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The ‘spirit of timidity’ that thwarts evangelization

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 07, 2019

Years ago, at an inter-religious conference, I was befriended by a Muslim cleric who, when he learned that I had never met my father-in-law, promised to do his best to bring us together. (He fulfilled that promise, to no avail.) However, he also felt obliged to give me a warning.

“My friend,” the imam said, “since your wife’s father is a Muslim, she is also a Muslim, and unless she returns to the practice of Islam she will go to hell. And because you are married to a Muslim, you also must convert to Islam, or you too will go to hell.”

How should I have responded? At the time, I was floored by the urgent sincerity of my new friend. He had spoken as politely as possible, and he stressed that he did not want to offend me. And how could I take offense? If this was what he truly believed, then it was not merely his religious duty to speak out; it was an act of charity. He cared enough to endanger a budding friendship, for the sake of what he believed to be my ultimate welfare.

So I thanked the imam for his candor, and we parted ways. But I could not help thinking, then and now, that very few Catholics would dare to be equally candid with a friend. We have friends and acquaintances who are living in grave sin. Do we care enough to warn them that they risk an eternity in hell?

Now I’ll grant right away that under ordinary circumstances, telling someone: “You’re gonna go to hell!” is not an effective form of evangelization. But aren’t there occasions when some degree to “tough love” is required? For myself, I know that there are times when I need sympathy and understanding. But there are also times when I need the spiritual equivalent of a slap upside the head. The Catholic Church in the early 21st century seems invariably to opt for the softer approach; it isn’t always the right one.

These thoughts crossed my mind at Mass on Sunday, as I heard the words of St. Paul (2 Tim 1”7) that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” The spirit of timidity counsels us to be silent. The spirit of power impels us to speak, and the spirit of love and self-control urges us to help care for the welfare of our neighbors more than we care for our own comfort. We should speak—even if speaking makes us squirm a bit—if by speaking we can move a sinner toward repentance. Yes, we should be merciful toward others—but remember that admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy.

The spirit of timidity is subtle. Cowardice can masquerade as subtlety, producing all sorts of reasons why it might be more wiser not to admonish, not to speak, not to risk giving offense. And again, I readily acknowledge that there are good, prudent, and compelling reasons for avoiding confrontations. Pope Francis is right to decry proselytism, if proselytism means an attempt to bludgeon people into accepting and practicing the faith. Still, there is a balance to be struck between aggressive proselytism on one hand, and passive acceptance of evil on the other. If “the pastoral approach” invariably means, in practice, doing nothing, then the “spirit of timidity” has conquered us.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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