Indifferentism: The First Head of the Modern Hydra of Heresy

Like its immediate predecessor, this Ad Rem is a sneak preview of our conference

In the second of his celebrated “Twelve Labors,” Hercules was challenged to slay a multi-headed beast called the “Lernaean Hydra” owing to its lair being the lake of Lerna in Argolis, Greece. Hercules accomplished this labor with help from his torch-bearing nephew, Iolaus and a golden sword given him by the goddess Athena. In some versions of the story, every time the hero cuts off one of the monster’s heads, two grow back in its place. The near impossibility of this task — only overcome when Iolaus cauterized each headless stump with his torch immediately after Hercules successfully decapitated it — is precisely what makes in “Herculean.”

The Church today is beset my a multitude of enemies, both inside and outside. Included among these enemies are manifold heresies that together bear some resemblance to this mythological creature. One resemblance is certain: The labor of eradicating the hydra of heresy is indeed, from our human perspective, “Herculean.” Thankfully, we have the help of God’s grace, of Our Lady, of Saint Joseph, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and all the saints; as well as of Saint Michael the Archangel, and all the heavenly host of angels.

In this little presentation, I will focus on only four heads of the Lernaean Hydra of Heresy. To enumerate these, I will cite some words of our dear Brother Francis, which he wrote for a booklet we published many years ago, called Invitation to a Crusade:

Under the destructive influence of the heresies condemned by Popes Gregory XVI (Indifferentism), Pius IX (Liberalism), Leo XIII (Americanism), and Saint Pius X (Modernism), the Church Militant has taken on the character of a “Church Dormant.” The apostolic zeal that was the mark of Catholicism in the Ages of Faith has been abandoned in favor of spiritual complacency. This loss of militancy and zeal on the part of individual Catholics, and this collapse of the hierarchy’s vigilance against heresy, is ultimately attributable to one thing: the denial by churchmen of her key Dogma of Faith — extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

There we have it, four popes and four heresies. Pope Gregory XVI condemned Indifferentism, Blessed Pius IX condemned Liberalism, Leo XIII condemned Americanism, and Saint Pius X condemned modernism. It’s not that the later popes did not condemn the earlier heresies on this list: All condemned indifferentism, and all condemned liberalism, both of which are essential to the later errors of Americanism and Modernism, but Brother Francis gave us a simplified list based upon which pope either first condemned the error or which is most readily associated with its condemnation.

I. Indifferentism. Condemned in writing twice by Pope Gregory XVI (Bartolomeo Alberto Cappellari / Don Mauro: 1831-1846) in the same year of 1832, this is the heresy that denies, point blank, the necessity of the Church for salvation by saying that men can be saved in any religion whatsoever. On May 27 of 1832, in the second year of his pontificate, Pope Gregory addressed his very first encyclical letter, Summo Iugiter Studio, to the Bishops of Bavaria. It concerned a grave pastoral and canonical matter in that kingdom, namely the issue of mixed marriages, i.e., the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic spouse. In paragraph two and subsequently in paragraphs five and six of this very short nine-paragraph letter, he lays the doctrinal foundation for the Church’s canon law and pastoral practice on mixed marriages. Here I quote directly from Summo Iugiter Studio, paragraph two:

“(2) Finally some of these misguided people attempt to persuade themselves and others that men are not saved only in the Catholic religion, but that even heretics may attain eternal life.”

Keep in mind, the Roman Pontiff is addressing himself to Bavarians. The heretics he had in mind were certainly not Albigensians, Manicheans, Gnostics, or Apolanarians — heretics of the patristic or medieval eras. They were clearly Protestants. He was writing more than three centuries after the Protestant Revolt, at a time when many Catholics were saying, as they still do today, that you cannot accuse people so far removed from the initial defection of the sin of heresy. On that score, our own times are considerably closer to Gregory XVI’s times than his were to the Protestant Revolt.

He continues in paragraphs five and six:

5. You know how zealously Our predecessors taught that very article of faith which these dare to deny, namely the necessity of the Catholic faith and of unity for salvation. The words of that celebrated disciple of the apostles, martyred St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians are relevant to this matter: “Be not deceived, my brother; if anyone follows a schismatic, he will not attain the inheritance of the kingdom of God.” Moreover, St. Augustine and the other African bishops who met in the Council of Cirta in the year 412 explained the same thing at greater length: “Whoever has separated himself from the Catholic Church, no matter how laudably he lives, will not have eternal life, but has earned the anger of God because of this one crime: that he abandoned his union with Christ.” Omitting other appropriate passages which are almost numberless in the writings of the Fathers, We shall praise St. Gregory the Great who expressly testifies that this indeed is the teaching of the Catholic Church. He says: “The holy universal Church teaches that it is not possible to worship God truly except in her and asserts that all who are outside of her will not be saved.” Official acts of the Church proclaim the same dogma. Thus, in the decree on faith which Innocent III published with the synod of Lateran IV, these things are written: “There is one universal Church of all the faithful outside of which no one is saved.” Finally the same dogma is also expressly mentioned in the profession of faith proposed by the Apostolic See, not only that which all Latin churches use, but also that which the Greek Orthodox Church uses and that which other Eastern Catholics use. We did not mention these selected testimonies because We thought you were ignorant of that article of faith and in need of Our instruction. Far be it from Us to have such an absurd and insulting suspicion about you. But We are so concerned about this serious and well known dogma, which has been attacked with such remarkable audacity, that We could not restrain Our pen from reinforcing this truth with many testimonies.

6. Strive to eradicate these slithering errors with all your strength. Inspire the populace of Bavaria to keep the Catholic faith and unity as the only way of salvation with an ever more ardent zeal, and, thus, to avoid every danger of forsaking it. Once the Bavarian faithful understands this necessity of maintaining Catholic unity, admonitions and warnings to them against joining in marriage with heretics will certainly not be in vain.

On August 15 of that same year, Gregory published Mirari vos, this time addressing “All Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, and Bishops of the Catholic World.” His subject matter was the two-headed hydra of Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism, which Gregory clearly saw as related to one another, writing as he did in paragraph fourteen that, “This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone.” Having touched upon the very essence of liberalism, Pope Gregory goes on to condemn several of liberalism’s chief tenets including what we Americans would call “a free press” and also what he himself termed “to separate the Church from the state, and to break the mutual concord between temporal authority and the priesthood.” We want to emphasize that, in Gregory’s mind, the dogmatic heresy of indifferentism “gives rise to” the social and political error of liberalism. He is not the only pope to see the interrelation of these errors. Later, as we will see, Blessed Pius IX will contend that liberalism serves to “propagate the pest of indifferentism.”

Concerning indifferentism itself, this is what Gregory tells us in Mirari vos:

13. 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. With the admonition of the apostle that “there is one God, one faith, one baptism” may those fear who contrive the notion that the safe harbor of salvation is open to persons of any religion whatever. They should consider the testimony of Christ Himself that “those who are not with Christ are against Him,” and that they disperse unhappily who do not gather with Him. Therefore “without a doubt, they will perish forever, unless they hold the Catholic faith whole and inviolate.” [This last is a familiar quote from the Athanasian Creed —BAM.] Let them hear Jerome who, while the Church was torn into three parts by schism, tells us that whenever someone tried to persuade him to join his group he always exclaimed: “He who is for the See of Peter is for me.” A schismatic flatters himself falsely if he asserts that he, too, has been washed in the waters of regeneration. Indeed Augustine would reply to such a man: “The branch has the same form when it has been cut off from the vine; but of what profit for it is the form, if it does not live from the root?”