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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
11 May 2005

Reflections on Pluralism

by Donald P. Goodman

Pluralist Flag

Pluralism, the dominant mode of social organization1 in the modern West, dictates that all social groups — religions, ethnicities, languages — are necessarily equal, or at least of indeterminable value, and therefore ought to be equally tolerated and even fostered by the state. It is founded in the denial of the Church's claim to universal and unique veracity, and as such must be considered as antithetical to the Catholic faith. However, most Catholics today accept pluralism as a given, or even support it as a positive good. Often this support is predicated upon the mistaken notion that any denial of pluralism requires forced conversions and public burnings — a notion which even a brief perusal of Catholic teaching will rapidly dispel. Pluralism, however, is not an antidote to pseudo-Gothic fits of violent prosyletism, but an effective remedy for any public presence of religion in the state at all, and any serious analysis of the theory will reveal that it cannot be reconciled with Catholic social or even dogmatic teaching.

That most language and ethnic groups deserve to be tolerated and fostered would not be challenged by any authentically Catholic thinker. Each culture has its own unique ways of embodying the Incarnation and glorifying its Creator in addition to those which the Church, in her wisdom, prescribes for all men and all places. The modern tendency to recognize the richness inherent in many variant cultures should be welcomed by traditional Catholics as an effective antidote against the centralizing nationalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unless taken to extremes,2 Catholics find no difficulty in acknowledging this aspect of pluralism, which perhaps accounts for their guardlessness concerning the other, more problematic, prong of the theory.

Pluralism's difficulty (and contradiction of Catholic teaching) comes when it insists on the uniform equality of all religions, in common with cultures and ethnicities. This claim necessarily conflicts with the Church's claim to unique truth, that she and she alone possesses and passes on the whole truth given to man by his Creator. In a state which contains a multiplicity of religions, the pluralist argument goes, a single religion cannot be acknowledged as true for fear of alienating those of other religions and thus fomenting civil discord. Instead, all religions should be acknowledged as equal, and the matter of religion should be completely avoided by the state.3 This statement of pluralism's tenets clearly reveals its roots in another position which has been condemned by the Church. Indifferentism, the idea that all religions are equally capable of saving man (in other words, that God is indifferent to the way in which He is worshipped and, indeed, to whether or not the truth about Him is believed), bears a striking similarity to pluralist doctrine.

Pluralism is simply indifferentism extended to the public square. The two are morally equivalent; indeed, they are simply two sides of the same coin. Just as indifferentism claims that religion is an indifferent matter for the soul of the individual, pluralism claims that religion is an indifferent matter for the proper constitution of the state. The two work hand-in-hand, and often invoke one another's precepts to defend themselves. The standard pluralist argument, for example, runs that the state should recognize no one religion because doing so will alienate the believers of the other religions—and who is the state to say that those other religions will not bring their followers to salvation just as well as ours will us? Their principles are so intertwined that one cannot help but affirm that pluralism and indifferentism are simply two aspects of the same idea, one which is fundamentally antithetical to the Church's claims of sole salvific power.

Pluralism also shares with indifferentism the tendency to destroy all real religion within their spheres. As the popes have declared, indifferentism results in the abandonment of all substantive religion4; after all, if the particular religion by which one worships God is irrelevant, then will not God be just as well pleased by an individual worship which is minimal to the point of non-existence? Indifferentism thereby leads its followers into a religion which requires neither morals nor worship, a religion devoid of any substantive content. Pluralism extends this tendency of indifferentism into the public sphere. The state, immediately or gradually, reaches the point where the only religious tenets it supports or even acknowledges are completely banal, or at least deprived of all significant content.5

Thus, pluralism falls under the same condemnations as indifferentism,6 in addition to the many which have been levied against it in its own right.7 The Church has always reacted very strongly to these theories, which presume to sever the state from its true philosophical, and therefore necessarily religious, underpinnings. That is because indifferentism and pluralism necessarily involve yet another heresy, a sort of liberal quietism, by which faith is a personal and private matter which must never enter into one's public dealings.

Though pluralism, because it is simply a public manifestation of indifferentism, necessarily promotes a lack of any substantial religion in those living under its regime, there will always be those who resist this tide and maintain a faith which contains actual tenets requiring real, active fulfilment. Whenever such fulfilment, however, requires the conversion of others, it is violating the sacred doctrine of pluralism and indifferentism that all religions are equal, at least as far as salvation is concerned, because it presumes that the beliefs of the converted were less worthy of salvation than those of the converter. Such substantive faiths must be kept out of the public square as much as possible, even if the government of the pluralist state still insists on permitting the free exercise of all religions within its borders. Thus great social pressure arises encouraging the subsumation of such active faiths into simple, internal affairs, the active elements completed removed. Even arguing on behalf of a position from the standpoint of religious faith is considered bad form and insulting to the beliefs of others.8 Thus arises the great compartmentalization of life which effectively banishes religion not only from any official role in the state, but also from any unofficial role which it might play through the beliefs of individuals who participate in the pluralist society. Irreligion has been enshrined as the official state "church," and the protestations of those few who continue to insist on an active, public faith are of no avail in the sea of pluralistic practical atheism.

Faith, however, must be lived out in action, as Our Lord Himself9 and St. James10 have told us. This means that faith must be lived out both by individual Catholics, by Catholic families, and by the state.11 Just as indifferentism paralyzes Catholic action in the individual sphere, pluralism paralyzes it in the public. While nearly all modern states have laws which either mandate pluralism explicitly or have been interpreted to so mandate, Catholics cannot succumb to the doctrines of a theory so antithetical to authentic Christian teaching. Laws must, of course, be obeyed12; however, love of country as well as loyalty to the apostolic faith require Catholics to pray and work for the removal of the evil effects of pluralism and indifferentism in their respective states. Catholics must shun pluralism just as they would any other heresy as harmful to the soul and contrary to the social teachings of the Church.



1 It can only analogously be referred to as "organization," since by its nature it is a lack of organization among these different groups.
2 The extreme, to which modernity regularly takes this otherwise reasonable proposition, is insisting that all cultures are necessarily of entirely equal value, regardless of the objective evils which that culture encourages or even requires. Catholic teaching, on the other hand, would argue that some cultures must necessarily be purified of these fundamentally immoral elements. Excellent examples are ancient Carthaginian society, which regularly performed mass infant sacrifices; Canaanite society, which performed human sacrifices to Ba'al; and Aztec society, which sacrificed enormous numbers of people to their dark gods. Generally, however, conversion to the one true religion will rectify these faults, as is demonstrated by Spanish Mexico having become one of the most Catholic countries on God's earth.
3 Some, particularly Christians who for one reason or another feel bound to supporting the modern state, insist that religion should be avoided by the state except in those matters which all religions in the state hold in common. By this they justify, for example, the display of the Ten Commandments in American public buildings. While this attempt to restore religious sensitivity to the state is commendable, it ultimately falls under the same condemnation as that theory which would deprive the state of all religion. It permits only a weak, emaciated form of religion to guide the state, which can only lead to a weak, emaciated state, at least morally speaking. Witness the current moral state of America if any doubts concerning the teaching of the Church remain.
4 See, e.g., Pius XI, Mortalium Animos no. 2 (arguing that those who fall into indifferentism "in distorting the the idea of true religion . . . reject it, and little by little, turn aside to naturalism and atheism").
5 Excellent examples are those religious trappings which one still finds occasionally in American public institutions, such as the displays of the Ten Commandments in the chambers of the Supreme Court or the "In God We Trust" stamped on all our currency. While certainly acknowledging some supernatural truth, these religious accoutrements in no way affect the practices of the American government, as the Supreme Court itself makes particularly clear.
6 See, e.g., Pius XI, Mortalium Animos no. 2 (declaring that the idea "which considers all religions to be more or less good and praiseworthy . . . and by which we are led to God" is a "false opinion") and no. 9 (referring to indifferentists as "unhappily infected with these errors"). See also Pius IX, The Syllabus of Errors nos. 16-17, 79.
7 See, e.g., Pius IX, The Syllabus of Errors nos. 55, 77-79.
8 Readily available examples are the religious arguments which Christians often present against abortion. These points, generally legitimate, are considered "hurtful" by non-Christians, who are immune to their rational poignancy because of their absolute faith in the indifferentist gospel.
9 St. Matthew 7:21.
10 St. James 2:26.
11 See, e.g., Pius IX, The Syllabus of Errors nos. 39-80 (all of which in some way contradict the idea that the state is not bound to promote and defend the one true religion).
12 See Pius IX, The Syllabus of Errors no. 63 (that it is immoral "to refuse obedience to legitimate princes").
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