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Analysis: Vatican, USCCB differ in understanding proselytism?

September 21, 2009

A recent press release by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops appears to put forward a different understanding of proselytism from that taught by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-- and in doing so, may inadvertently lead some Catholics to neglect their responsibility to proclaim and witness to the Catholic faith in its fullness to non-Catholic Christians.

An official of the US bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs writes:

Proselytism, or the deliberate targeting of another Christian or group of Christians for the sole purpose of getting them to reject their church to join another, is not allowed. Some people may feel called in conscience to change from one tradition to another, but “sheep stealing” is unacceptable.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith does not equate proselytism with “sheep stealing,” but with coercion. In its 2007 Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization, the Congregation teaches:

The term proselytism originated in the context of Judaism, in which the term proselyte referred to someone who, coming from the gentiles, had passed into the Chosen People. So too, in the Christian context, the term proselytism was often used as a synonym for missionary activity. More recently, however, the term has taken on a negative connotation, to mean the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person. It is in this sense that the term proselytism is understood in the context of the ecumenical movement.

Although the USCCB press release summarizes several aspects of the Magisterium’s teaching on ecumenism, it fails to emphasize the obligation of Catholics to proclaim the Catholic faith to non-Catholic Christians. The Congregation notes:

Everywhere and always, each Catholic has the right and the duty to give the witness and the full proclamation of his faith. With non-Catholic Christians, Catholics must enter into a respectful dialogue of charity and truth, a dialogue which is not only an exchange of ideas, but also of gifts, in order that the fullness of the means of salvation can be offered to one’s partners in dialogue. In this way, they are led to an ever deeper conversion to Christ.

As the Second Vatican Council teaches in its Decree on Ecumenism:

[O]ur separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life-that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ's Catholic Church, which is "the all-embracing means of salvation," that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God …

[W]hen the obstacles to perfect ecclesiastical communion have been gradually overcome, all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time …

Baptism therefore establishes a sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it. But of itself Baptism is only a beginning, an inauguration wholly directed toward the fullness of life in Christ. Baptism, therefore, envisages a complete profession of faith, complete incorporation in the system of salvation such as Christ willed it to be, and finally complete ingrafting in eucharistic communion.

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