In a recent sermon, a deacon at my local Catholic church told a humorous anecdote about a group of Protestants who enter heaven after dying in a bus accident. Saint Peter greets them and tells them to walk quietly past a certain group of souls as they make their way to their heavenly mansions. He explains, “They’re Catholics, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
What was the point of this anecdote? Pretty much the point of every story and joke of typical Catholic homilies: be nice, be tolerant, and give thanks for your many blessings. It’s a message that plays well with the elderly parishioners who come to expect these comfortable, non-confrontational platitudes every week.
It’s also a message that has unfortunately driven every subsequent generation out of the Catholic Church. As Eric Sammons argues in his new book, Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It, there has been a major “emphasis shift” in Catholicism (along with most other Christian denominations) since the 1960s.
For most of the church’s history, Catholics understood that salvation came through the church alone, and that partaking in heresy, schism, or non-Christian faith altogether would likely jeopardize that salvation. However, in the past half-century this teaching was downplayed in favor of voicing hope for all people of any church to be saved.
What immediately followed from this change in focus was a widespread “deadly indifference” that descended on the church “like a thick fog, formed from the words of Church documents, the treatises of radical theologians, and the actions of popes.” Hence the church and its members today are wildly different from the church of the past: While they are more tolerant and welcoming, they are also more ignorant about their faith and lax in their practice of it. Yes, it’s easier than ever to be a Catholic in good standing; it just doesn’t seem to amount to much anymore.
‘Extra Ecclesiam Null Sales’
Sammons begins his book by considering the church’s original purpose, to save souls, which seems to be forgotten by most Catholics today. However, it was not so long ago that popes issued statements about the church’s fundamental, and almost completely exclusive, role in saving souls. In 1949 Pope Pius XII proclaimed, “Among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also in that infallible statement by which we are taught that there is no salvation outside the Church.”
As Sammons demonstrates through a plethora of church documents, the church drifted away from this teaching as soon as some progressive church leaders and theologians decided to muddy the waters. Whereas the official stance on salvation was “extra Ecclesiam null sales” (“outside the Church there is no salvation”), certain theologians later on would stress some exceptions to this, such as those who experience baptism by blood or desire. True, baptism in the church was preferable, but some would-be Catholics lacked access to this sacrament because they were martyred or there were no churches nearby.
But what about those who are ignorant of the faith? Here is where the exception starts broadening into the rule. As Sammons notes, numerous theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) would argue that salvation was possible to those outside the church if they showed goodwill and listened to their conscience, which was the means through which the Holy Spirit reached them. Details on the specifics vary—some theologians just call it a “mystery” and move on—but it has now become a popular belief among Catholics and many Christians that simply being a good person of whatever faith will probably lead a person to heaven.
Opening up this possibility of salvation outside the church also opened other possibilities that were key in liberalizing the church and normalizing a relativistic mindset. The first thing to happen was changing Christ’s commission to proclaim the gospel to the world to fostering dialogue with it. Apparently, “dialogue” was Pope Paul VI’s favorite word, and his main contribution to the Second Vatican Council. Sammons observes, “In regard to how the Church should relate to both non-Catholic Christians and the wider world, dialogue is now the key that unlocks the Church’s understanding of her outward mission.” Almost overnight, all the Church documents would be littered with the term.
The next thing to change was the Catholic Church’s centrality in the Christian faith, which went from being the “Church of Christ” to a church that “subsists in” the Church of Christ. In practical terms, this amounts to the church losing its uniqueness and becoming one denomination among many. In typical fashion, church leaders published numerous “clarifications” on this phrase, only to make things even less clear.
This naturally led to the final change that sealed the church’s fate for the foreseeable future, which was the collective search for common ground with other denominations and religions—and the accompanying refusal to point out errors. Ecumenism somehow became synonymous with evangelism, even though the whole purpose of it was to keep both sides where they were and reinforce the idea that “all religions—even religions the Church officially has always considered false religions—as paths to God.”
After highlighting these three major changes that defined the “emphasis shift,” Sammons then discusses the different positions on salvation that emerged soon after. He puts them on a “Salvation Spectrum” with absolutists on one end, who reject the possibility of salvation for anyone outside the church, and universalists on the other end who believe everyone will be saved. Naturally, most Catholics lie somewhere in between, though most will lean on the side of the universalist, generally assuming heaven as the default destination for most souls.
In this section of the book, Sammons focuses on three key figures in modern Catholicism: Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. Although the first two are considered champions of conservatism while the last is a paragon of progressivism, all of them play a significant role in the church’s decline into deadly indifference.
Although he was a saint who performed miracles and is credited with truly globalizing the church, Pope John Paul II was also what Sammons calls an “Expansive Inclusionist” about salvation. He embraced ecumenism and the idea of having a “full communion,” which amounted to some nebulous consensus among denominations and different religions altogether.
This approach was brought into full view with John Paul II’s “World Day of Prayer” in Assisi, Italy where representatives of different religions prayed together to their respective gods in their respective manner. Although this was a great photo op, it was also massively confusing and scandalous for the faithful.
Pope Benedict XVI was also firmly in the inclusive camp, but also had to deal with the fallout of his predecessor’s excessive openness and trust. The significant decline in practicing Catholics, the rise of the “relativist dictatorship” consuming the West, and the widespread sexual abuse scandal all likely pushed Pope Benedict to question the idea of assuming all people would automatically enter heaven for one reason or another. However, when he brought up this doubt and dared to even imply the shortcomings of other religions, notably in his Regensberg Lectures, he was severely condemned and soon gave up the effort.
Riding the inclusive wave and enjoying far more popular support (at least initially) than the Pope Emeritus, Pope Francis has pushed inclusivism to its breaking point, flirting with the outright heresy of pluralism, the belief that all faiths are equally legitimate means to salvation. Along with issuing several statements condemning “proselytism” (which most people would consider normal evangelization), Francis co-authored “The Abu Dhabi Declaration,” a document which, Sammons argues, explicitly broke with Catholic teachings: “After treating other religions as equal to Catholicism for years, the Church now puts in writing the belief behind that course: that the plurality of religions is ‘willed by God.’”
Churches or Social Clubs?
Needless to say, the Catholic Church today is in a bad way, as Sammons shows with numerous statistics and charts all indicating a steep and steady decline in attendance, vocations, and general knowledge of the faith. As such, Catholic parishes, once vibrant centers of orthodoxy and tradition, are now mostly beige social clubs that occasionally host community events having little to do with salvation or evangelism.
It’s only in the final few pages that Sammons offers some kind of remedy for this dire situation. As one could probably guess, he recommends going back to the “old evangelization” which dispenses with the counterproductive ecumenical dialogues and confusing statements on salvation. As a traditional Catholic himself, he also fully endorses the ongoing revival of traditional Catholic life which restores the aesthetics, practices, and attitudes of Catholicism before the emphasis shift of Vatican II.
This section of the book could have easily been extended, particularly considering how much time Sammons devotes to laying out the problem. To declare that Catholics should simply stop doing all the things that led them to their current mess rings somewhat hollow after going to such lengths to explain how deep the current mess goes. Then again, he may have decided to cut this part short since he wrote a whole book on the topic, The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.
Beyond this minor criticism, the book is very effective and surprisingly accessible. In parsing and articulating so many Vatican documents and modern theological treatises, Sammons clearly has a mastery of some of the most abstruse and ambiguous texts one will ever counter. Most writers plunging into these texts tend to get bogged down and leave readers to fend for themselves. To his great credit, Sammons is intentional and clear with his sources without sacrificing their language and nuance.
He is also an effective teacher, keeping his readers in the loop of a rather complex argument. While some readers may find it irritating that he’ll reiterate and repeat certain points, most will appreciate it. He also unfortunately has to contend with many voices in the church who’ve done their utmost to make those ideas even more incomprehensible.
Unlike his opponents, Sammons doesn’t only desire to start a conversation but to persuade and change the situation. He moves past the distractions that predominate in most church circles and makes his point boldly. In this regard, Deadly Indifference is successful in achieving its purpose and provides an invaluable resource for Catholics (and Christians in general) who want to understand the decline and finally reverse it.