“Indifferentism: the “perverse opinion…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” [Mirari Vos (15 August 1832), Pope Gregory XVI, no. 13].
“I pray…also for those who will believe in Me through their word, so that they may all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in you, may they also be one in us,…so that the world may know that you have sent Me.” (John 17: 20-21).
“I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers,…that there are rivalries among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10-11).
I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church (Nicene Creed).
This week begins the usual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January) in January. This year, this event takes on particular significance because this is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the modern rift in Christianity that gives rise to need for unity: Martin Luther (1483-1546) began spreading his heresies in 1517, and due to the political backing he received from German royalty and elsewhere, Luther’s errors gained support and became firmly fixed.
There are two main consequences of Luther’s errors and heresies. These effects are unfortunately held by many Catholics today—even in the clergy at the highest level. In fact, we will be seeing throughout this year many Catholic clergy celebrating and saying many positive statements about Luther and how his rebellious protest was a good thing. We live in times when errors abound in the Church from the highest level and infect the laity. How sad. Martin Luther is surely not a man to be celebrated in any form and neither are his heresies that he spread.
The first consequence is indifferentism. Pope Gregory XVI’s quote encapsulates this false idea: what difference does it make what church or faith or even if you have any Christian faith at all as long as you are a “good” person? Survey after survey among millennials in particular bears this idea out. People today often believe that it makes no difference at all what church one belongs to for eternal salvation; how many people even believe that one does not need any connection with God at all for salvation! After all, so goes their thinking, since everyone is going to heaven anyway, what difference does any one, particular church really make? One faith is as good as another. This is one of the main reasons, among several others, why many Catholics simply do not care about attending Mass each week.
The second consequence of Protestantism (so called because Martin Luther was “protesting” certain beliefs and practices in the Catholic Church) is the idea that each individual Christian decides what he will and will not believe. According to Luther’s notion, since he decided that the only way divine revelation was handed down was through Sacred Scripture and not Sacred Tradition, then that had to be true. He arrogated to himself more authority than even the pope. In fact, Luther arrogated to himself more authority than Jesus Christ. Jesus’ will was clearly manifest in the Scriptural text in St. John’s Gospel at the Last Supper when He declared His desire that all His followers be united and follow His Father’s will just as Jesus Himself had done in all of His thirty-three years. But, now according to Luther, not anymore. Luther, not Jesus Christ, would decide on his own what God’s will was. Amazingly for Luther, God’s will always happened to be just exactly what Luther wanted to do in the first place without submitting to any authority whatsoever beyond himself. How very convenient for Martin Luther.
Luther, however, believed that if one were not in the Catholic Church, then one had to be in his “church” because Luther alone was “enlightened” as to what true Christianity was as opposed to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for him, that is not how John Calvin (1509-64) saw it. Since Luther could break away from the Church and invent beliefs that were never there before, why, Calvin asked, couldn’t he? Therefore, Calvin invented his own “church.” Following Luther’s line of thinking, Calvin could decide what he wanted to believe and what he did not want to follow. Then, after Calvin, many more Protestant denominations continued to split, and they continue splintering to this day.
Clearly, this is not the expressed will of Jesus Christ, but apparently, that does not seem to matter. Instead, what is most important today for many Christians is that “whatever I want to believe and practice, then it is my right to believe and practice it, and no authority will tell me otherwise.” People may use the name of “Christian” and “Jesus Christ” in their denominations today, but it is still the age-old selfish, arrogant, personal will that refuses to submit in humility to the one Church of Jesus Christ established by Him, that is the Catholic Church. As the Second Vatican Council taught:
For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the Apostolic College alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3.5).
If Protestantism were really about following Christ in obedience through His Church as clearly revealed in the Sacred Scriptures, then why didn’t the Protestants come back into the Church (where they originated) after the implementation of the Council of Trent (1545-63)? After all, Trent answered the objections to the Protestants, and the Church put disciplinary measures into place to ensure as much as possible that laxity among the clergy would not be a source of scandal again. Nonetheless, the Church saw no significant return en masse among Protestants after Trent’s implementation. That is because Protestant objections were never really about doctrine or discipline. The main argument that they were never willing to concede was that each person was his own authority for belief. No pope or even Jesus Christ Himself would tell them anything less.
Many Catholics unfortunately also have this misguided view. This is the idea that they can select whatever they want to believe or follow and discard all the rest as “cafeteria Catholics.” This is the same lie, however, that was whispered in Eve’s ear in the Garden. Lucifer is always trying to persuade us to assert our will in dominance over God by pretending that God wants whatever we want. The consequence of demanding our will, nevertheless, often brings only chaos and destruction.
God’s will, in contrast, always seeks to unite us to Himself. Jesus’ entire life shows us that He never did His own will. He was only interested in the Father’s will for Him (and by extension, for us). The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph are two other examples of people who set aside their personal desires and submitted to what God was asking of them. Today, we are the beneficiaries of their holiness. Following God’s desires revealed in His Commandments and in His Catholic Church never takes away our freedom or reduces us. Instead, following Jesus’ will in our lives gives us more freedom. The more we give of ourselves, the more we then gain who we truly are meant to be in God.
Ultimately, either a Christian follows what Jesus has revealed to us for our salvation through His Catholic Church or he does not. Period. One can play a game of verbal semantics all day long, but this is what our life comes down to in what we believe and how we act accordingly. There can be no following some things and disregarding the rest. If one were to decide to leave some of Jesus’ teachings aside, by what authority would one be able to do so? The honest answer is that it is just the individual person. Therefore, that person would be saying that Jesus had it wrong when He wanted to create His Church (clearly evident in Matthew 16 and in Acts of the Apostles at Pentecost and St. Paul’s Letters which constantly talk about the Church). The Catholic Church is not a man-made creation. She is of divine origin with the guarantee of the Holy Spirit as her “soul,” as it were.
The Catholic Church is also not a collection of man-made rules. Catholics who complain about that are the very ones who want to believe and do anything they want according to their own rules! Rather, the Catholic Church is the instrument above all others in this world where God continues to reach out to each individual and offer His presence, healing, and consolation. However, all of this is offered according to God’s terms, not ours. We either submit in obedience to His love or we place false trust in ourselves. The prayer of the Church is always that every person will be united in the family of God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—where unity originated and into which we are all invited into His Church. May we accept this invitation readily each day!
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler