Father Conway is one of the great preachers of the Church of the Paulist Fathers in New York City. He is also one of the directors of the Catholic Unity League, and since 1898 he has been a Catholic Defense Lecturer for the United States and Canada. Tireless in his labors, he is as persuasive in his eloquence as he is captivating in his personal charm.
A New Yorker, born in 1872, Father Conway was educated in the public schools of the city, and after a year in City College finished his college studies in St. Charles College, Maryland, in charge of the French Sulpicians. He took his theological training at St. Thomas Seminary, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1896, after which he devoted two years to post-graduate work at the Catholic University of Washington City.
A busy writer of books, pamphlets, articles, editorials and reviews for both the American and foreign Catholic press, Father Conway has won a wide fame. Perhaps his best known book is The Question Box, which grew out of his responses to questions in his missions, over two million copies of which have been sold. Other books, such as Studies in Church History and The Virgin Birth, have passed through many editions.
In the sermon here to be read a man of profound faith deals with the lazy, hazy indifferentism, which lets error be as good as truth, because it cares for neither—describing it as intellectual disintegration and a moral menace.
And Gallio cared for none of these things. Acts 17:18.
One of the most common dogmas outside the Catholic Church in our day and country is the dogma of indifferentism. Nine non-Catholics out of ten will ask you, when the problem of religion is being discussed, “Is not one religion as good as another? What difference does it make what religion you profess provided you live up to it? Are not creeds in themselves unimportant, and conduct the one thing essential? Do we not frequently meet men who believe in Christ and all his teachings, and yet day by day do things that would bring a blush to a pagan’s face or make a Mohammedan ashamed?”
The indifferentist will speak patronizingly of religion as a police force to keep the discontented in check, or as an outlet for the emotions of pious sentimentalists. He will praise all religions for the virtuous men they have produced; he will maintain that intelligence and good breeding alike call for a kindly toleration towards all creeds and churches; he will vehemently denounce the Catholic Church as bigoted, intolerant and autocratic, because she claims obedience under sin as the infallible mouthpiece of a divine revelation. There are many roads, he informs you, leading to the kingdom of heaven, and an honest man may travel any one of them with the conviction that he is pleasing God.
You meet the indifferentist everywhere. In educational matters he is a secularist, who marvels greatly at the determined effort made by Catholics to educate their children in separate Christian schools; in politics he wants the State to ignore religion entirely and becomes indignant when Church and State work together for the common good; in social questions he advocates many principles subversive of Christian morality, and tells the Church to keep her hands off such questions as divorce, birth control, labor problems, and such like issues. In religion he believes that all creeds are equally true and equally helpful—perhaps, down in his heart, equally false—and that their acceptance or rejection is as unimportant as the cut of a man’s clothes or the custom of his peculiar nationality. Such Modernism is indistinguishable from Agnosticism, and ends in indifference and futility.
The Catholic Church condemns in most unequivocal terms this modern dogma of indifferentism. She asserts that it is the most subtle enemy of religion, harder to combat successfully than the most bitter prejudice and bigotry. A man who hates Christianity and the Church because he thinks they stand for everything unintelligent, ignoble and autocratic, may be led to love the Church once he learns that he has been misled by the parents whom he loves or the teachers whom he respects. A good hater like St. Paul, who, as he says himself, acted “ignorantly and in unbelief,” became, after his conversion, one of the best lovers that Jesus Christ ever had. But an indifferentist, who declares God indifferent to truth simply because he himself is indifferent, and who glories in a self-made religion free of all obligation and restraint, is hardly apt to consider the claims of a definite teaching Church, which requires absolute faith in all the revelation of God, and enforces her divine doctrine and law under penalty of sin.
Is it not strange, however, that the very man who worries night and day over his business difficulties, and who sacrifices health and comfort in his pursuit of money, political preferment, or the interests of science, should at the same time be utterly indifferent to the truth of God? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” said Jesus Christ. “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” It is easy to trace the origin of the modern spirit of religious indifferentism. In the first place, it is the inevitable reaction from the false teaching regarding justifying faith. The extreme formula, “Faith alone without works will save,” has in the minds of our generation led to the opposite formula: “Works alone without faith will save.” Or, put it another way: “Believe right,” said a certain teacher, “and I care not what you do.” His twentieth century follower says: “Do right, and I care not what you believe.”
Private judgment, which made man’s reason the one supreme arbiter of the revelation of God, was the father of modern indifferentism. In other words, the sixteenth century revolt substituted an infallible book, or collection of books, for the infallible teaching Church, but as a matter of fact the meaning of the Bible was left to the private opinion of the individual reader. Within a few years such teaching had given birth to a number of contradictory versions of the Christian message. How was the individual man to know the true version from the false? Was it not inevitable that the man in the street, without the time or the inclination or the ability to study, would declare, sooner or later, that it made no difference what a man believed? Inevitably so.
I have met many men who were indifferentists because they utterly denied that God had ever made any revelation to men, or that Christ had ever established any definite teaching Church. Religion did not mean to them the acknowledgement of man’s utter dependence upon a Supreme Being, or the acceptance of certain divine laws and doctrines—nay, it was merely “a sum of scruples impeding the free exercise of our faculties.” In the name of the study of comparative religion, they asserted that Christianity was in no sense a unique, divine teaching to be held by all mankind—it was merely one of the many religions evolved by thinking men to solve the insoluble problem of the unseen world of spirit.
Frequently when we declare that the Catholic Church condemns indifferentism, we are asked, “Do you really believe then that all good men, because they follow religions differing from your own, are damned to an eternal hell? Do you not dogmatically assert that outside your Church there is no salvation?” By no means. The Church teaches that no man goes to hell, unless he has freely and deliberately turned his back upon God, and died unrepentant of grievous sin. We have always believed that men outside the Catholic Church might live in error and still be saved; that millions of men in every age might through invincible ignorance be free of all sin in rejecting the Church’s claims. Pope Pius IX well said, “We must recognize with certainty that those who are in invincible ignorance of the true religion are not guilty in the eye of the Lord. And who will presume to make out the limits of this ignorance according to the character and diversity of peoples, countries, minds and the rest?”
The Church condemns indifferentism in the name of reason, in the name of the sacred scriptures, and in the name of Christian tradition. The God of indifferentism is not a God to be adored by rational men. God is essential, absolute and eternal Truth; He is likewise essential, absolute and eternal Holiness. A God of truth and holiness, He cannot be equally pleased with truth and error, with good and evil. To assert, therefore, that God does not care what men believe is nothing short of blasphemy. A man indifferent to truth—a liar, in other words—cannot have the respect of his fellows. A God indifferent to truth would have no right to the homage of thinking men. No wonder, then, that those who form so low a concept of the Deity should end by denying Him altogether. Indifferentism is merely atheism in disguise.
The assertion that one religion is as good as another is irrational. It is a first principle of reason that two contradictory statements cannot both be true. If one is true, the other is undoubtedly false. Either there are many Gods or one God; either Jesus Christ is God or He is not; Mohammed is either a prophet or an impostor; divorce is either allowed or prohibited by Christ; the Eucharist is the living Jesus Christ or it is mere bread. To declare all religions equally true, or that their differences are immaterial, is to deny objective truth altogether with the pragmatist—and, as a fact, this denial is the blight of our age. On this theory a man ought to change his religion as he changes the cut of his clothes, according to his environment. He ought to be a Catholic in Italy, a Lutheran in Sweden, a Mohammedan in Turkey, a Buddhist in China.
Since the division of Christendom in the sixteenth century many have advocated Christian unity in the name of doctrines fundamental and essential; but a Catholic cannot accept such a theory. Faith with us means acceptance of divine truth on the authority of God, who has revealed it to us. We are bound to accept all that God has taught once we grasp the fact that He has revealed it. If I make a dozen statements, and you accept ten of them, rejecting two as unimportant, you plainly consider me a liar. How can a man reject even one divine truth, if he knows it is of God? Such selection of truth, believing what suits our wish or whim, is Heresy, as the word means.
Yet, strangely enough, many believers in the Bible are indifferentists, in spite of the plainest words of warning. Christ commanded His apostles to teach a definite Gospel, and declared that those who knowingly rejected it would be condemned, “He that believeth not shall be condemned.” He prophesied that many would gainsay His teaching, but he denounced them in unmeasured terms, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” But, of course, just as the indifferentist selects what truth he will accept, so he sifts the words of our Lord and condemns as unauthentic the words that condemn him.
Revelation, if it has any meaning, is a message from God to man. Man has no freedom to reject it at will; his absolute duty is to receive it “not as the word of men, but as it is indeed the Word of God.” God, as a God of Truth, could not possibly have reealed a plurality of religions, or a multitude of varying Christianities. He founded one Church, one Kingdom of God, one sheepfold, under the perpetual guidance of Himself and the Holy Spirit.
The history of Christianity in every age shows how alien to Christ is the dogma of indifferentism, which was first popularized by the English Deists and French Rationalists of the seventeenth century. In the first three centuries the Christian martyrs died by the thousands, because they were not indifferentists. Frequently they were asked by friends and kinsfolk either to sacrifice to the gods of pagan Rome, or at least to allow their names to be written down as having sacrificed. “What difference does it make?” said their pagan friends. But they answered in the words of Christ, “Every one, therefore, that shall confess Me before men, I will confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But he that shall deny Me before men, I will also deny Him before My Father who is in heaven.” They were not indifferent. They suffered the most bitter tortures and death, because they were loyal to the truth. In the England of the sixteenth century, many a Catholic was offered money and preferment if he would only acknowledge the Royal Supremacy of the Tudors in spirituals. But men like Sir Thomas More, Edmund Campion, Bishop Fisher and others gladly died for their faith, knowing to a certainty that it was the teaching of Jesus Christ. They were not indifferent.
In twentieth-century China, during the Boxer troubles of the nineties, there was evidence of the same loyalty of Christians to the truth. The Boxers, feeling keenly the shame of having their country parceled out among a number of robber nations calling themselves Christians, set out to murder every European in their land. Identifying Christianity with the nations that had robbed them, they determined to punish especially the Chinese who had become converts. “What difference does it make,” they said, “whether you worship as our fathers worshiped or as the Europeans worship? Return to the doctrines of old China.” A crucifix was placed upon the ground. If the convert trampled upon it, he was at once free; if he refused, he was put to death with horrible tortures. Many gladly died for Christ, because they saw the evil of disloyalty and indifference to truth.
As a matter of fact, we find that the man who says, first, “It does not make any difference what a man believes,” is tempted to adopt the logical conclusion and say, “It does not make any difference what a man does.” His morality is built upon the shifting sands of opinion, fancy, human respect, and so will not stand the stress of sorrow, disgrace, difficulty, or temptation. If religion be a mere matter of opinion, all certainty in morals becomes impossible, and men lapse into the old-time vices of paganism. The New Paganism, as reflected in our life and literature, is even less attractive than the paganism of olden time—lacking both its courage and its culture.
Sometimes the good lives of unbelievers are mentioned as proof positive that belief is an unimportant factor in the regulation of conduct. A man will argue, “A. never puts his foot inside a church, nor does he accept any creed whatever; yet is he a man kindly, charitable, pure, and honest. On the other hand, B. is a Catholic, accepting without question every dogma and law of his Church, but I know him to be a drunkard, an adulterer, a hypocrite, the most uncharitable and contemptible of men.” But the argument proves nothing at all, because the comparison is made between the open, well-known vices of a sinful, hypocritical believer who gives the lie to every Christian virtue, and the obvious good deeds of an amiable unbeliever. The whole character of the two men is often not adequately known, and consequently is not weighed in a true balance.
But even if we grant that a particular unbeliever is a fairly good man, his goodness is certainly not due to his unbelief. He lives in a Christian environment; he comes of Christian stock; he may perhaps have received a Christian education as a child. His life is parasitic. As Balfour writes in his Foundations of Belief, “Biologists tell us of parasites which live, and can only live, in the bodies of animals more highly organized than they.… So it is with those persons who claim to show by their example that naturalism is practically consistent with the maintenance of ethical ideals with which naturalism has no natural affinity. Their spiritual life is parasitic; it is sheltered by convictions which belong not to them, but to the society of which they form a part; it is nourished by processes in which they take no share. And when these convictions decay, and these processes come to an end, the alien life which they have maintained can scarce be expected to outlast them.”
If a man be utterly indifferent to the truth of God, if he look upon the ten commandments as temporary laws evolved out of the consciousness of a certain Semitic race, if he questions the fact of God’s existence, makes little of the fact of immortality, denies the fact of sin, and the freedom of the human will, what basis can he have for the moral law? A lawyer, he will not hesitate to bribe both jury and judge if he can do so without detection; a doctor, he will not shrink from child murder or a criminal operation; a politician, he will steal what he can from a State’s treasury, and be loyal to his friends, no matter what their competence or their morals; a preacher of the Gospel of Christ, he will deny its every doctrine, and be at the beck and call of the rich and powerful among his hearers—a mere “seller of rhetoric,” as St. Augustine said long ago.
The true Christian may under stress of temptation fall into the worst vices of the pagan, and give the lie to his high profession. But no matter how low he may fall, he falls from a standard, and you may appeal to him. He has once climbed up the mount of God, and he knows that with God’s help he can again reach the summit. But if a man feels confident that every lapse is due merely to the evil of environment, a taint in the blood, or the impelling force of a stronger will, he will not answer your appeal to higher things. He calls evil good, and good evil.
Will you still say that conduct is the one thing essential? You are right. But faith is the inspiration and support of right conduct, if it is good morals and not merely good manners. It is the very foundation stone of the supernatural life. A good man will accept God’s word and command in its entirety, once he knows it. A good man is bound to search for the revelation of God, once he begins to doubt about the validity of his own ethical or religious convictions. It is just as much a sin to deny the known truth or to be indifferent in its search, as to commit murder or adultery. This is a principle which the modern world has forgotten, but it will have to come back to it. It is a truth that the Church is ever trying to drive home to every heart and mind. True to Christ’s teaching, she appeals to all men, however deluded by error or debased by sin, in a spirit of kindliness, tact, sympathy and patience. But she dare not sacrifice one jot or tittle of the divine message, which the Saviour delivered to her for the healing of the nations.