Indifference: A Catholic Analysis
By Leonard Wathen
As someone who works in the field of Catholic faith formation, I spend a great deal of time pondering how we as Catholics can best live out our mission in the world today. Reflecting upon Scripture and Catholic tradition, I often find myself trying to identify the local Church’s most urgent spiritual needs. Lately, my reflections have led me to the following paradoxical diagnosis:
1) The first is that there is far too much indifference among us Catholics.
2) The second is that there is far too little indifference among us Catholics.
To make sense of my contradictory analysis, it’s important to understand that Catholic theology can distinguish between the vice of indifference and the virtue of indifference. The distinction between the virtue and the vice of indifference lies entirely in what we’re indifferent about, as I hope to explain in this brief article.
The Vice of Indifference
Central to the Catholic faith is the truth that humanity is engaged in a spiritual battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between holiness and sin, between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of fallen humanity. At the head of the Kingdom of God is Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh, who enables us to share in his own eternal life through faith, hope, and charity. At the head of the opposing kingdom, however, is Satan, a fallen angel who has rejected the authority of God and tempts us to follow him into eternal condemnation through sin. The central struggle in this battle is to turn from sin – the proud self-exaltation that puts one’s own will above God’s will (CCC 1850) – so that we can love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds and can love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37 – 39).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Second Vatican Council, describes the battle we are in this way:
"This dramatic situation of 'the whole world [which] is in the power of the evil one' (1 John 5:19) makes man's life a battle: 'The whole of man's history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God's grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity.'” (CCC 409).
In our post-modern secular age, however, this battle for eternal life is almost entirely dismissed or forgotten. Even those Catholics who do acknowledge the realities of heaven and hell tend to do so halfheartedly, as if everyone is all but guaranteed access to the heavenly kingdom. Most Catholics, I would say, are largely indifferent to our need to love God above all things and to put God’s will above our own will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies indifference as a sin against God’s love, because it “neglects or refuses to reflect on divine charity” (CCC 2093).
Bishop Fulton Sheen, the great Catholic televangelist of the twentieth century, offered this warning:
"Since the basic cause of man’s anxiety is the possibility of being either a saint or a sinner, it follows that there are only two alternatives for him. Man can either mount upward to the peak of eternity or else slip backwards to the chasms of despair and frustration. Yet there are many who think there is yet another alternative, namely, that of indifference. They think that, just as bears hibernate for a season in a state of suspended animation, so they, too, can sleep through life without choosing to live for God or against Him. But hibernation is no escape; winter ends, and one is then forced to make a decision—indeed, the very choice of indifference is itself a decision. White fences do not remain white fences by having nothing done to them; they soon become black fences. Since there is a tendency in us that pulls us back to the animal, the mere fact that we do not resist it operates to our own destruction. Just as life is the sum of forces that resist death, so, too, man’s will must be the sum of the forces that resist frustration. A man who has taken poison into his system can ignore the antidote, or he can throw it out the window; it makes no difference which he does, for death is already on the march.”1
If the very purpose of our lives is to know, love, and serve God, how can we remain indifferent to God and his will? If the only true source of happiness is communion with God in this life and in the next, how can we remain indifferent to God’s love? If Christian conversion is necessary for eternal life, how can we remain indifferent to sin in our own lives and in the lives of others? If we are called to love one another as Christ loves us, how can we remain indifferent to the sins we commit against one another? St. Maximilian Kolbe went so far as to say, “The most deadly poison of our times is indifference. Its victims are found not only among worldly people, but in our own ranks as well.”2
The Virtue of Indifference
Though we should never remain indifferent to God’s will, the Catholic spiritual tradition insists that we must strive to become indifferent to everything but God’s will. St. Ignatius Loyola boldly summed up the holy indifference to which we are called:
"God created us out of love so that we might praise and reverence his infinite love and goodness, and by dedicating our lives to his service, might enter an eternity of joyful communion with him. God created the other things on the earth for us, to help us attain this purpose for which he created us. As a result, we should appreciate and use these gifts of God—places, occupations, relationships, material possessions, and all the other blessings of God's creation—insofar as they help toward the purpose for which we are created, and we should let them go insofar as they hinder our attainment of this purpose. Consequently, in choices in which we are free to choose among various options, we must hold ourselves as in a balance with regard to these gifts of God's creation. This means that for our part we do not set our desires on health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, being held in honor rather than in little esteem, a long life rather than a short life, and likewise in all the rest. Our only desire and choice is for what better leads us to the purpose for which God created us: to praise and serve him in this life, and so enter the joy of eternal life."3
Such unflinching advice seems very foreign to our modern ears, because we are culturally conditioned to believe that happiness lies in the pursuit of our own desires. I can say from my own experience that even good Catholics seem to operate on the assumption that a “holy” life is one in which we resign ourselves to God’s commandments, then try to pursue our own interests within the boundaries of those commandments. The challenging wisdom of the saints, on the other hand, informs us that we will not find true happiness unless we strive to concern ourselves only with God and his will. True joy is found not in pursuing our own will as much as we are allowed, but in abandoning our own will to God’s. Summarizing the holy indifference that we need, St. Francis de Sales explained:
"Resignation prefers God's will before all things, yet it loves many other things besides the will of God. Indifference goes beyond resignation: for it loves nothing except for the love of God's will: insomuch that nothing can stir the indifferent heart, in the presence of the will of God. It is true that the most indifferent heart in the world may be touched with some affection, so long as it does not know where the will of God is.... The indifferent heart is as a ball of wax in the hands of its God, receiving with equal readiness all the impressions of the Divine pleasure; it is a heart without choice, equally disposed for everything, having no other object of its will than the will of its God, and placing its affection not upon the things that God wills, but upon the will of God who wills them."4
Such detachment, as holy indifference is perhaps more commonly called, is rare, but is an essential part of the Gospel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
"Jesus enjoins his disciples to prefer him to everything and everyone, and bids them "renounce all that [they have]" (Luke 14:33) for his sake and that of the Gospel. Shortly before his passion he gave them the example of the poor widow of Jerusalem who, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on. (Luke 21:4). The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven." (CCC 2544)
There is, then, a direct opposition between the vice of indifference and the virtue of indifference: While it is a serious vice to be indifferent to God and his will, it is a great virtue to be indifferent to everything but God and his will. The less indifferent I am to myself and my own will, the more indifferent I will be to God and his will. The more attached I am to my own possessions, reputation, health, or status, the less likely I will be to sacrifice those things when the love of God or of neighbor demands me to do so. The more I insist upon my own interests and desires, the more hardened my heart will be to the inner working of the Holy Spirit and to the needs of others. The more indifferent I become to myself and my will, on the other hand, the more interiorly free I will be to joyfully submit myself to the will of God as it is made known to me in Scripture, the teachings of the Catholic Church, the legitimate demands of authority, the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit, and the daily demands of my own life.
The recipe for the renewal of the Church is simple, but not easy: We must become less indifferent to God’s will and more indifferent to our own. We must refuse to be complacent with sin and spiritual lukewarmness and must press ourselves forward in holiness. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus Christ (Luke 9:23). We set aside our own desires for the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46), life with God in the kingdom of heaven. We must put our hands to the plow of God’s will without looking back to attend to our own interests (Luke 9:62).
1. Sheen, F., 2017. Go To Heaven : A Spiritual Road Map To Eternity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p.20.
2. Kalvelage, F., 2001. Kolbe, Saint of The Immaculata. New Bedford, MA: Franciscans of the Immaculate,
3. Gallagher, T., 2017. A Handbook For Spiritual Directors. Chestnut Ridge, NY: The Crossroad Publishing
4. Ccel.org. St. Francis Of Sales: Treatise On The Love Of God - Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
[online] Available at: <https://ccel.org/ccel/desales/love/love.x.iv.html> [Accessed 27 May 2020].
LEONARD WATHEN is a Catholic author and Director of Religious Education at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Leonardtown, MD.