In the Catholic Church, indifferentism is a condemned heresy that holds that one religion is as good as another, and that all religions are equally valid paths to salvation. Its condemnation is closely linked to the dogmatic definition that outside the Church there is no salvation.
Catholic understanding of indifferentismCatholic theology gives this name to all those theories, which, for one reason or another, deny that it is the duty of man to worship God by believing and practicing the one true religion. This religious indifferentism is to be distinguished from political indifferentism, which is applied to the policy of a state that treats all the religions within its borders as being on an equal footing before the law of the country. Indifferentism is not to be confounded with religious indifference. The former is primarily a theory disparaging the value of religion; the latter term designates the conduct of those who, whether they do or do not believe in the necessity and utility of religion, do in fact neglect to fulfil its duties.
Absolute indifferentismIndifferentism seems to follow from rationalism and scientism in that the latter are often celebrated for their opposition to dogmatism and a willingness to concede error. Because it is often impossible to ascertain error, however, this is often translated into a willingness to concede any position at all. This is the posture of absolute indifferentism, one often associated with moral relativism. The problem with this stance is internal incoherence: absolute indifferentism is ultimately compelled to concede its own invalidity, as well as that of its commonly supposed precursors, rationalism and scientism.
Under the above general definition come those philosophic systems which reject man's acknowledgment of his dependence on a personal creator, whom, in consequence of this dependence, he is bound to reverence, obey, and love. This is common to all atheistic, materialistic, pantheistic, and agnostic philosophies. If there is no God, as the atheist professes to believe, or if God be but the sum of material forces, or if the Supreme Being is an all-embracing, all-confounding totality in which human individuality is lost, then the personal relationship in which religion takes its rise does not exist.
Again, if the human mind is incapable of attaining certitude as to whether God exists or not, or is even unable to form any valid idea of God, it follows that religious worship is a mere futility. This idea is shared also by the Deists, who, while granting the existence of a personal God, deny that He demands any worship from His creatures. Against this deistic construct, religious apologists assert that, as a duty towards God, everyone is bound to practice religion, in order that as a human being he or she may attain the end for which he has been called into existence.
Restricted indifferentismCatholicism also condemns as "indifferentism" a spectrum of ideas that admits the necessity of religion on account, chiefly, of its salutary influence on human life; but which holds that all religions are equally worthy and profitable to man, and equally pleasing to God. The classic advocate of this theory is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who maintains, in his Emile, that God looks only to the sincerity of intention, and that everybody can serve Him by remaining in the religion in which he has been brought up, or by changing it at will for any other that pleases him more (Emile, III). This doctrine is widely advocated today on the grounds that, beyond the truth of God's existence, we can attain to no certain religious knowledge; and that, since God has left us thus in uncertainty, He will be pleased with whatever form of worship we sincerely offer Him.
Catholics hold, instead, that God has vouchsafed to man a supernatural revelation, embodying a definite religion, which He desires that all should embrace and practice. While Roman Catholics concede that all religions, indeed, may be said to contain some measure of truth; and God may accept the imperfect worship of ignorant sincerity: but they cannot agree that truth and falsehood are indifferent in God's sight. Since various religions are in disagreement, it follows that, wherever they conflict, if one possesses the truth the others are in error. The constituent elements of a religion are beliefs to be held by the intellect, precepts to be observed, and a form of worship to be practiced. Now -- to confine ourselves to the great religions of the world -- Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and the religions of India and East Asia are in direct antagonism by their respective creeds, moral codes, and cults.
To say that all these irreconcilable beliefs and cults are equally pleasing to God is to say that God has no predilection for truth over error; that the true and the false are alike congenial to His nature. Again, to hold that truth and falsehood equally satisfy and perfect the human intellect is to deny that reason has a native bent towards, and affinity for, truth. If we deny this we deny that any trust is to be placed in our reason.
The Catholic Church moreover observes that various religions differ in their ethical and moral norms. Here again there is conflict over almost all the great moral issues. Let an illustration or two suffice. Islam approves polygamy, whereas Christianity condemns it as immoral. If these two faiths are equally trustworthy guides to life, then there is no such thing as fixed moral values at all. If phallic worship is as pure in the sight of God as the austere worship that was conducted in the temple of Jerusalem, then we must hold the Deity to be destitute of all moral attributes, in which case there would be no grounds for religion at all. The fact is that this type of Indifferentism, though verbally acknowledging the excellence and utility of religion, nevertheless, when pressed by logic, recoils into absolute Indifferentism. The Roman Catholic Church therefore argues that to affirm that "all religions are equally good" means, at bottom, that religion is good for nothing.
Liberal or latitudinarian indifferentismThe Catholic Church also condemns as indifferentism the belief that, while Christianity generally is superior to other faiths, it makes no difference which of the several Christian denominations the believer chooses to join. Catholicism condemns Protestantism specifically for this sort of indifferentism, noting that many Protestant denominations do not claim that they exclusively possess the truth of the Christian gospel, and that various forms of worship may be equally pleasing to God: a latitudinarian position.
In popular cultureThe main character of the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel practices Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. He considers them all equal ways to come into contact with the primordial God.
- Religious indifferentism in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
- Connell, Francis J., C. SS. R., Freedom of Worship (Paulist Press, 1947)
- Connell, Francis J., C. SS. R., Morals in Politics and Professions (Paulist Press, 1946)
indifferentism in Italian: Indifferentismo
indifferentism in Swedish: Indifferentism
indifferentism in Ukrainian: Індиферентизм