Religion reporter Doug Erickson’s 2012 Word of the Year: Indifferentism

Now, when the Diocese of Madison tweets a Wisconsin State Journal Article and posts it to facebook, that’s a pretty good kudos. Doesn’t happen real often, but today they posted religion reporter Doug Erickson’s good article highlighting and explaining the Catholic term “religious indifferentism”.

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.”

(continue reading the rest of the article at the newspaper website)

Doug Erickson has appeared in this blog as something of a villain after writing an article on the (actually non political) Capitol Rosary Rally interpreting it as a thinly veiled Republican rally. He also wrote the article on the “Wisdom’s Well” Sinsinawa Dominicans, the story he alludes to as having introduced him to “indifferentism”. In my blog post about that, my comments point to why Erickson is so right to seize on this as truly a key concept for understanding the relationship between progressive Madison, and the Catholic Church and even other religions (here I’m quoting myself, which seems lazy, but I need to get to bed):

My personal experience as a former fallen away Catholic religious progressive, deeply involved in a then good-sized online interfaith community called “Street Prophets”, was that religious indifferentism tends to be non-negotiable “dogma” among religious progressives. It was outrageous to them to suggest that all religions aren’t equally true and good! They didn’t particularly believe in objective religious or moral truth.


Even when politics is not the explicitly articulated focus, religious progressives’ indifferentism is oriented toward working together for a utopian social vision. In reality that was the primary “religion” all my interreligious friends had in common, so everyone discarded (or put in parentheses) any conflicting moral or truth claims of their faith–in the name of “peace & justice” and “the common good”… as defined by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The point was to organize the “diversity of faith-wisdom traditions” to implement Progressivism, the new universal secular “religion”.

The other thing Erickson did really right, besides rightly highlighting a concept that sheds a lot of light on understanding Madison and religion, was he turned to an orthodox Catholic theologian, Colin Donovan of EWTN, to ask sincerely about what the term meant. I am often dismayed when religion reporters seek comment on some Catholic story from a “progressive” theologian, perhaps from a Jesuit university; in Madison reporters sometimes call someone from Edgewood College. Their response inevitably has a politicized twist.

Two of the “Wisdom’s Well” women were former Edgewood College professors, and subsequent to the leak of the diocesan guideline to pastors that the women were not to be accepted as speakers or spiritual guides on church premises due to their lack of complete embrace of Catholic principles, 129 (out of about 600) Edgewood faculty and staff signed a letter in support of them, which they ran as an ad in the State Journal.  Edgewood is a Catholic school. The article about the Edgewood letter ends:

[Edgewood College spokesman Ed] Taylor said the bishop of the Madison Diocese has “pastoral responsibility” for all Catholic institutions in the diocese, including the college.

“The relationship between the college and the diocese continues to be marked by respectful, meaningful dialogue,” Taylor said.

Catholics aware of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the relevant Canon Law, and the continuing  exhortations of Pope Benedict to strengthen the Catholic identity and fidelity of higher education in the US, and who who pay much attention to what goes on at Edgewood College, may feel concerned that all this is not yet being fulfilled very perfectly. There’s reason for hope, though.

The diocese has a posse. A good and kind posse on a mission of unity and salvation of souls, not doing violence. Just this past Saturday, the diocese announced the appointment of spanking-new Doctor of Canon Law (oh this is cause for joy), good Fr Tait Schroeder JCD, director of the Diocesan Tribunal. Also our other spanking-new canon lawyer, layman formerly a St Ambrose Academy teacher, Paul Matenaer JCL, as promoter of justice. Also some good priests and another lay canon lawyer as tribunal judges, and a good young laywoman Bryna Fassino as “moderator of the Tribunal Chancery” (I think she is secretary of it?). Primarily the role of the Tribunal has to do with marriage and cases of nullity. I can’t but think that  with two new canon lawyers, a powerfully increased capacity to handle Canon Law matters also increases the possibilities of requiring Catholic institutions in our diocese to live up to their obligations within the Church.

Today (yesterday now, since now it’s past midnight) was the feast of St Raymond of Penyafort, who is  a particular patron of canon lawyers, and Monsignor Holmes offerered the evening Mass at Holy Redeemer particularly for the Tribunal. I was very happy to join in this intention also. Monsignor pointed out that the Church is not simply a spiritual reality (as the protestants think) but a visible and physical body, and therefore has a structure and order, which on the practical level is governed by Canon Law. Canon Law thus serves Catholic unity and communion, which is integral to the Church’s ministry and witness to Christ her divine Bridegroom.

Religious indifferentism is indifferent also to being bound by Church law and Catholic unity. Sometimes the problem is not really ill-will, but want of catechesis and sufficient and sound knowledge of the Faith. But, to come back around to where this post started,that’s why I am pleased by Doug Erickson’s article highlighting a valuable kernel of knowledge of the Catholic faith, may there be more of this in the press, and less of the kinda unedifying ones.

5 Responses to Religion reporter Doug Erickson’s 2012 Word of the Year: Indifferentism

  1. While it is certainly preferable that Mr Erickson should turn to EWTN rather than a liberal Edgewood professor on the matter, it would have been far simpler to go to the Magisterial source: the Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Gregory XVI Mirari Vos

    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.” 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?”

    I got the impression from Mr Erickson’s article that he — at least initially — thought Bishop Morlino was inventing the concept. Hopefully the reporter now understands that in the Catholic Church, prelates do not invent truth, as is done in modern secular society (and in Protestant churches as well). Our bishops merely teach the eternal Truth entrusted to them by Christ Himself.

    • That is true, journalists turn too seldom to the primary sources of Catholic teaching which the theologians themselves are simply trying to restate the best they can. The journalists often seem to be trying to recenter on “what the individual thinks” (since the secular world considers that other “catholics” might hold contrasting opinions which are all to them “catholic opinions” even if they are not) whereas in the Catholic understanding they (orthodox theologians for instance) are referring to Catholic doctrine as something objective they are pointing to, which pertains to objective religious Truth.

      But having a person state it for the journalist who can then quote him, seems to be part of playing the media game. And one thing it does demonstrate (when the teaching is conveyed accurately, which tends to happen only if they ask an orthodox source) is that actual Catholics believe what is taught in the Magisterial documents. The Faith is a living reality, not just something on paper. We have to be ready to give an answer about the reason for our hope. When the EWTN theologian responds in his own words to the journalist, it is person to person, it is Christian witness, it is apologetics, with the journalist standing in for a broader public that has similar gaps in knowledge, and questions. So I don’t think that is unhealthy.

      • You raise a very good point that asking an orthodox theologian for an explanation proves that the Faith is not merely a passive theory, but a living Truth that real people believe in and try to live out sincerely.

        But I fear, in this pluralistic society, the negative consequences of this type of reporting — i.e. the false presumption that an orthodox, authentic reading of the Magisterial documents in continuity with Scripture and Tradition is just one permissible Catholic viewpoint amongst many — will far outweigh the benefits, whether that is the intent or not.

  2. Doug Erickson really is a good reporter, an award-winning religion writer. True, he lacks a certain Catholic “mindset,” which sometimes limits his focus. But I can say from having followed Doug’s career over the years (also, having had many phone calls & email exchanges with him), he makes an honest effort to present ALL sides of a given story. Doug Erickson is not your typical “hack” reporter: he’s clearly a person of faith.

    • Having also talked to him, I feel he doesn’t always get it right but I have seen him trying sincerely and wanting to be fair minded. A non Catholic journalist, if they are going to get Catholic stories right, has to be willing to learn to understand how the Church understands herself and what her beliefs are, and that is a lot to learn. Any willingness to learn should be encouraged.


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