Indifferentism – Who Cares?

by Jim Burnham

These are all familiar expressions of religious indifferentism: the notion that all religions are equally valid. Indifferentism is particularly strong in America, with our long tradition of rugged individualism that claims every man should decide right and wrong for himself. We think of religion as an intensely private affair, man’s personal search for God. And who is to say that one man’s path is better than another’s? We might raise an eyebrow if our neighbor Jones worships the oak tree in his backyard. But as long as he doesn’t make too much fuss, it’s live and let live. If it makes him feel closer to his god, who cares?

While most Catholics don’t hold with worshipping trees, few would tell Jones to his face that he was wrong. Fewer still would be comfortable telling Protestants that their faith is incomplete. Most would rather say: “We are each worshipping the same God in our own way. Who are we to judge others? Who are we to impose our beliefs on others?” It all sounds so open, so broadminded, so charitable, so … American!

There’s just one thing wrong: it is so false. Religion is not man’s search for God, but God’s search for man. Only God has the authority to establish a religion. Only God can set the conditions for salvation. He is the Creator; we are the creatures. God makes the rules; we must follow them. If God reveals how He wants to be adored, then we are obliged to obey, not invent our own methods.

Christians believe that God revealed himself through his Son Jesus, who established one Church. Christ promised that this one Church would last until the end of time as the pillar and foundation of the truth (Mt 28:20; 1 Tim 3:15). It is the vehicle through which all men might be saved. If the Church was so important that God became man to establish it, then it must be important enough for us to join, follow, and remain in.

Indifferentism depicts religion as multiple paths ascending one mountain with God at the top. In this case, there is no single way to the summit. One route might be easier than another, but we can’t call any route false, since they all have the same goal. In fact, religion is more like a helicopter lowering a lifeline to people stranded on a mountaintop. They can’t get to the helicopter by themselves; they can be rescued only by climbing the lifeline. God chooses the method of rescue; if we don’t accept it, we put ourselves in unnecessary peril.

God sent Jesus as the lifeline to rescue man from sin and death. Jesus established one Church to continue his work of preaching, forgiving, and sanctifying. This one Church has endured the test of time, persecution, schism, and sin. Guided by the Holy Spirit, linked by an unbroken line of apostolic succession, it has preserved the fullness of truth and grace unto the present day. Its name is the Roman Catholic Church. Through this one Church, God continues to call all men to himself.

But hasn’t the Church’s ecumenical movement changed all that? By aiming to restore unity among all Christians, hasn’t the Church basically said that all religions are equally valid? No. Ecumenism is not indifferentism. Ecumenism called for resolving the doctrinal differences among Christians, not ignoring them. The same Church that has frequently encouraged ecumenism has also frequently condemned indifferentism as heretical.

The new Catechism teaches that only the Catholic Church has the fullness of the truth and the fullness of the means of salvation (sections 819 and 830). Therefore, the ultimate goal of ecumenism can only be to bring our separated brothers to the fullness of the Catholic faith. As the Holy Father said in his 1995 encyclical, Commitment to Ecumenism:

“The one Church of Christ subsists [exists] in the Catholic Church. The Decree on Ecumenism emphasizes the presence in her of the fullness of the means of salvation. Full unity will come about when all share in the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church” (Ut Unum Sint, 86).

We can’t be indifferent to doctrinal differences. Consider the Eucharist. Catholics believe that Jesus is literally present under the appearances of bread and wine. If Christ is only symbolically present, as most Protestants claim, then Catholics are guilty of idolatry: worshipping mere bread and wine as God. However, if Christ is really present, then those Protestants are guilty of ignoring, rejecting, or even despising their Savior in the Eucharist. Both can’t be right. If Catholics are wrong, then in true charity we must be rescued from our blasphemous blunder. If Protestants are wrong, then in true charity they must be invited to accept Christ’s life-giving gift of himself. Neither can remain indifferent on such a critical issue. There can be no unity without resolving questions like these.

It does matter what Church you attend-only one was founded by Christ and preserved in the fullness of grace and truth. Organized religion is important-because God himself did the organizing. Good Christians will become even better Christians when they participate in the Church’s full sacramental life. Ecumenism means conversion of our separated brothers, not desertion. Withholding the truth of Catholicism would be even more uncharitable than withholding a cure for cancer.

How do we begin evangelizing our non-Catholic brothers? Before we can share the fullness of Catholicism, we must first learn it. Don’t go to an inter-faith Bible study if you are not well grounded in your own faith. Very likely, you’ll come away confused about or even hostile to the Catholic Church. Devour good Catholic books and tapes: especially those focusing on doctrine, Scripture, and Church history. Only when you understand your faith well will you be prepared to explain it clearly, defend it charitably, and share it confidently.With a little study, you’ll be able to answer your friends’ tough questions about Catholicism. You’ll be able to clear up their misconceptions about the Church. You’ll be able to give them reasons to become Catholic, or return to the Church. It won’t always be easy. But the rewards are eternal. As you grow in knowledge of your faith, you will grow in love. As you grow in love, you will grow in zeal for evangelizing. As you lead people to the fullness of the truth, you will win imperishable glory: “those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever” (Daniel 12:3; see James 5:19-20). Who could be indifferent about that?