“Just shut up and stick to reviewing the book,” I remind myself while sitting down to write, attempting to feign as though nothing sordid is happening right now. It’s not as though my bishop recently, for no reason other than the doldrum of COVID (with low case numbers in my region), banned Holy Communion on the tongue. It’s not as though follow-up correspondence with the diocese revealed that they do not know the first thing about Church tradition, nor care whether or not my family lives a fruitful Catholic life. It’s not as though my own parish is bleeding money, and by my estimation has five years left before the banks come to call. It’s not as though another bishop in my country went so far as to discourage baptism, as though baptism is completely unnecessary for eternal salvation. It’s not as though Catholics still believe that souls can actually go to hell, right? Alas, it’s not as though the very title of this book I am to review, Deadly Indifference, gets at the very heart of nearly everything I have come to know and endure from far too many shepherds in the Catholic Church.
Of course, I cannot shut up and stick to simply reviewing this book. This book is too real to separate from what has become of my own – our own – Catholic experience. The title alone speaks volumes: Deadly Indifference. Unpack the full title, Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission, and How We Can Reclaim It, add in the name of the highly respected author, Eric Sammons, and instantly there is the promise of an eminent, if not obligatory, read for our dispiriting days.
What is this book about? The surface answer is that it concerns the question, and impact, of whether or not salvation is found only in the Catholic Church. But the deeper answer is that this book is about love. It is about loving someone enough to tell them that they need to become a Catholic (in the state of grace) or gravely risk eternal damnation. It is about loving those in the Catholic Church enough so as to humbly correct their wayward beliefs and actions – and yes, even popes need such love. It is about loving the Truth enough so as to declare it boldly, even though it may be inconvenient for our suffocatingly lukewarm modern lives. It is about getting over our fixation on hoping for the salvation of the mysterious noble pagan living on a lonely island, and actually daring to love those closest to us by preaching the Gospel here and now. Yes, in its truest sense, Deadly Indifference is about love; tough love, but love all the same.
Now to the actual book. Sammons begins by arguing that “religious indifference has permeated the Church in almost every aspect of her life and ministry” (p. 5). How this has been accomplished, we are told, is primarily through an emphasis shift initiated during the reign of Pope Paul VI. The emphasis shift is noted in three specific ways:
“First, the Church changed her focus from proclaiming the Gospel to non- Catholics to desiring ‘dialogue’ with them. Second, the Church toned down her proclamations of Catholicism as the sole path to Heaven. And third, the Church no longer warned against the errors of non-Catholic religions, instead highlighting the beliefs held in common with Catholicism” (p. 56).
From here Sammons takes the reader on a wild ride, shedding light on head-scratching Church declarations, shocking papal actions, glaring ecclesial omissions, all with a sad bounty of statistics to give credence to his thesis (and a sense of disbelief to the reader). Some examples detailed are the changes made to the Good Friday intercessions, the 1986 Assisi gathering of world religions by Pope John Paul II, the weaknesses of Pope Benedict XVI, and, finally, the current scandalous interreligious lovefest of Pope Francis. And yes, even Bishop Barron’s Balthasarian “dare we hope that all men be saved?” theology is dissected, as are the phrases, “dialogue”, “subsists”, “ecumenism”, and “mutual understanding”. In short, the book accurately depicts a modern Catholic world fraught with confusion, apathy, and muck. Thankfully, the more I read Deadly Indifference, the more enlightened, challenged, and convinced I became of Sammons’ cri du coeur for the return of true Catholic evangelization (indeed, he dedicates the finale of his book to examining how to restore the Church’s zeal).
In terms of style and tone, this book is possibly the quickest 304 pages I have ever charged through. Such is Eric Sammons’ ability to mingle in meticulous research with personal anecdotes, wit, historical and statistical analysis and, something I truly appreciate as a teacher, helpful analogies. Moreover, the actual tone is not of one who triumphs in the downfall of another. Sammons does not cackle joyfully: “Aha! Look at how this heretic pope has failed Catholics and betrayed the Church!” all the while declaring every man, woman, child, and dog within two miles of the Vatican a freemason. Rather, the tone is humble, as though Sammons is weighed down by the task of correcting a capricious parent. Indeed, I cannot say it enough, this book is exceptionally thoughtful, balanced, and well-written.
A criticism that might arise is in Sammons’ position that the main salvation crisis stems not so much from an all out change of Church doctrine, but rather from an emphasis shift towards “salvation optimism”. I would add two thoughts on this. First, whether you agree or not, one must at least respect Sammons’ painstaking work in demonstrating his thesis. Second, I do not think such a critique ultimately matters. What matters is that a great number of souls are in danger of eternal damnation, and that the Catholic Church needs to wake up and immediately return to practicing true evangelization (as the saints before have done).
And so, I conclude by once again recalling my own current situation. I have long asked myself why certain bishops and clergy do what they do. Do the Sacraments matter to them? Or whether or not my family lives a fruitful Catholic life and goes to heaven? Why must it be like this? I struggle with these grave questions. “Lovest thou Me?” asks Christ, before requiring His shepherds, “feed My sheep” (John 21:16). The lowly sheep pine for life, and to have it more abundantly.
Undoubtedly, Deadly Indifference is a very real book to me. It will not solve our salvation crisis – only in Christ shall we gain the victory – but it sheds crucial light on the grave cancer inflicting the visible Body of Christ. And so, I recommend this book to the bishops and clergy, especially those who have ceased to seek out the lost sheep, nor feed their own flock. I recommend this book to the wounded flock struggling to make sense of the actions of their shepherds. I recommend this book to those who believe a simple YouTube video critiquing Bishop Barron is sufficient to understand the Catholic teaching on salvation. I recommend this book, out of love, to Bishop Barron himself, that he might recognize the deadly consequences of his salvation optimism. I recommend this book to all those losing hope, at a time when hope is what must sustain us. Finally, I recommend this book to myself as a personal challenge: to take its wisdom to heart, and, with great love, call others to salvation and Truth as found only in the Holy Catholic Church. For as Eric Sammons avows, “The world has changed, and we will find new ways to preach the Gospel (rather than finding a new Gospel to preach)” (p. 275).
Or to put it another way, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.