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Understanding Proselytism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 28, 2008

If you look up the verb “proselytism” in most dictionaries, you’ll find it defined as any effort to persuade a person to give up one point of view in favor of another. The word is sometimes used in a political sense, but most often it is used religiously. The most common synonym for “proselytize” is “convert”. This will come as a surprise to Catholics, and it requires clarification.

For Catholics, who have a highly developed spiritual vocabulary, the standard definition is not adequate. In the Church's lexicon, proselytism typically refers to conversion efforts that fail to respect the prospective convert’s freedom and dignity. High pressure tactics; telling lies about the other person’s current religion; comparing the weaknesses of another’s religious community with only the strengths of one’s own; attempting to convert children in opposition to their parents; offering worldly inducements to change one’s religious allegiance—these are what Catholics would call proselytism. In contrast, a sincere effort to share one’s faith so that others might freely choose to embrace it is considered a virtue. Terms with positive connotations are used to describe such generosity: evangelization, apologetics, catechesis, personal witness, or even simply “winning converts”.

Sources of Confusion

But not every religious community uses the term “proselytism” in the same way. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church regards all efforts by Catholics to win converts in Russia as proselytism, and complains of it frequently to the Vatican. The Russian Orthodox have a strong sense of their own “canonical territory”, within which the Russian Orthodox Church is supposed to have a privileged status. This concept is fueled partly by patriarchal tradition, in which each patriarch is considered the highest source of Christian authority in his own region. It is also fueled partly by Russian insularity. Anything other than Russian Orthodoxy is considered an unRussian novelty. But this attitude is fueled by human nature as well. Isn’t it obvious, after all, that your efforts to convert someone from my faith look suspiciously like proselytism, whereas my own efforts to convert your coreligionists are always marked by charity and respect?

Sensitivity to the negative side of proselytism also derives from ecumenism. Conflict among divergent Christian groups is a great scandal. The Protestant Revolt and all its subsequent controversies have probably contributed more to the rise of relativism and secularism than any other single factor. Collectively, the West largely concluded in the 17th and 18th centuries that if even Christians cannot agree on revealed truth, then it is probably best to admit such truth is unknowable and move on. By the twentieth century, it became obvious to Christians that the rising tide of unbelief was a far greater threat than sectarian differences. Since then many shepherds have been reluctant to be involved in what they have come to consider “sheep stealing”. The process of converting one’s fellow-Christians has, in this context, come to require a very light touch indeed.

All of this is understandable, but it may also represent something of a failure of nerve. The Islamic world feels no such need to tread lightly. There the full force of punitive law and the allure of material and political blandishments are routinely used both to prevent the conversion of Muslims to Christianity and to convert Christians to Islam. Serving a voluntarist God, Islam has left notably undeveloped any notion of human dignity based on God’s image and likeness. Christianity finds God’s own nature reflected in His creation in ways that are accessible to human reason. This perception of the Logos at work in all things forms the basis for both human dignity and natural law. In Islam, the emphasis on God’s will alone is so strong as to be scarcely linked to the nature of being. For this reason, an understanding of the deep freedom required for true religious assent has gone largely undeveloped in Islam.

Sensitivity and Paralysis

Christians are right to be sensitive about proselytism, but they are foolish to become paralyzed by it. I’ve written elsewhere that it is the nature of true conviction to seek converts. The person who is convinced of something necessarily believes he has recognized a helpful truth. He must be either a fool or a knave to withhold it from others. The result is a great cacaphony if ideas, discussions and arguments, not only concerning religion but concerning just about everything. Those who assert that such arguments are detrimental to the human race are correct only insofar as it would be better if all had long since come voluntarily to the whole truth. The only other alternative to incessant debate is for all to come involuntarily to a lie. That’s why the Catholic usage of the term “proselytism” is so valuable. It recognizes that human dignity demands discussion and choice. It holds, therefore, that there are right and wrong ways to engage in the discussion.

Still, the distinctions are not always easy. It may be wrong to run a soup kitchen at which only those willing to listen to a Christian homily will be served. But is it wrong to host regular evenings of prayer and preaching at which all who attend may avail themselves of a free meal? It may be wrong to refuse material aid to someone because he is not a believer, but is it wrong to expend one’s charitable energies first in one’s own religious community? It may be wrong to require parents to enroll their children in Christian schools, but is it wrong to encourage them to do so by offering strong financial aid? It may be wrong to restrict public office to Catholics, but is it wrong to restrict public office to those who recognize the natural law?

The answer to all of these questions depends primarily on the intention, which will also determine the manner in which various goods are presented. If I am offering support, aid, education, political advancement or any other non-religious benefit to certain persons so that they will adopt my religion, then I am proselytizing. If I am sharing an enthusiam for my religion with them in the hope that they might convert to it, I am not proselytizing. And if I am offering benefits for other legitimate reasons, I am not proselytizing either, even if these benefits can in some cases create a cultural preference for my faith, should that faith happen to be dominant in some way. For example, I may wish to deny public office to those who do not recognize a higher and more rational law than that of the state, and so I might support an oath of office which includes these elements, but my motive would be to ensure good government, not to win converts. Or I may establish an orphanage to care for needy children and, in the process, give them everything I can, including Christian instruction, but my goal would be primarily to serve the needy, not to win converts.

Love and Hate

I say “primarily” because, in fact, I will very probably have multiple motives for nearly everything I do. Indeed, to have only one motive is at some times unhealthy and at most times impossible. Therefore, I will neither hide my light under a bushel nor risk obscuring it through selfish motives or unfair tactics. If I cannot respect the other’s freedom and dignity, if every gift I offer comes with spiritual strings, then the God I claim to serve will appear distorted—He who lets the sun and the rain fall on the good and the bad alike. The value of “my” conversions will be dubious indeed.

So Catholicism has it right again. It is always abhorrent to use conversion tactics which do not respect the freedom and dignity of the potential convert. It is equally abhorrent to have so little regard for others that we refuse to share our faith, which we hold more precious than any gift save life itself. The word we use to describe the former is proselytism. Catholics are not to engage in it. Nobody should. But the latter is simple lack of charity, a privation of love, that is, hatred. Catholics are not to engage in that either. And neither should anyone else.

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