Proselytism and Conversion

Surely no one who has been paying attention to the shenanigans of New Church has failed to note the painful double-think that comes into play whenever ecclesiastical officials discuss Catholic missionary efforts. On the one hand, we hear proclamations from the pope right on down to the local bishop about "going out into the streets" and being effective witnesses of the Gospel; we get entreaties by mail and by visiting mission priests to give to Catholic missionary efforts - and yet, we hear prelates saying that we should no longer seek the conversion of Jews, and prayers to that effect are removed from the Mass; the pope calls proselytism "solemn nonsense" and reports of missions abroad seem to suggest that our missionaries are adopting the practices of the pagans rather than converting them - and what's worse, this is all seen as part of some kind of "New Springtime" of evangelization which we are supposed to laud.

What is a Catholic to make of our mandate to spread the Gospel to all people whilst simultaneously listening to our leaders condemn "proselytizing"? Much hinges on this word "proselytizing"; going back to John Paul II, we have been encouraged to "evangelize" but warned not to "proselytize." Is there really a difference, as conservative apologists suggest there is? Let us look at the sordid history of the word "proselytizing" in the modern Church.

Framing the Problem

By now we should be familiar with a common problem in the contemporary Church: the use of terms which are vague and can mean different things to different individuals, thus allowing for a multiplicity of interpretations which all "fit" within the pale of New Church orthodoxy. Not long ago we examined this phenomenon regarding the concept of ecumenism [1].

On the one hand, traditional Catholics have always objected to the modern Church's disapproval of proselytism. This is because there has always been a sneaking suspicion that when the hierarchy speaks of "proselytism" they really mean "evangelization." Thus, according to the traditionalist concerns, statements against proselytism are veiled ways of suggesting that the Catholics should no longer seek to convert non-believers, and this seems borne out by the experience of missions in the post-Conciliar world, which have essentially given up the idea of converting the heathen. The traditionalist critique thus rests on the assumption that the "proselytism" is equivalent to "seeking to bring non-Catholics into the Church."

On the other hand, those who defend the current Magisterium's disapproval of proselytism draw a distinction between proselytism and evangelization. According to this line of thinking, proselytism is not an equivalent term for evangelization, but rather a catch-all phrase to explain all sorts of defective or insufficient approaches to evangelization. To cite a few examples, trying to convert people by force, caring more about the "numbers" of people one brings into the Church rather than the good of individual souls, and focusing excessively on "converting" a person without due regard to their material circumstances are all cited as examples of "proselytism" that are to be avoided. A truly Catholic evangelization, on the other hand, still seeks to bring outsiders into the Church, but by taking into account the whole "human person". In this view there is nothing wrong with condemnations of "proselytism" because proselytism represents only a bad or defective sort of evangelization. Thus, the neo-Catholic view of proselytism assumes it to be something fundamentally different than asking non-believers to enter the Catholic Church.

It is undeniable that the modern Church has spoken with disapproval of proselytism - although to be fair, we must note that this usually takes place in the context of low level pronouncements which are not of their nature binding on the faithful. Even so, given that this disapproval of proselytism is part of the current Magisterium's message, this article will examine what exactly the Church means by the term "proselytism" and try to determine whether the traditionalist or the neo-Catholic understandings of the term are more accurate while seeking to simply pin down what the Church means when it uses this terminology.

Origin and Pre-Conciliar Usage of the Words Proselyte and Proselytize

The terms proselyte and proselytize are Greek words dating from the Hellenistic era and originally denote "outsiders" or "sojourners" dwelling among a foreign people. It was the Jews of the New Testament age who appropriated the word to signify Gentile converts to Judaism. Acts 2:10 records that on the day of Pentecost, both "Jews and proselytes" were among those who heard the manifestation of tongues. In Acts 6:5, one of the first seven deacons, Nicolaus, is described as "A proselyte from Antioch." When Paul and Barnabas were preaching in Pisidia, it is stated that among their followers were "Jews and converts to Judaism", the Greek word for "converts" being προσήλυτος, or prosēlytos. Thus, if we regard the simple testimony provided by the book of Acts that a proselyte is one who has converted to Judaism - such that the Greek word prosēlytos is often translated as "convert" - to proselytize would be, simply, to make converts. Our Lord uses the word in a similar context in Matthew 23:15 when he condemns the Pharisees because they "go around the sea and land to make one proselyte" while ignoring the heart of the Law themselves. Thus, at least in the terminology of our Lord, to proselytize would be to go to other lands for the purpose of making converts.

While the origin of the term prosēlytos referred to converts to Judaism specifically, in the Catholic age it later came to take on a more universal meaning, denoting a convert in general; this remains the dictionary definition to this day. In the first centuries of the Church, however, the term "proselyte" appears to have been used to refer to any convert to the Faith from paganism or one of the heretical sects. In the spurious Epistles of Ignatius (late 2nd century), we see reference to a "Maria, a proselyte of Jesus Christ"; in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, there is record of a certain martyr who was put to death during the reign of Trajan, one "Metrodorus, who appears to have been a proselyte of the Marcionitic sect, suffered death by fire." The language appears to mean that Metrodorus was a convert from Marcionism. [2]. The terminology, however, never caught on, and the Latin Church eventually opted for what became the more traditional word, "convert", to describe people entering the Christian faith from outside. As we will see, "proselytize" came to mean something quite different.

Moving forward to the preconciliar era, we see that the terms proselyte and proselytize still denoted making converts, as confirmed by a quick word-search of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, though with more nuance. Though following quotes were obtained by simply searching for the term "proselytize" in the search-box on the the New Advent main page:

"Hinduism is thus a national, not a world religion, it has never made any serious effort to proselytize in countries outside of India."

"[Bishop Maginn] opposed energetically the efforts made by the Episcopalian body to proselytize his flock, and took a prominent part in a public controversy."

"[Cardinal Manning] never tried to proselytize me", wrote Lord Brampton, "he left me to my own free uncontrolled and uncontrollable action. My reception into the Church of Rome was purely of my own free choice and will, and according to the exercise of my own judgment."

"Most of the people of the Natchez were English Protestants or Americans, who had sided with England. They enjoyed absolute religious freedom, no attempt to proselytize was ever made."

"Rev. W. W. Kirkby [Episcopalian], had already crossed the Rockies to proselytize among the western Loucheux. In 1862 and 1870 respectively, Fathers Seguin and Petitot followed him thither, going as far as Fort Yukon, but without any appreciable results."

"[T]he Liberals sought to make the country Protestant by supporting de Laveleye and Goblet d'Alviella, who, taking advantage of a quarrel between the villagers of Sart-Dame-Aveline and the parish priest, introduced Protestant worshipthere and tried to proselytize the inhabitants."

"The same [Pan-Anglican] Committee of 1888 looked wistfully towards the separated communions of the East, but did not venture to do more than repudiate the idea of wishing to proselytize among them..."

The Catholic Encyclopedia is not an authoritative document. But the purpose is not to establish an authoritative definition of proselytism, but merely to examine how educated Catholics utilized the word in common language in the pre-Conciliar age. Clearly, to proselytize meant "to make converts", at least in 1913. Hinduism is stated to have "never made any attempts to proselytize outside India", and the priests of the American West are said to have crossed the Rockies to "proselytize among the western Loucheux" Indians. Clearly, in common parlance the term meant "making converts".

However, it must also be noted that by 1913 the term also had a nuanced pejorative connotation. All of the references above use the word to denote making converts, but in reference to Protestant or non-Christian sects. That is, Catholic missionary efforts are never described as proselytizing; the word is more commonly used with reference to the efforts of non-Catholic religious groups. In the 1962 Catholic Dictionary edited by Donald Attwater, proselytism is defined simply as "to make converts", but it also admits that the word had tended to take on a pejorative meaning in modern times. As an example, it cites something called "souperism", which was a practice of Protestant relief services during the Irish potato famine of providing food (usually soup, hence "souperism") to starving Irish but only on the condition that they convert to Protestantism first. Thus the reception of material aid was made contingent upon apostasy. [3] Again, the implication is that proselytism is something non-Catholics do.

In short, efforts of religious groups to make converts cannot be understood apart from what they are trying to convert others to; the content of the religion is not irrelevant. There is a real difference between the evangelization done by the Catholic Church and the proselytism done by non-Catholic sects.

Thus by the eve of the Council the words proselyte and proselytize were in flux; they had traditional, precise definitions which were being displaced by more popular definitions which were less precise and more pejorative. In their proper sense, they denoted simply the act of making a convert or the one who has converted; in the newer sense, they denoted efforts to convert Catholics, or efforts to bring about apostasy from the Church using external pressure - such as the promise of material aid. There were two parallel definitions, one positive and one negative.

The situation was not unlike the modern use of another word borrowed from Catholic theology, apology. It its more classical - and still technically correct - formulation, to offer an apology means simply to give a defense or explanation. Yet modern parlance attaches a pejorative meaning to this, wherein to offer an apology means to admit a wrong and seek forgiveness, something totally foreign to the original concept. Thus, at least in the pre-Conciliar period, there was a growing distinction between an authentic Catholic evangelism on the one hand, and a fraudulent sort of insincere proselytism on the other. Whether the Catholic Church ever engaged in the latter sort of activity it questionable - and hence post-Conciliar declarations that Catholics should not "proselytize" contain an inherent contradiction: why would the Church warns Catholics against doing something that, in its negative sense, has only ever been applied to non-Catholics?

This brings us to the fundamental question - do Catholics engage in proselytism? Understood in the pre-Conciliar sense, no. Catholics evangelize, but we do not proselytize, at least relating to the use of the word in the century prior to Vatican II. Although by Vatican II the distinction between proselytism and evangelization was becoming blurred, with many equating "proselytism" with "making converts" pure and simple.

On the other hand, if we understand proselytism in the classic, narrow sense, why would the Church suggest Catholics should not seek to make converts? The post-Conciliar Church has never been able to resolve this contradiction and, as we shall see, in its attempts to disavow "proselytism", it will end up repudiating evangelization.

The Origin of the Confusion

The Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church Ad Gentes more or less restated traditional Catholic doctrine by emphasizing the salvific end of the Church's missionary efforts. Chapter 7 of the document states specifically that it is the desire to lead others to salvation that gives missionary activity its necessity:

"For Christ Himself "by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it."Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him, yet a necessity lies upon the Church, and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity" (Ad Gentes, 7).

Looking back at the utter confusion in the world of modern Catholic missiology, we must begin rather with the ground-breaking document Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI, issued August 6, 1964, towards the close of the Second Vatican Council. Being the first encyclical of Paul VI, it is representative of his entire theology, just as Redemptor Hominis was of John Paul II. The theme of Ecclesiam Suam is the Church's understanding of itself, and in this much of what Paul VI wrote would be repeated in Lumen Gentium. Paul VI viewed this introspection of the Church as a novelty; he wrote that the purpose of the document was to investigate "the origin of the Church, its own nature, its own mission, its own ultimate destiny",which he went on to say was "a doctrine never sufficiently investigated and understood" [4]. How the pope could suggest that the nature, mission an destiny of the Church was "a doctrine never sufficiently investigated" is baffling given works like St. Augustine's City of God, or more astoundingly, Pius XII's Mystici Corporis, issued only twenty-one years earlier. The point is that Paul VI knew he was dealing with novelty here, as he believed the "transforming dynamism of modern society" required this "new" introspection; he even promulgated the document on the Feast of the Transfiguration, signifying that the Church of the modern world would likewise have to undergo its own transfiguration - it's own "transforming dynamism." [5]

The true importance of the document, however, lies in the emphasis on the concept of dialogue, for it is with Paul VI's Ecclesiam Suam that the notion of a Church in dialogue permanently enters the vocabulary of the post-Conciliar Magisterium; indeed, the entire document is dedicated to laying out a systematic treatment of what the Church-in-dialogue looks like under all its various aspects. While it would be a fascinating study in its own right to look at the concept of "dialogue" as found in Ecclesiam Suam, we must here restrain ourselves to looking at the concept of dialogue as it relates to subsequent developments in Catholic missiology and the definition of proselytism.

In origin, the concept of dialogue meant that the Church's evangelical labors should not restrict themselves to the salvation of souls but to the physical betterment of the lot of mankind. This is nothing new. Catholic missionary work has always been accompanied by assistance in material necessities. Fr. De Smet, the great Jesuit missionary of the Plains Indians, coupled his missionary activity with instruction in farming techniques and the use of the implements of civilization. In traditional Catholicism, however, the material good is always subordinate to the good of saving souls. What we see in Ecclesiam Suam, on the other hand, we will see the subtle introduction of another parallel emphasis:

"We shall also be solicitous to help by proclaiming higher human principles, that should serve to temper the passions and selfishness from which armed conflicts spring, and promote the harmonious relations and fruitful collaboration of all peoples, and we shall be ready to intervene, where an opportunity presents itself, in order to assist the contending parties to find honorable and fraternal solutions for their disputes. We do not, indeed, forget that this loving service is a duty which the development, of doctrine on the one hand, and of international institutions on the other, has rendered all the more urgent in our awareness of our Christian mission in the world today. This mission is none other than making men brothers by virtue of the kingdom of justice and peace inaugurated by Christ's coming into the world." [6]

Not just the message of Christ, but "proclaiming higher human principles" with the end goal of "making men brothers" characterizes the modern commitment to dialogue. Now, Paul VI for all his faults was not seeking to replace the traditional doctrine of the necessity of the Church for salvation. He affirms that material well-being is subordinate to eternal well-being (55) and says plainly that "honesty compels us to declare openly our conviction that there is but one true religion, the religion of Christianity" (107). The question he seeks to answer is "what is the best way to announce the Religion of Christ to souls" in the modern world (54). It seems the thinking of Paul VI is that, while the focus on the salvation of the soul is supreme, it alone is not sufficient. The evangelization he envisions must minister to the whole man, including his economic and sociological aspects, which is why the pope cites, alongside doctrine, the development of "international institutions" as of equal importance in establishing "the kingdom of justice and peace" in the world. While Paul VI sought to preserve the subordination of temporal to eternal ends, in practice, his teaching on "higher human principles" as a basis for missionary work led to their practical independence from the eternal aims of Catholic evangelization. These "higher human principles" are those which are common to man as such and which will become the basis of Catholic missionary work in the coming decades after the Council.

The way forward is the way of dialogue, which Paul VI defines as the external manifestation of the charity that drives Christ's followers to share the Gospel: 

"An attitude of preservation of the faith is insufficient. Certainly we must preserve and also defend the treasure of truth and of grace which has come to us by way of inheritance from the Christian tradition. "Keep safe what has been entrusted to thee," warns St. Paul. But neither the preservation nor the defense of the faith exhausts the duty of the Church in regard to the gifts which it possesses. The duty consonant with the patrimony received from Christ is that of spreading, offering, announcing it to others. Well do we know that "going, therefore, make disciples of all nations"  is the last command of Christ to His Apostles. By the very term "apostles" these men define their inescapable mission. To this internal drive of charity which tends to become the external gift of charity we will give the name of dialogue, which has in these days come into common usage. The Church should enter into dialogue with the world in which it exists and labors. The Church has something to say, the Church has a message to deliver; the Church has a communication to offer" [7].

Here is where we get into muddy water, because while Paul VI is explicit in affirming that the Church must, in charity, propose her message to the world, there is introduced an ambiguity relating whether or not the Church - or the missionary acting on her behalf - should make an effort to insist that the world accept that message. Ecclesiam Suam stresses that the reception of the Gospel must be free and without force; he views the preaching of the Gospel as a kind of "dialogue" that takes the form of "a tremendous appeal of love" that, in the modern age, must be introduced without any kind of external force, but merely the "through the legitimate means of human education, of interior persuasion, of ordinary conversation, and it will offer its gift of salvation with full respect for personal and civic freedom." [8]

Well and good. We all know that conversion cannot be forced and must be consented to freely. But beginning with this document, we will see the post-Conciliar Church greatly expand the concept of "force." What constitutes "compelling" someone to accept the Gospel? In the post-Conciliar years, fueled by the positive assessments of non-Christian religions in Nostra Aetate and the emphasis on dialogue in Ecclesiam Suam, successive Magisterial statements will move away from the traditional, narrow definition of "force" towards a much more general definition (For more background on the different ways force has been interpreted in Church history, see our article "Crusaders and Conversion"). 

For example, Paul VI goes on to state the nature of a relationship of dialogue:

"This type of relationship indicates a proposal of courteous esteem, of understanding and of goodness on the part of the one who inaugurates the dialogue; it excludes the a priori condemnation, the offensive and time-worn polemic and emptiness of useless conversation. If this approach does not aim at effecting the immediate conversion of the interlocutor, inasmuch as it respects both his dignity and his freedom, nevertheless it does aim at helping him, and tries to dispose him for a fuller sharing of sentiments and convictions...The dialogue of salvation was not proportioned to the merits of those toward whom it was directed, nor to the results which it would achieve or fail to achieve: "Those who are healthy need no physician;"so also our own dialogue ought to be without limits or ulterior motives." [9]

"Time-worn polemic" is repudiated; whatever the pope means by that is anybody's guess. "Useless conversation" is also out. By these phrases Paul VI seems to be denoting the old-fashioned method of polemical argumentation and debate that would have been familiar to St. Francis De Sales, St. Thomas More and St. Thomas Aquinas - the sort of argumentation that sought to use reason to prove the interlocutor wrong and affect their conversion to the Catholic Faith. We can only presume this since this is the only method of evangelization that has been "time-worn".

The pope also says we must have esteem which precludes any "a priori condemnations"; this is tricky, because Christian revelation presumes a priori that other belief systems are errant and to be condemned because of their errors. To return to a very familiar passage:

"For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believe in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. He that believeth in him is not condemned. But he that does not believe, is already condemned: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:16-18).

It what sense, then, can we approach dialogue with non-Christian religions and the world's non-believers without adopting an a priori condemnation of their errors? Furthermore, Paul says the dialogue we engage be "without limits" and, more importantly, without "ulterior motives." Now we come to the crux of the proselytism question - does the intention to convert someone to the Catholic Faith constitute an "ulterior motive" in the mind of Paul VI and the modern Magisterium? And while the pope understands that this approach may not result in "immediate conversion", the practical effect has been to negate any conversions whatsoever.

In the Post-Conciliar Church 

John Paul II, taking up some of the themes of Ecclesiam Suam in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, states that "The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience." [10] In John Paul II we see a development in the thought of Paul VI; the dialogue envisioned by Paul takes on the form of a respectful "proclamation" or "proposal." Writing in 1990, twenty six years after Ecclesiam Suam, John Paul notes that developments in the post-Conciliar Church have led to the identification of proselytism with evangelization simply, a development which he professes to deplore:

"Nowadays the call to conversion which missionaries address to non-Christians is put into question or passed over in silence. It is seen as an act of "proselytizing"; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion, that it is enough to build communities capable of working for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. What is overlooked is that every person has the right to hear the "Good News" of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ, so that each one can live out in its fullness his or her proper calling." [11]

Clearly John Paul II was aware of a growing identification of proselytism with the simple call to conversion as wanted to disavow Catholics of this concept. By 1990, many theologians had expanded the idea of "force" to the act of argumentation, such that to simply make an appeal to convert to Catholicism or to press the claims of Jesus Christ were acts of force on the conscience. John Paul II rightfully dispenses with these extreme positions. However, we cannot ignore the obvious fact that the very principles enunciated in Ecclesiam Suam helped lead to the situation John Paul is here lamenting, with in its emphasis on "higher human principles", promotion of "dialogue" as the appropriate method for evangelization, and rejection of a priori condemnations, "ulterior motives", and "immediate conversion" in favor of material aid. Furthermore, John Paul II himself contributes to the conflation of eternal ends with temporal ends by positing "religious freedom" as the guarantee of all human freedoms [12], rehashing an emphasis on human rights found also in Redemptor Hominis.

Between Ecclesiam Suam and Redemptoris Missio, of course, the Church saw the growth of Karl Rahner's "anonymous Christian" theology and "fundamental option" theory, both of which led to the gradual acceptance of the idea that the purpose of Catholic missionary work is not to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and convert them from a state of unbelief to a state of belief, but to help them realize that they are "already" saved in Christ and lead them to more profoundly recognize the "richness" of their own spiritual traditions. 

Bombshell: "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" and Afterward

It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the collapse of the Catholic missions in the post-Conciliar Church, but I would refer you to these two examples (here and here) on how the Church has effectually abdicated its mission to convert non-believers, both pagans and other Christians. But it suffices to say that the concept of seeking to "convert" non-believers to Catholicism increasingly became equated with "proselytism" as time went on. A notable milestone in this development is the 2002 document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission", promulgated by the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs" under Cardinal Walter Kasper. In this document, we see the first identification of proselytism with conversion in a Magisterial document. The document states: 

"As we said previously, dialogue is not mere objective information; dialogue involves the whole person. So in dialogue Jews give witness of their faith, witness of what supported them in the dark periods of their history and their life, and Christians give account of the hope they have in Jesus Christ. In doing so, both are far away from any kind of proselytism, but both can learn from each other and enrich each other" [13] 

While it does not say "proselytism means seeking conversion", the context should be clear to any intellectually honest reader. In affirming that both parties are seeking to "enrich each other", any concept of one party passing over to the other is disavowed- and this is affirmed of "both" parties to the discussion, the Catholics and the Jews, inferring that not only are Jews not seeking to persuade the Catholics, but neither are the Catholics trying to persuade the Jews to enter the Church. The context suggests that any such attempts would constitute "proselytism", which Catholics and Jews "both are far away from." 

Later in the document, the conversion of Jews is explicitly repudiated as a legitimate aim of Catholic evangelization:

"A deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, together with a recognition of a divinely-given mission to Jews to witness to God’s faithful love, lead to the conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church." [14]

This statement prompted panic in conservative Catholic circles, where damage control immediately went into overtime trying to square this statement with the traditional understanding of the necessity of all men, even Jews, to acknowledge the lordship of Christ and enter the Church He founded. I recall Scott Hahn on the radio saying that we should not worry because he had found (forced?) and orthodox reading of the document, while other apologists pointed out that the document had no authority and could be ignored - neither of which really got to the heart of the problem: why is the Church speaking in this manner?

This represents the real turning point where conservative apologists attempted to downplay the connection between proselytism and conversion, suggesting that it was not converting Jews that was problematic, but "campaigns" to convert them, introducing the non-nonsensical distinction between an organized campaign targeting a group for evangelization and spontaneous, presumably non-organized individual efforts. However they went about doing it, the facade had to be maintained that the Church desired the conversion of non-believers whilst simultaneously explaining away statements which seemed to suggest the contrary. And the Catholic hierarchy continued eroding the distinction between proselytism and evangelization even as conservative apologists worked harder to stress it.

Some tried vainly to recall the distinctions of the pre-Conciliar period: that evangelization is different from proselytism, and that the right to seek converts is inherent in the right for Christians to practice their religion - for example, the paper "The Right to Proselytize in the Framework of Religious Liberty" by Spanish canonist María José Ciaurriz, which sought to revive these distinctions. Nevertheless, the contextual use of the word continued to be construed as any attempt to make converts, especially in areas with non-Christian majorities. For example, observe the manner in which Bishop James Pazhayattil of Irinjalakuda, India, uses the world "proselytize" when speaking about the killing of a local priest (taken from Zenit):

"Father Job was praying the Rosary before Holy Mass…when he was attacked and knifed to death. Our diocesan community is profoundly affected by this incident. We don't know who could have killed him," said Bishop James Pazhayattil of Irinjalakuda. 

Sources of the local Church reported that the priest had received intimidating telephone calls some time ago, threatening him with death if he did not cease to "proselytize." 

“Father Job used to visit Hindu families, who welcomed him warmly. He did not proselytize,” the bishop stressed.'" [15]

Clearly, "proselytize" for this Bishop means "seeking to make converts." The killers obviously thought the priest's visits to Hindu families implied some sort of attempts at conversion, something the bishop strenuously denies. In this bishop's mind, evangelization of non-Catholics is equivalent to proselytizing. 

In many cases, the Catholic Church has allowed those outside of her to define the terms. This is especially evident in the discussions between the Roman Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Catholic bishops, and the Russian Orthodox Church, where the Catholic Church essentially allowed the Russian Orthodox patriarch to define Catholic evangelization among the Orthodox as "proselytism" and obtained a promise from the Vatican that Catholics in Russia would not try to convert Orthodox! [16] 

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a statement in Aparacida, Brazil, on the topic of the New Evangelization in which he stressed that the Church "does not engage in proselytism.  Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’,” “just as Christ draws all to himself by the power of his love.” [17] What did Benedict XVI mean by "proselytism" here? He does not say. Whatever proselytism is in his mind, Benedict contrasts it with growth "by attraction." Presumably, "proselytism" would be the opposite or contrary of "growth by attraction." Attraction, in common parlance, means the drawing of something to an object by an inherent attractive power in the object which draws. If this is true, then "proselytism" in the thought of Benedict would be a drawing that was due to an external force or pressure and not an internal pull. What does that look like in a missiological context? Again, we are left with unanswered questions and am ambiguous statement that allows for contrary interpretations. Ironically, the pope concludes his confusing remarks with a call to the youth of Brazil "to be courageous and effective missionaries"! [18] As we shall see, this address is central to the present pontiff's opinions on evangelization.

From the late 90's and the "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" paper of 2002 to the end of the Benedictine pontificate, the fact is that "proselytism" continued to be used in an ambiguous manner. We have seen how some equated it pure and simple with evangelization; Archbishop Chaput of Denver defined proselytism in 2011 simply as talking about Jesus. Chaput stated: "Christian charity doesn't require that we proselytize, that we speak out loud about our love for Jesus Christ and his love for us, in every circumstance. Sometimes, for prudential reasons, this is unwise." [19] We are not here interested in discerning the truth of the Archbishop's statement, only his use of the word "proselytize" to denote speaking "out loud about our love for Jesus Christ and His love for us."

Others, such American Cardinal Francis George would repudiate that view and state quite clearly that the Church retains its missionary mandate to call non-believers to conversion. Cardinal George stated, "The Church rejects the view that the call to conversion addressed to non-Christians is proselytism, for every single person has the right to hear the truth of the Gospel. It is not enough, as some would suggest, to limit one's missionary service to promoting human development and helping people preserve their own religious traditions.” [20]

In short, the word "proselytism" continued to mean whatever the speaker wanted it to mean, with the effect that Catholics are left unsure exactly what the Church's commitment to the mission ad gentes consists of. Traditional Catholics could point to official Church teaching that the mandate to preach the Gospel to all nations was still intact, while progressives could cite the numerous statements of very high ranking ecclesiastics to the effect that the modern Church, while using words like "evangelize" and "proselytize", meant something drastically new by them.

Then came Pope Francis

The Franciscan Pontificate

Pope Francis has ushered in a period of unprecedented stress for the Vatican press corps and papal apologists in general, who find it increasingly difficult to put an orthodox spin on the pope's words. With Pope Francis not only is proselytism wrongly equated to the efforts of Catholics to convert non-believers, but the very definition of evangelization has also been redefined, as well as other concepts like "conversion" and "Church." Let us look at these statements. We will place the citations in italics with my commentary following each quote. Special thanks to Steve Skojec for assembling many of these and providing their sources and context.

"You know you don’t need, you don’t need to be in the Church, you are part of the Church, you don’t physically need to be in it, inside it you know to be part of God’s family" [21].

These words were spoken by the Pope to an Irish woman who had been a victim of clerical abuse and who said she could never return to the Church. The pope reassured her that returning physically to the Catholic Church was not necessary. This suggests that the pope at least implicitly does not identify the Catholic Church with the Church of Christ. This has huge ramifications for his beliefs about evangelization, as we shall see. 

When he speaks about evangelization, the idea is to evangelize Christians or Catholics,”to reach “higher dimensions of faith” and a deepened commitment to social justice. This is the idea of evangelization that Bergoglio is stressing — not to evangelize Jews. This he told me, on several opportunities" [22].

These words come from Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a man who knows Bergoglio so well that the two co-authored a book together in 2010. This excerpt is telling because it shows how the de-emphasizing of the need for conversion to the Catholic Church has allowed the current pontiff to work from a drastically revised definition of "evangelization." Instead of bringing lost souls to Christ, it consists of teaching Catholics "to reach higher dimensions of faith." Speaking of the book Cardinal Bergoglio co-authored with Rabbi Skorka, let us look at an excerpt from the book On Heaven and Earth and see how the pope himself uses the word "proselytize":

When I speak with atheists, I will sometimes discuss social concerns, but I do not propose the problem of God as a starting point, except in the case that they propose it to me. If this occurs, I tell them why I believe. But that which is human is so rich to share and to work at that very easily we can mutually complement our richness. As I am a believer, I know that these riches are a gift from God. I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that. I do not approach the relationship in order to proselytize, or convert the atheist; I respect him and I show myself as I am… I do not have any type of reluctance, nor would I say that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I do not have the right to make a judgment about the honesty of that person; even less, if he shows me those human virtues that exalt others and do me good" [23].

Here the pope defines "proselytize" as "to convert" and seems to suggest that the atheist does not need to enter the Church so long as he is being honest with his convictions. But then again, if the pope believes that the Church of Christ is not identical with the Catholic Church, why would he? Seeking to convert others would be nonsense, as the pope himself stated:

And here I am. The Pope comes in and shakes my hand, and we sit down. The Pope smiles and says: ‘Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me.’

It’s a joke, I tell him. My friends think it is you want to convert me.

He smiles again and replies: ‘Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.’ [24]”

Of course, the above is a quote from the now infamous Scalfari interview, which the pope has never repudiated. If, according to Francis, proselytism is equivalent to conversion, then evangelization takes on a radically new meaning. In Quito, Ecuador on July 7, 2015, Pope Francis told throngs of cheering Catholics:

"Evangelization doesn't consist of proselytizing. Rather, its about using our own testimony to attract those who have become distant, in humbly bringing close to us those who feel far from God and the Church" [source].

Remember, according to the Pope's friend Rabbi Skorka, evangelization does not mean making converts, but bringing Catholics to a "higher dimension" of their faith. This comes as a consequent of the pope's view that proselytism and conversion are synonymous.

"He called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the Church needs us as Anglicans.’” [25]

These words come from Greg Venables, putative Bishop in the Argentinian Anglican Church, relating his discussion with Pope Francis over breakfast at which the Pope told him that "the Church" needed Anglicans as Anglicans, effectively repudiating the Ordinariate established by Benedict XVI in 2012 and doing damage to the traditional understanding of the Church and what it means to be in unity with it.

“At lunch I asked Pope Francis what his heart was for evangelism. He smiled, knowing what was behind my question and comment was, ‘I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.’ ” (Of course Evangelicals do evangelize Catholics and Catholics do the same to us. However, that discussion we will raise another day.)" [26]

This conversation, related by Brian Stiller of the World Evangelical Alliance, reveals again that Pope Francis sees evangelization as simply encouraging people to find Jesus in their own way, "in their own community", without any necessity of converting to the Catholic Church.

We should also cite a particular comment of Cardinal Walter Kasper, whom the pope has identified as "a very talented theologian" and whose destructive moral theology would destroy two-thousand years of discipline regarding the divorced and remarried. Kasper, commenting on the document Dominus Iesus in a 2007 interview, ties together several of the points we have been making - the subtle change in meaning of some of these terms, the disavowal of "proselytism", and the identification of "proselytism" with encouraging people to join the Catholic Church:

The only thing I wish to say is that the document Dominus Iesus does not state that everybody needs to become a Catholic in order to be saved by God. On the contrary, it declares that God’s grace, which is the grace of Jesus Christ according to our faith, is available to all. Therefore, the Church believes that Judaism, i.e. the faithful response of the Jewish people to God’s irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to his promises.

This touches the problem of mission towards Jews, a painful question with regard to forced conversion in the past. Dominus Iesus, as other official documents, raised this question again saying that dialogue is a part of evangelisation. This stirred Jewish suspicion. But this is a language problem, since the term evangelisation, in official Church documents, cannot be understood in the same way it is commonly interpreted in everyday’s speech. In strict theological language, evangelisation is a very complex and overall term, and reality. It implies presence and witness, prayer and liturgy, proclamation and catechesis, dialogue and social work . . . which do not have the goal of increasing the number of Catholics. Thus evangelisation, if understood in its proper and theological meaning, does not imply any attempt of proselytism whatsoever.” [27] 

With the rehabilitation of Kasper as the pope's favorite theologian, we see the quasi-official canonization of the definition of proselytism as any act which has "the goal of increasing the number of Catholics", and in effect, the destruction of the concept of evangelization as well, which we see in Kasper and Bergoglio means simply preaching to the choir.

The Pope's own words in Korea in summer of 2014 testify to the fact that for Francis, "proselytism" means nothing other trying to win souls for the Church:

And so, with my identity and my empathy, my openness, I walk with the other. I don’t try to make him come over to me, I don’t proselytize.” (source)

John Allen, who reported on the papal trip, tried to explain away the comments by defining proselytism as a type of evangelization that is "pushy" or forceful; however, as we have seen from our study, in modern parlance, simple preaching with an aim of converting the hearer is seen as "pushy" because it infers that the non-Christian is not alright just where he is. It is classical evangelization that Francis finds pushy and defines as proselytism.

In other statements, he takes a blatantly pan-Christian approach, the same kind condemned by Pius XI in Mortalium Animos. Consider the following, as related by evangelical pastors John and Carol Arnott in this video:

I’m not expecting any of you to join the Catholic Church. Please understand that’s not what this is about. What we are talking about is a unified position to go before the world and say we are proclaiming Christ as the only hope of salvation.”

Here's another gem of Franciscan missiology, taken from an address in Argentina in August, 2013:

"Do you need to convince the other to become Catholic? No, no, no! Go out and meet him, he is your brother. This is enough. Go out and help him and Jesus will do the rest”. [28]

In conclusion, let us quote a final story told by Pope Francis himself when speaking to the priests of the Diocese of Caserta last month. Here, the pontiff perfectly ties together everything we have been saying. Please pay attention to the documents and papal statements he cites:

"Two years ago, a priest went to Argentina as a missionary. He was from the Diocese of Buenos Aires and he went to a diocese in the south, to an area where for years they had no priest, and evangelicals had arrived. He told me that he went to a woman who had been the teacher of the people and then the principle of the village school. This lady sat him down and began to insult him, not with bad words, but to insult him forcefully: “You abandoned us, we left us alone, and I, who  need of God's Word, had to go to Protestant worship and I became Protestant”. This young priest, who is meek, who is one who prays, when the woman finished her discourse, said: "Madam, just one word: forgiveness. Forgive us, forgive us. We abandoned the flock." And the tone of the woman changed. However, she remained Protestant and the priest did not go into the argument of which was the true religion. In that moment, you could not do this. In the end, the lady began to smile and said: “Father, would you like some coffee?” – “Yes, let’s have a coffee.” And when the priest was about to leave, she said: “Stop here, Father. Come.” And she led him into the bedroom, opened the closet and there was the image of Our Lady: “You should know that I never abandoned her. I hid her because of the pastor, but she’s in the home.” It is a story which teaches how proximity, meekness brought about this woman’s reconciliation with the Church, because she felt abandoned by the Church. And I asked a question that you should never ask: “And then, how things turn out? How did things finish?”. But the priest corrected me: “Oh, no, I did not ask anything: she continues to go to Protestant worship, but you can see that she is a woman who prays. She faces the Lord Jesus.” And it did not go beyond that. He did not invite her to return to the Catholic Church...

But, closeness also means dialogue; you must read in Ecclesiam Suam, the doctrine on dialogue, then repeated by other Popes. Dialogue is so important, but to dialogue two things are necessary: one's identity as a starting point and empathy toward others. If I am not sure of my identity and I go to dialogue, I end up swapping my faith. You cannot dialogue without starting from your own identity, and empathy, that is not condemning a be sure of one’s identity does not mean proselytizing. Proselytism is a trap, which even Jesus condemns a bit, en passant, when he speaks to the Pharisees and the Sadducees: “You who go around the world to find a proselyte and then you remember that ...” But, it's a trap. And Pope Benedict has a beautiful expression. He said it in Aparecida but I believe he repeated elsewhere: “The Church grows not by proselytism, but by attraction.” And what's the attraction? It is this human empathy, which is then guided by the Holy Spirit." [29]

How a woman can be "reconciled with the Church" when she continues to attend Protestant worship and refuses to return to the Catholic Church is anybody's guess. But then again, we have seen that Francis has a much more fluid definition of the concept of "Church."  In the above cited quote, we can see how the "doctrine on dialogue" in Ecclesiam Suam, the fluctuating definition of "proselytism", confusion over the identity of the "Church" and novel understandings of what "evangelization" and "reconciliation", the citation of Benedict XVI's Aparacida talk all come together in a trainwreck of theology.


As we have seen, "proselytism" has basically come to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. In one sense, it is used as a veiled attack against what is no doubt considered an outdated soteriology of conversion, while in another sense it can always be pleaded that evangelization and proselytism are different things and that to condemn the one is not to suggest anything is wrong with the other. But we have also seen - per Kasper and Bergoglio - that even the definition of evangelization has shifted, such that Francis suggests it to be encouraging Catholics to reach "higher dimensions of faith" while Kasper states that evangelization is not about "increasing the total number of Catholics" and that it has "nothing to do with proselytism what so ever". In the meantime, as John Paul II noted, Catholic missions collapse because Catholic missionaries are getting mixed messages from their prelates. The sad truth is that that our leaders do not want us to seek converts because they have lost the conviction that there is any necessity in converting to the Catholic Faith. 

To wind this up on a note of clarity, let us return to the great encyclical Pascendi by St. Pius X, which aptly sums up the problem we have chronicled:

"In their writings and addresses they seem not unfrequently to advocate doctrines which are contrary one to the other, so that one would be disposed to regard their attitude as double and doubtful. But this is done deliberately and advisedly...Thus in their books one finds some things which might well be approved by a Catholic, but on turning over the page one is confronted by other things which might well have been dictated by a rationalist." [30]


[1] See:
[2] Spurious Epistles of St. Ignatius, "Maria the Proselyte to Ignatius", 1; and Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, Chap. 15:46
[3] A Catholic Dictionary, ed. Donald Attwater, 3rd Ed, "Proselyte", (New York: Macmillan, 1962).
[4] Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, 9
[5] ibid., 78
[6] ibid., 16
[7] ibid., 64-65
[8] ibid., 75
[9] ibid., 79, 74
[10] John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 39
[11] ibid., 46
[12] ibid., 39
[13] "Reflections on Covenant and Mission", Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and delegates of the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, August 12, 2002
[14] ibid.
[16]; see also: Balamand Conference (a USC article on the Vatican's abdication of the Church's duty to evangelize the Orthodox). 
[18] ibid.
[20] Francis Cardinal George in L'Osservatore Romano, January 31, 2000
[23] Jorge Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth (2010), pg. 12-13
[30] Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 18