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In the Spirit: 2012 word of the year: Indifferentism

In the Spirit: 2012 word of the year: Indifferentism

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The end of 2012 brought with it lists of words and phrases we likely will not soon forget, from “fiscal cliff” and “Gangnam Style” to “binders full of women” and “you didn’t build that.”

On the local religion beat, I’d give the nod for most-memorable term to “indifferentism.”

It surfaced in a confidential Nov. 27 memo from Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino’s office to priests in the diocese. The bishop had become gravely concerned that four women in the diocese, two of them nuns, were espousing views contrary to Catholic teaching, including indifferentism. In the memo, he instructed priests to prohibit the women from having any teaching roles in diocesan parishes.

In an attachment to the memo, the bishop’s office said that in Catholic theology, "indifferentism is the belief that no one religion or philosophy is superior to another.” The Catholic Church, the memo said, ascribes indifferentism "to all atheistic, materialistic, pantheistic and agnostic philosophies."

Indifferentism was first explicitly identified and condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in the 19th century, the memo noted. The diocese has declined requests to discuss the memo in more detail.

To explore the term further, I consulted Colin Donovan, vice president for theology for Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), based in Irondale, Ala. The global Catholic network’s mission is to communicate the teachings and the beauty of the Catholic Church.

Donovan said the term is properly called “religious indifferentism.” He defined it as “the denial that human beings have a duty to believe in and worship God according to the one true religion.”

The term gained prominence in the last couple centuries with the rise of increasingly rationalistic philosophies that call into question not only the objective value of religious truths but moral truths as well, he said.

“Indifferentism would suppose that religious truth can’t be known and therefore that any religion’s faith and any religion’s practice is as good as another for achieving life’s purposes and a happy eternity,” Donovan said.

Among Catholics, religious indifferentism is considered an extremely serious doctrinal error, since faith in Christ is the foundation of achieving salvation and eternal life, he said.

“Either Christ is God or he is not,” Donovan said. “Either he died for our salvation or he did not. Either he established a church with apostles who have certain obligations and authority or he did not.”

The Catholic Church believes the answers have been known for just shy of 2,000 years — that is, continuously since Christ and the apostles, he said.

I asked him if the Catholic Church views the Catholic religion as superior to all others.

He said the Catholic Church is not claiming that its members — whether bishops, priests or laity — are necessarily better followers of Christ. They ought to be, but they often are not, he said.

Rather, he cited a 2007 Vatican papal declaration that “the church of Christ continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.”

This means that other Christian bodies “no longer possess all that Christ intended — either by way of the truth, the sacraments, or communion with the pastors Christ left to tend his church,” Donovan said. This is a fact, not a moral judgment, he said.

Indifferentism, therefore, “would be a claim, or a practice, by a Catholic that positively states or suggests by action that being a Catholic and adhering to the faith and life of the (Catholic) Church has no greater spiritual and eternal value than being a non-Catholic Christian or even a non-Christian,” he said.


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