Indifferentism as a Sin against the Love of God

Supposing that a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church had said, while discussing a major youth event he is tasked with organizing, We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church or anything like that at all….” That would certainly be a scandal that would, even in our very indifferent times, be much discussed in the Catholic media.

While the scenario described above did not happen, what did happen was just as bad. It was a cardinal designate who said it (cf. “Future Portuguese cardinal on WYD: ‘We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ’”), and the ensuing scandal made his nomination as cardinal all the more newsworthy for journalists used to the customary summer slump in Vatican news after June 29.

Curiously, the ACI Prensa/CNA story I referenced above was significantly edited on the CNA site and on some other outlets that ran the original, appearing with new content under a new headline: “WYD is an invitation to young people to experience God, explains future Portuguese cardinal.” That sounds better, doesn’t it?

Here is the original story’s lede paragraph:

“We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church or anything like that at all,” said Bishop Américo Aguiar, the head of World Youth Day (WYD) Lisbon 2023 who will be created a cardinal by Pope Francis in September.

Here are the three paragraphs that subsequently replaced that one paragraph in the new version:

“World Youth Day is an invitation to all the young people of the world to experience God,” Bishop Américo Aguiar told ACI Digital, clarifying comments he made in a July 6 interview.

The auxiliary bishop of Lisbon and new president of the WYD Lisbon 2023 Foundation, who Pope Francis recently recently [sic.] named a cardinal, told ACI Digital that his comments were made in the context of a longer interview in which he was quoted as saying, “We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church or anything like that at all.”

In the interview, the bishop said that in his opinion the intention of World Youth Day is to have young people journey together, respecting their diversity.

It is my guess that the changes, hurriedly written and poorly edited, were precipitated by a request from the bishop himself, who was concerned about the bad press the story engendered. At the most superficial level, a successor of the Apostles saying that he has no intention of bringing young people to Jesus Christ or His Church is “bad optics.” I could be wrong about the bishop himself requesting the changes, but journalists generally do not arbitrarily edit their ledes and headlines after publishing them, so clearly there is some causality at work. If His soon-to-be Eminence got the message that such a bald statement of indifferentism looks really bad, then I suppose we can thank God for a small victory, although the language about journeying together while respecting each other’s diversity is hardly reassuring.

What Is Indifferentism?

Indifferentism is the heresy, formally condemned by the Catholic Church, that says that one can go to heaven in any religion, not only the one that Jesus Christ established for man’s salvation. Because of my community’s unique raison d’être, there are many postings on our site dedicated to the subject. In considering the heresy once again in this context of a future cardinal saying he does not want to convert young people to Christ or the Church, it is my intention to show the practical living of this heresy to be a sin against charity, not only as love of neighbor (the “second” commandment; cf. Matt. 22:39), but, especially, as love of God, concerning which Our Lord said, “This is the greatest and the first commandment” (Matt 22:38).

Indifferentism is a sin against the theological virtue of faith, as all heresy is. Now, grave sins against faith and hope remove charity from the soul, as do all mortal sins. But what demands our attention here is a kind of “practical indifferentism,” by which an individual, who may or may not explicitly subscribe to the heresy of indifferentism, lives as if that heresy is true and thus has no care for the evangelization and ultimate salvation of his neighbor. I consider this practical indifferentism to be included in those sins that the Angel of Portugal taught the Fatima children to make reparation for:

Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I adore Thee profoundly. I offer Thee the Most Precious Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges, and indifference by which He is offended. And through the infinite merit of His Most Sacred Heart, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg of Thee the conversion of poor sinners.

Let me make it clear that in addressing this issue in this way, I am not attempting to judge the soul of Bishop Américo Aguiar; I am, rather, addressing the objective meaning of his statement and its implications. Prescinding from his person, I am using this media debacle as a teaching moment for the common good.

Why Is Indifferentism a Sin Against Charity?

If God made us to know, love, and serve Him, it is a matter of supernaturally enlightened common sense that a man who does truly love God will wish Him to be known, loved, and served by his fellow men — and this for God’s own sake. One need not have the intense seraphic ardor of Saint Francis of Assisi — who famously repeated the anguished cri de cœur, “Love is not loved!” — to understand that the true Christian wants the Beloved to be loved by all men, and cannot be satisfied with “journeying together” with people who cannot love Him because they do not know Him. Saint Thomas Aquinas approvingly cites Saint Augustine (De Trin. x, 1,2) saying that, “none can love what he does not know.”

Let us once and for all dispose of the impious nonsense of Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian”!

The first and greatest commandment is “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind” (Matt. 22:37). As regards our neighbor himself, we love him for the love of God, or, rather, we love God in him. As Saint Thomas put it, “Now the love of one’s neighbor is not meritorious, except by reason of his being loved for God’s sake.” Loving our neighbor efficaciously means not only having affection for him but also willing his true good, which is why we call it “love of benevolence.” Our neighbor’s true good is secured by his knowing, loving, and serving God.

Saint Thomas discusses theological charity as a kind of love of friendship, which includes the two essential notes of “union of affections,” and “benevolence,” or “willing the good” of the friend. (In his own words: “Accordingly, to love, considered as an act of charity, includes goodwill, but such dilection or love adds union of affections.”) Now, benevolence is proved not only by willing the good to all, but also, as circumstances allow, doing the good to those one loves. “Doing the good” is called “beneficence,” concerning which the Angelic Doctor says, “Charity is a kind of friendship, as stated above (II-II:23:1). Now the Philosopher reckons among the acts of friendship (Ethic. ix, 1) ‘doing good,’ i.e. being beneficent, ‘to one’s friends.’ Therefore it is an act of charity to do good to others.”

We cannot “do good” to God strictly speaking. He is the source of all goodness; indeed, He is Goodness Itself! Saint Thomas, of course, understood this (as he is at pains to explain), so in that same question on beneficence, he wrote that, “it is not for us to benefit God, but to honor Him by obeying Him, while it is for Him, out of His love, to bestow good things on us.”

Yes, that’s right, we must “honor Him by obeying Him”; in other words: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Now, the Incarnate Logos, God Himself, commanded the following:

  • “That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops.” —Matt. 10:27
  • “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” —Matt. 28:19
  • “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” —Mark 16:14

Saint Paul took this commandment so seriously that he declared, “For if I preach the gospel, it is no glory to me, for a necessity lieth upon me: for woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).

It may be that someone happens upon these lines and thinks to himself, “But Saint Paul was an Apostle, and all of these commandments were made to the Apostles, the first bishops. They don’t apply to us.” This is not the mind of the Church, which has declared the following in her Latin Code of Canon Law:

Since lay people, like all Christ’s faithful, are deputed to the apostolate by baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and they have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout the world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ. [Can. 225 §1; cf. Canon Law and Lay Apostles.]

“Zeal Is an Effect of Love”

In answering affirmatively the question “whether zeal is an effect of love?” Saint Thomas says that zeal “arises from the intensity of love.” He goes on to say much that is relevant to our present subject:

On the other hand, love of friendship seeks the friend’s good: wherefore, when it is intense, it causes a man to be moved against everything that opposes the friend’s good. In this respect, a man is said to be zealous on behalf of his friend, when he makes a point of repelling whatever may be said or done against the friend’s good. In this way, too, a man is said to be zealous on God’s behalf, when he endeavors, to the best of his means, to repel whatever is contrary to the honor or will of God; according to 1 Kings 19:14: “With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord of hosts.” Again on the words of John 2:17: “The zeal of Thy house hath eaten me up,” a gloss says that “a man is eaten up with a good zeal, who strives to remedy whatever evil he perceives; and if he cannot, bears with it and laments it.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Love echoes this:

To love God is to wish Him all honour and glory and every good, and to endeavour, as far as we can, to obtain it for Him. St. John (14:23; 15:14) emphasizes the feature of reciprocity which makes charity a veritable friendship of man with God.

Included in that “honour and glory and every good” is that God be known, loved, and served by all men! Hence the apostolic zeal of Saint Francis Xavier, whose Prayer for Unbelievers (click here and scroll down) is infused with zeal for souls as love of God.

If zeal is “an effect of love,” then its absence would be the proverbial canary in the coalmine of our souls as far as theological charity goes. Charity makes us friends with God. Out of friendship, we want to obtain for Him the honor of being known, loved, and served. We want Him to be glorified, blessed, and praised. If we don’t, we fail in charity. Our love of God, if it exists, is weak and tepid.

May the God we love spare us this!

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Photo credit:

Christ telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, stained glass window in the Chartres Cathedral. Photo JBThomas4, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.