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Evangelizing, Converting, Proselytizing: What’s in a Name?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 04, 2016

Speaking on relations between Catholics and the Orthodox while in the Eurasian country of Georgia, Pope Francis touched on the question of conversion:

Let the theologians study the abstract realities of theology. But what should I do with a friend, neighbor, an Orthodox person? Be open, be a friend. “But should I make efforts to convert him or her?” There is a very grave sin against ecumenism: proselytism. We should never proselytize the Orthodox! They are our brothers and sisters, disciples of Jesus Christ.

At first glance, this statement can be confusing, but in fact it continues a modern papal habit of warning against proselytizing members of other Christian groups, without at all ruling out the kind of activities and relationships which, by introducing others to a fuller appreciation of the Gospel, can lead them into the Catholic Church.

In Catholic usage, the word “proselytism” has a distinctly negative connotation. It implies that the proselytizer is either acting from bad motives, or applying unacceptable pressure, or making dishonest claims in the effort to bring someone else into his own religious community. The Church has typically used the term “conversion” in a positive sense (the process of helping someone to turn more fully toward Our Lord), while using “proselytism” in a negative sense (pressing someone to “convert” in ways which do not respect the other’s freedom and spiritual dignity).

This distinction has been particularly important to the Church in dealing with the Orthodox, for two reasons. First, the Orthodox churches are truly churches, not just sects or denominations with varying patterns of belief. They are hierarchically constituted, apostolic in origin, and fully sacramental. This gives them a special dignity which is never to be dismissed. Second, the Orthodox churches are highly territorial. Each one tends to regard itself as having exclusive spiritual jurisdiction in a particular region.

This territorialism springs from both positive and negative sources. On the positive side, there is a genuine appreciation of patriarchal and episcopal jurisdiction. On the negative side, speaking historically, there has been an excessive partnership and reliance upon the State in the administration of Orthodox church affairs. The result is that the Orthodox do not acknowledge the universal jurisdiction of the Successor of Peter—which is by far their most significant point of separation from Catholicism.

The “Conversion” problem

The Catholic approach to the Orthodox is influenced—as it certainly should be—by both the close kinship between the two and what we might call Orthodoxy’s territorial touchiness. In the Orthodox world, it is considered “poaching” for one Orthodox church to try to draw in members of another Orthodox church, and the same attitude necessarily applies to those who recognize the authority of the Pope rather than of a different patriarch. This sort of activity is considered disrespectful and ignoble among equal parties, and reprehensible in another’s traditional territory. In this light, it is necessarily viewed on the Orthodox side as a signal example of proselytism even when the Catholic motives are flawless—it is seen as a bid, in effect, for increased influence in the region. This must be taken into account.

But the problem extends far beyond Orthodoxy. Any serious reflection on the religious differences among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ leads one to recognize that neither “evangelization” nor “conversion” are quite the right terms to use for Catholic outreach to members of other Christian bodies. While some bodies obviously retain a fuller and purer possession of the Gospel than others, it is nonetheless seriously inadequate to characterize as “evangelization” our efforts to make Catholics of those who already accept the Gospel.

Obviously there are questions of accuracy and fullness in any evangelization effort, but for non-Catholic Christians who already accept the Gospel, Catholics must essentially concentrate on catechesis. In the same way, the notion of an Orthodox or Protestant Christian “converting” to Catholicism makes a very attenuated use of that term compared with the conversion of a non-Christian to faith in Christ.

All legitimate conversion involves a process of turning more fully to Christ, and in fact we are supposed to be undergoing an ever deeper conversion more or less continuously. This, after all, is what it means to grow in holiness. But words are used in different ways in different situations and, to take one example, when a Lutheran “converts” to Catholicism, he or she is not undergoing the same change as a pagan who converts to Christianity. This is obvious in many ways, but not least in the recognition of the validity of baptism in all Christian bodies who continue to use Our Lord’s sacramental words.

Ecumenism, Proselytism and Friendship

We can now see that even an emphasis on “converting” the Orthodox or Protestants is not quite what we have in mind, though this is a very traditional expression for Catholics. It is the Catholic experience with ecumenism which has made the Church more aware of this issue. We no longer tend to view other Christians as enemies (or worse, as reprobate enemies). We have become increasingly aware of the common Christian heritage which unites us, and of the need not only for a fully Catholic witness at the personal level but also for a corporate healing of Christian divisions led by the one Church.

This can create a tension between “conversion” and “ecumenism”. But that tension is out of place: As usual, conflicts arise from our own failure to see as God sees. It is just here that Pope Francis’ comments are so revealing. Notice that the Pope raises the question of conversion but does not answer it as directly as we would expect. Obviously, this throws us off a bit. But let me paraphrase him in the context of this larger discussion. What he says is this: “Should we try to convert members of other Christian bodies? Well, there is one sin against ecumenism that must be taken into account: Proselytism. We must never proselytize. But be open, be a friend.”

It takes no great genius to see that this is exactly what a well-formed Catholic who loves God and neighbor is going to do anyway. He is not going to treat other Christians as if they are heathens, as if they know nothing of Christ, as if their faith and sacraments and openness to the Word of God have no saving power. At the same time, he does have gifts he would very much like to share, even as he receives different gifts from those with whom he interacts. With Christ Himself he says: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11).

The well-motivated Catholic certainly hopes that each person he influences will come sooner rather than later to the fullness of the truth. When seen by those outside the conversation, such a journey might trigger a negative reaction. But an engraced movement into the Church neither opposes nor undermines ecumenism. Authentic Christian friendship can only advance the total effort at Christian unity.

The truth is that both the individual and the corporate aspects of the quest for unity depend on friendship and trust—the bonds of charity. In some cases, individuals will progress more rapidly into the fullness of revealed truth than the Christian bodies of which they are a part. In other cases, an official growth in mutual understanding will make individual progress far more likely. And should an entire Christian body find its way home, some members may arrive impatiently even while others drag their feet.

The point is that a great truth, already understood by the earliest missionaries to the pagan world, is just as important in relations among Christians today: What Catholics call proselytism raises barriers which only the pure witness of Christian love can sweep away. “No longer do I call you servants,” says Our Lord (Jn 15:15), “but I have called you friends.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 04, 2016 9:58 PM ET USA

    I developed the habit as an apologist 20+ years ago of referring to non-Catholic Christians who become Catholic as entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. This is the language of the Church and is safe to use in all contexts.