations? Faith is a journey, not a destination? Good luck? Perhaps, did you consider asking why they are leaving the Church? Or on the flip side, your friend converts to the Catholic Faith. Do you say something like, “Everyone has to do what’s right for them”? Or do you merely observe, “Good for you as you continue your ‘faith journey’”? Or do you congratulate and affirm them, saying, “Welcome to the Truth, the Way and the Life, the one Church founded by our Lord himself”?
I’ve personally seen these situations happen more than once. Typically the response has been tending toward the congratulatory, but without any substance or without any love and affirmation of the pursuit of truth, or rather, the pursuit of the Truth.
Sometimes these conversions are detailed on social media. When the person converts, many people are supportive, but they typically say something like “you have to do what’s right for you”.
Rejecting What’s Contrary to Tradition
Regarding the conversion of one such person entering the Catholic Church, there were some anti-Catholics who had commented that the Catholic Church was not the true Church, and gave their reasons why they believed this. I was conflicted as to who I had more respect for; the anti-Catholics at least had conviction, whereas the others who were supportive of their friend who had left their Protestant church were just wishy-washy. I think it’s this indifferentism, this lack of conviction, which makes people outside of Christianity balk at joining any ecclesial community or Church. These people kept saying “you have to follow your path”. I found it interesting that no one was saying “you have to follow Jesus’ path”. If we follow our “own path”, can we really say that we are doing our Lord’s will?
The religious indifferentism of the last three generations (starting with my parents’ generation towards the tail end of the Baby Boomer years) has contributed to the enshrinement of subjective truth and the condemnation of any organization (religious or otherwise) which suggests that there is such a thing as objective truth, applicable to all people and all cultures at all times and all places. Just look at what’s been happening recently with social media hashtags like “tellyourtruth”. Truth has become subjectivized, and with that, it’s no wonder that we live in a “fake news” era.
Even less surprising, it’s no wonder that religion has become subjectivized in this cultural climate, with every person having their own creed or “moral code”, claiming that what is true for others is not true for them. If we look at just Christians, we as a whole have become very lax, and many implicitly (or increasingly, explicitly) believe that all Christian denominations and sects lead to the same destination. This contradicts Sacred Scripture, which proclaims that we must be one (John 17:21), that there will be those preaching false doctrine to those with itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3), and that we must reject any iteration of the Gospel which is contrary to the tradition handed down from the apostles (Galatians 1:8). We may not want to hear it, but that includes those ecclesial communities that resulted from the Protestant Reformation.
Serving the Creator
In his book “Let There Be No Divisions Among You”, Rev. John MacLaughlin succinctly states that:
“God being what He is, that is, the God of eternal truth, He cannot be indifferent as to whether His people believe this particular creed or some other creed that contradicts it. To say that He does not care what form of Christianity they profess is equivalent to saying that He does not care whether they believe what is true or what is false.”
While we and our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters agree on many points, there are several things on which we do not agree. One of the marks of the Church is that it is “one”. To willingly and explicitly reject things like baptismal regeneration, the process of justification, and Petrine primacy is to put oneself outside the bounds of that one Church. We are all still united in some way to Christ’s Mystical Body through our common baptism, but imperfectly (see Unitatis Redintegratio 3, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism). However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church restates positively the dogma of “no salvation outside the Church” as “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846). So in essence, if someone is invincibly ignorant of the necessity of the Catholic Church, they can still be saved, but only through the merits of the Church which Christ founded, which is the Catholic Church.
But before we assume that all outside the Catholic Church are invincibly ignorant, we would do well to look to the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium, specifically the end section 16 which states:
“Often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.”
Showing Filial Love
Fr. MacLaughlin picked up on this as well more than half a century before the Second Vatican Council:
“Christianity, as it signifies the religion revealed by Christ, means truth. For Christ is the God of truth, who cannot speak a lie… It is not a compound consisting of various elements, some of which are true and others false … Light and darkness cannot coexist; heat and cold cannot be found in the same place at the same time. Falsehood and truth cannot be built together on Christ, who, as the God of truth, is the foundation on which His religion rests. To affirm, then, that within the broad and wide limits of Christianity, different creeds and even contradictory creeds may be lawfully built up is simply to affirm that Christ’s religion may mean truth and falsehood at once…”
Practically unbeknownst to some of us today, we have unwittingly adopted a form of relativism, this religious indifferentism, by not showing any resistance when loved ones begin following another religion, becoming largely passive in letting them leave the Catholic Faith. Part of this stems from us not knowing how to respond, which perhaps shows a deficiency in our catechesis.
Part of this could also stem from us not wanting to damage relationships, which is admirable. We love our family and friends. But we must remember that in its truest sense, to love is to will the good of another. If we let someone walk away from the pillar of truth and the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, without so much as a peep, are we really willing their good? If we simply say, “Well, you have to follow your own path to Jesus”, are we really showing filial love for them?
There Exists a Single Church
The Church is necessary for our salvation, and to walk away from that is a folly. We must boldly proclaim, especially for the sake of our loved ones, that to have a relationship with Christ is to love his Church. You can’t have Christ without the Church, and you can’t disconnect the Head from the Body which subsists in the Catholic Church. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), beautifully illustrates this in the CDF’s declaration “Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.” The declaration is quoted at length to illustrate the necessity of the Church, in union with its Head, bolded emphases added:
“The Lord Jesus, the only Saviour, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery: he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him (cf. John 15:1.; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 4:15-16; Acts 9:5). Therefore, the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery belongs also to the Church, inseparably united to her Lord. Indeed, Jesus Christ continues his presence and his work of salvation in the Church and by means of the Church (cf. Col. 1:24-27), which is his body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27; Col. 1:18). And thus, just as the head and members of a living body, though not identical, are inseparable, so too Christ and the Church can neither be confused nor separated, and constitute a single ‘whole Christ’…
“The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity — rooted in the apostolic succession — between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church:…
“‘This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him’. With the expression ‘subsists in’, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that ‘outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth’, that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that ‘they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’.
“Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (DI 16-17).
Going Against the Tide
For a more in depth explanation of the term “subsists in”, see this letter from Pope Benedict. We need not be afraid to declare these things, but we always need to do so with gentleness and reverence (see 1 Peter 3:15). As the declaration goes on to describe:
“The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the Church.”
And it’s a wound because our lack of unity is a scandal to the world. True ecumenism, then, is highly laudable. The Anglican Ordinariate is a perfect example of this walk towards unity. But that unity will not be achieved if we continue down the path of “religious relativism”. We have to stop passively praising people when they leave the Church, or at the very least, stop being indifferent and lovingly explain why the Catholic Church is necessary. On the flipside, when people come in, we have to stop saying things like “I’m glad you did what was right for you.” Full communion with the Church founded by Christ is right for all. In confessing the truths of the Catholic Faith, we exercise the virtue of charity. We must never be ashamed to share the fullness of Truth, even if we fear negative reactions. As Pope Francis said, we must “proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide.”
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a twenty-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, Christ Is Our Hope.
[…] down the faith ultimately leads to indifferentism, and indifferentism leads to relativism, thus turning many among my generation into Pontius Pilate, […]
The “indifferentism” that I’m hoping to someday crack is the indifferentism of Catholics who remain in the Church but who just don’t seem to care about the actual teachings of the Church. I think they remain in the Church because it’s how they grew up relating to God, but they are pretty ambivalent on her actual teachings. I feel an obligation to help the ones I love toward Christ, but I’m not sure how best to do it without having them just tune out
Great article! Thank you for sharing, it is the same preoccupation my husband and I have. We feel like aliens when we talk to our own fellow Catholic parishioners about apologetics and defending the Truth. Most seem to prefer indifferentism as you mentioned.