“The Catholic Church is in crisis,” writes Crisis Magazine Editor-in-Chief Eric Sammons in his highly informative new book, Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It. Since the Catholic Church’s 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), a spirit of relativism has undermined the Catholic Church’s commitment to divine truth, with particularly negative effects upon the relationship of Christians to Islam.
As Sammons writes, “religious indifference has permeated the Church in almost every aspect of her life and ministry. The idea that in the long run one’s religion doesn’t much matter has taken root in the Church.” This “attacks both the desire to gain new members and the desire of existing members to remain,” such that former Catholics are now America’s “second largest ‘religion.’” As a former evangelical Methodist, this “indifference that reigns in the Church shocked me when I first converted to Catholicism in the early 1990s. Part of what had attracted me to Catholicism was the historical passion of its members.”
This indifference is new, for “historically the Church noted the deficiencies in other religions,” Sammons notes. “The Church’s traditional doctrine on salvation and the role of other religions can be summed up in the famous Latin phrase, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus,” or “outside the Church there is no salvation,” he explains. This teaching has clear Hebrew scripture roots, for “[n]owhere in the Old Testament is Religious Pluralism endorsed, and in fact, it is repeatedly and harshly condemned.”
Yet “over time the Church begins to recognize some extraordinary means of salvation” beyond ordinary water baptism, Sammons observes. “Starting in the sixteenth century, Catholic theologians debated the status of those peoples in the New World who had died without hearing of Christianity.” Were they “saved, much like Jews and Gentiles before the time of Christ were eligible for salvation? Perhaps they implicitly desired Baptism.”
Nonetheless, Sammons summarizes the traditional Catholic teaching that
although it is possible for a non-Catholic to be saved, Catholics are discouraged from believing it is probable that non-Catholics will be saved. Living a virtuous and dutiful life and keeping the precepts of the natural law is incredibly difficult for a Catholic who has access to the sacraments; how much more so for the pagan who does not!
Yet Sammons delineates a theological “Emphasis Shift” in the Catholic Church under the “heavy influence on Vatican II” of German Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest Karl Rahner. Among the “most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century,” he had developed the theory of “Anonymous Christianity.” This, he wrote, “means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity.”
Thus, a spirit of “Inclusivism came to predominate Catholicism, which pushed the extraordinary means to the forefront, making them in many ways ordinary,” Sammons notes. Accordingly, “Vatican II texts are exceedingly positive” about other religions and advocate that the “elements of truth found in other religions—which find their source in the Holy Spirit—help prepare non-Christians for the Gospel.” Subsequently a “Catholic under the age of sixty has likely never heard a Church leader criticize a non-Catholic belief system,” which are discussed “always positively, never critically.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, critically accepted this Inclusivism, but nevertheless renounced a “‘dictatorship of relativism’ plaguing the world and the Church,” Sammons writes. As Benedict XVI wrote in 2012, Vatican II’s oft-noted document Nostra Aetate “speaks of religion solely in a positive way, and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion.” He tried to address such spiritual sickness in his September 12, 2006, Regensburg, Germany, speech concerning the relationship between faith and reason.
Benedict XVI’s quotation of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who had described in a 1391 writing how Islam spread through force, unleashed furor, which forced the pope to conciliate Muslims worldwide. “Even the suggestion of criticism of another religion is now verboten among Catholics,” Sammons marvels. “Any deviation from this party line, however slight, is harshly silenced, even if that deviation comes from the pope himself.”
Benedict XVI has had little apparent influence upon his successor, Pope Francis. This became evident in his February 4, 2019, meeting in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious religious authority. There the two clerics signed A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, also known as the Abu Dhabi Declaration.
Religious indifference permeates the declaration, Sammons observes, such as when the “pope and sheikh state together that they write ‘in the name of God.’” However, Muslims adamantly reject the Christian understanding of a triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Contrastingly, the Abu Dhabi Declaration “suggests that there is no fundamental difference between the two religions as to the ‘name’ of God.”
The Abu Dhabi Declaration also makes repeated “equalization of religions” in statements such as “religious values,” Sammons notes. Yet, he wonders,
how does, for example, the Catholic view of women co-exist as an equal value with the Muslim view of women? What does it mean that ‘religious extremism’ is bad? Does this mean a Catholic ‘extremist’ such as Mother Teresa equates with an Islamic extremist such as Osama bin Laden?
Controversy also erupted over Abu Dhabi Declaration language that implied “that the pluralism of religions is willed by God,” Sammons noted. This diversity appeared in a list of human characteristics such as the division of humanity into male and female, God-designed natural sex differences according to Biblical teaching. Pope Francis never responded to requests for clarification, and so the declaration is an unprecedented Catholic “watershed in that it puts in print an endorsement (whether intentional or accidental) of Religious Pluralism,” Sammons notes.
Sammons found Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti equally disappointing. Here the pope
placidly says of other religions, “Others drink from other sources.” From this, it sounds like all religions can equally supply fresh, life-giving water. But what about a religion like Islam that oppresses women in horrific ways and forces people to convert by the tip of the sword…The “water” of other religions often contains poison.
For Pope Francis, “interreligious dialogue takes center stage in his pontificate,” Sammons notes, for the pope wants to unite humanity in addressing matters such as climate change or conflict. “Even the most casual observer of Francis recognizes that his pontificate is scrupulously concerned with political issues,” he notes, but Pope Francis inverts the traditional Catholic relationship between matter and spirit. “Earthly problems were seen as something that would be more easily addressed if nations first come to Christ. The priority was the conversion of the nations; the result would be greater peace in the world,” Sammons explains.
This aimless “dialogue” achieves nothing, Sammons despairs. “High-cost symposiums and official meetings proliferate,” yet “most dialogues face an insurmountable problem: no true end goal.” He concludes:
In our modern world, it’s easy to discover what other religions believe and how their adherents practice their religions. These official dialogues are now simply opportunities for religious leaders to socialize and affirm one another as members of equally valid religions.
By contrast, Sammons urges Catholics “to regain some of the maligned ‘triumphalism’ of our forefathers in the Faith.” Catholics should be “willing to state flatly that non-Catholic religions are false religions and point out ways in which they are contrary to the natural law or divine revelation,” he explains. This “Old Evangelization says it like it is, and it doesn’t avoid the hard topics like Hell, divorce, or the errors of Islam.” “Catholics should be tolerant, but tolerance does not equate to acceptance of false beliefs, nor does it preclude calls to conversion,” he clarifies.
Absent this renewed church militant, Sammons fears for the loss of souls and societies. “We need only look at Northern Africa after the Muslim invasions or England after Henry VIII to know that Catholicism can essentially disappear from large geographic areas,” Sammons correctly observes. His book therefore makes a compelling case for not just Catholics to reconsider relativistic multicultural pieties and once again rigorously seek truth about this world and the next.
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