In his 1832 encyclical entitled Mirari Vos, Pope Gregory XVI addressed a variety of issues which were plaguing the Church at that time. One of the issues which he addressed was “indifferentism”. Pope Gregory states, “Now We consider another abundant source of the evils with which the Church is afflicted at present: indifferentism. This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. Surely, in so clear a matter, you will drive this deadly error far from the people committed to your care.” 1 This issue was wreaking havoc on the Church since it taught that essentially all religions are the same. The fact is that we still hear the same comment made by various people in 2009.
This problem was not limited to Europe. In his book entitled, The Role of St. Meinrad Abbey in the Formation of Catholic Identity in the Diocese of Vincennes 1853-1898, Peter Yock writes about the impact that indifferentism had on the German Catholic settlers in Spencer County, Indiana who were being minister to by a group of Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Maria Einsiedeln in Switzerland who were beginning a monastic foundation in the area. Arriving in the United States in 1853, the monks saw that the American bishops were also wary of indifference. In the pastoral letters of the nineteenth century councils, Catholics were cautioned against the spread of religious indifference under the guise of liberalism.2 For example, in the letter from the First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829, the bishops warned against the “false liberalism” of the time, which asserted that religions are alike. 3 The year before the monks landed there was a letter published from the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852. The emphasis of this dispatch revealed the type of indifferentism plaguing the American Church—it was that which resulted from insufficient religious education for children and the lack of adequate religious instructors and priests. Practically speaking, it was Catholicism falling into disuse. At this time the bishops were stressing the importance of instructing children in their religion and the need for priestly vocations to do this, because without the words of eternal life, “the principles of error, unbelief, or indifferentism are imparted to them.” 4 Many of these same issues are still problems today.
The issue of indifferentism is not limited to the nineteenth century, even though we do not hear much about it now. On November 21, 1964, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council promulgated Unitatis Redintegratio (On the Restoration of Unity) which is also known as the Decree on Ecumenism. This document teaches that while we believe that the separated Churches and Communities are deficient in some respects, they have been, by no means, deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. However, they have not been blessed with the unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again in one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life-that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim.5
It goes on to teach that we must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren.
To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will. Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology, and general background.6 The decree states that those who are called upon to examine the teachings of our separated brethren are those who “already have a proper grounding”. There is a serious concern that those who are not properly grounded may be lead to believe that all the Churches and/or Communities are the same with regard to their teachings and this is not the case.
Twenty years before the Second Vatican Council Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical Mystici corporus (1943) in which one of his main purposes was precisely to show that authentic Catholic tradition did not support a separation between the “mystical body” and “visible church” (as was proposed by many Protestants). Indeed, the Pope insisted that the mystical body and the visible church are one and the same reality. 7
Unfortunately, what made his teaching difficult for many to accept was that he not only identified the mystical body with the church, but he identified it in an exclusive way with the Roman Catholic Church, with the consequence that other Christians, even in the state of grace, could not be considered to be really (reapse) members of Christ’s mystical body. 8 Since quite a few Catholic theologians did not see how such people could be excluded from the mystical body, they continued to maintain a real difference between the mystical body and the church, with the result that Pope Pius returned to this question in his encyclical Humani generis in 1950, and again insisted that Catholics must hold that the mystical body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing.9 However, even this second statement of Pius XII did not really eliminate the impression that, at least in popular thinking, the mystical body was a purely spiritual reality, something that could hardly be identified with the visible, hierarchical Church.10
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council intended to confront this issue and at no time was the teaching of Pope Pius XII either rejected or overturned by any of the conciliar documents.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) states in article 8:
The one mediator, Christ, established, and ever sustains here on
earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity,
as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and
grace to all men. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs
and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual
community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly
riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they
form one complex reality which comes together from a human and a
This teaching serves to affirm the writings of Pope Pius XII and the teachings of the Catholic Church going back for many generations. Lumen Gentium (LG) goes on to state in section 8 that the Church subsists in the Catholic Church. This phrase “subsists in” has led to confusion on the part of some over the past forty years.
In what way does the church of Christ subsist in the Catholic Church? The key to the answer to this question is found in the Decree on Ecumenism, n. 2, which gives us the best description to be found in the documents of Vatican II of the kind of unity that Christ gives to his church. There we see that while it is essentially a communion of faith, hope, and love, whose principle cause is the Holy Spirit, the church is also intended to be visibly united in profession of the same faith, the celebration of the sacraments, in the fraternal concord of one people of God. In order to bring about a maintain such unity; Christ endowed His church with a threefold ministry of word, sacraments, and leadership, first entrusted to the apostles with Peter at their head, and then continued in the college of bishops under the Pope. 12
The Catholic Church is not denying the fact that salvation is present in the other churches or ecclesiastical communities. In sections fourteen through eighteen of the Decree on Ecumenism, special attention is given to those churches of the East which are not already in union with Rome. While union with the Pope and the college of bishops is an essential element for unity with the Catholic Church, the Church acknowledges the fact that those churches do have apostolic succession (they can trace their origins to the apostles) which means that they have a valid priesthood and valid sacraments, most particularly the Eucharist.
I have heard it said on numerous occasions that the Anglican Communion is the closest thing to the Catholic Church without actually being Catholic. In Section 13 of the Decree on Ecumenism it is written, “Among those (ecclesiastical communions) in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place.” 13 While it is true that the Anglican communions often make use of various Catholic liturgical practices, the fact is that Apostolicae Curae, the 1896 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII nullifying the validity of Anglican orders has never been overturned and when the Decree on Ecumenism was written in 1964 the Anglican Communion had not started ordaining women nor had they ordained practicing homosexuals (both of which are in direct contradiction to Catholic Church teachings).
One should recognize that between the Churches and ecclesial communions (mentioned above), on the one hand, and the Catholic Church on the other, there are very weighty differences not only of a historical, sociological, psychological, and cultural character, but especially in the interpretation of revealed truth. 14 The communions which separated themselves from Rome in the sixteenth century have a special connection to the Roman
Catholic Church by virtue of the fact that they were originally part of the Church; however they chose to separate themselves for a variety of religious and/or political reasons. With every successive generation of removal from these “main-line” communions they were further and further removed from their Catholic ancestry. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments. Many of these communions have only one or two sacraments. Their teaching on the Eucharist, in many cases, is not in accord with the Catholic Church’s teachings. Many of them believe that the Eucharist is meant to be taken as metaphorical while the Catholic Church has always held that the Eucharist is, indeed, the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Some “Christian” denominations, such as the Salvation Army, do not believe in baptism. Other denominations, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) baptize their members; however, because they either use a non-Trinitarian formula (they do not baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) or they do not believe that Jesus is God (as is the case with the Mormons) the Catholic Church does not recognize their baptism as being valid.
The problems facing the Catholic Church in the 1850s are still alive and well at the beginning of the Third Millennium. What are some of the sources of the problems we are facing in the Church today? One major issue is the shortage of young men studying for the priesthood. While priesthood vocations appear to be flourishing in Africa, India, and other places in the world, they have dropped off significantly here in the United States.
Another reason was the lack of religious education that many young people received in the 1970s. Those attending classes in the Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine (CCD) were often subjected to courses which lacked any true content and would hope to engender “warm and fuzzy” feelings in the students. This “cotton candy spirituality” (as I refer to it) is extraordinarily unhelpful as we have seen by virtue of the fact that these former CCD students, who are now in their late 30s and early 40s, are not in a position to be able to pass along the basics of their faith to their children since they were not properly educated themselves and often see religious education as a waste of time based upon their own experience.
While I commend the enthusiasm and willingness on the part of many adults who are willing to volunteer their time to teach religious education at the parish level, my experience has been that without a basic foundation in their own faith they simply pass along their personal feelings about the Church to their students and, in doing so, run the very serious risk of leading the next generation into error.
Another issue is that young men and women graduating from “Catholic” colleges and universities end up walking away from the Church after graduation. They are often subjected to one professor or another who presents his or her anti-Catholic agenda as part of their course and without a proper foundation, these students are not in a position to distinguish between fact and opinion and become discouraged and/or disgusted with the Church. This is also true at the high school level as well.
There are many websites available which make the connection between the heresy of indifferentism and the Second Vatican Council. Most, if not all, of these sites make the argument that the Second Vatican Council actually either promoted or encouraged indifferentism. In many cases, it appears that those who are making these statements have never actually read the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but are relying upon other people’s commentaries in order to form an opinion. As I have attempted to present, the documents of the Council are quite clear regarding the Church’s teachings about other churches and ecclesial communions. At no time did the council ever nullify the teachings of Pope Pius XII’s encyclicals; in fact it actually affirmed them.
The fact is that there is a great deal of difference between the Catholic Church and the other churches and ecclesial communions. In his 2000 declaration entitled Dominus Iesus, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated:
With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity (cf. Acts 17:30-31). This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism “characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another'”. If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation. However, “all the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be more severely judged”. One understands then that, following the Lord's command (cf. Mt 28:19-20) and as a requirement of her love for all people, the Church “proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (cf. 2 Cor 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life. 15
This teaching was reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI on June 29, 2007 (Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul). Many ecclesial communions denounced both Dominus Iesus and the Pope’s 2007 statement as being contrary to the Catholic Church’s teachings on ecumenism. However, the reality is that Pope Benedict was simply reaffirming the Church’s teachings and even spoke about ruling out the mentality of indifferentism which is “characterized by a religious relativism which leads one to belief that ‘one religion is as good as another’”.
In an era when relativism has become a major issue which plagues not only the Church, but society at large, it is important that the faithful are made aware of the Church’s teachings on such important issues so that they are able to make informed decisions and understand the pitfalls which come with basing ethical decisions on methodologies as relativism. Indifferentism, as the Pope pointed out, is a form of relativism.
1) Pope Gregory XVI Mirari Vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism)
Encyclical promulgated on August 15, 1832.
2) Yock, Peter The Role of St. Meinrad Abbey in the Formation of Catholic Identity in the Diocese of Vincennes 1853-1898 (IN: Evansville Bindery Co., 2001), p. 80
3) Ellis, John Tracy The National Pastorals of the American Hierarchy, 1792-1919, (Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Council, 1923), p. 36
4) Ellis, National Pastorals, p. 189
5) Flannery, Austin (ed.) Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1998), Unitatis Redintegratio [UR] #3 p. 456
6) UR #9, p. 461
7) Sullivan, Francis The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (NJ: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 16
8) Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 35 (1943) 202
9) AAS 42 (1950) 571
10) Sullivan, p. 16
11) Flannery, Lumen Gentium (LG) #8, p. 357
12) Sullivan, p. 27
13) UR #13, 463
14) UR #19, p. 468
15) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith DOMINUS IESUS (Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church) #22. Published on August 6, 2000.
Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS)
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith DOMINUS IESUS (Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church).
Ellis, John Tracy The National Pastorals of the American Hierarchy, 1792-1919, (Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Council, 1923)
Flannery, Austin (ed.) Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1998)
Pope Gregory XVI Mirari Vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism)
Sullivan, Francis The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (NJ: Paulist Press, 1988)
Yock, Peter The Role of St. Meinrad Abbey in the Formation of Catholic Identity in the Diocese of Vincennes 1853-1898