Is Proselytism Solemn Nonsense?

popepassionPope Francis has been criticized in some quarters because he has said, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” He has also told Evangelical Christians and an atheist interviewer that he “doesn’t want to convert them.”

In a meeting last week in Caserto he explained to his priests that their job was not “proselytizing” and he quoted Pope Benedict XVI who, in an address about evangelization said it was about “Attracting not proselytizing.” Does this mean Pope Francis and Pope Benedict don’t really care if people are converted to the Catholic faith or not? Are they both guilty of indifferentism–that form of modernism which says it doesn’t really matter what denomination you belong to as long as you love Jesus? Do they think therefore that all Christian denominations are not only much the same, but are of equal value?

Obviously not. We only have to read Pope Benedict’s document Dominus Iesus to see that he has stated very clearly the uniqueness of the Catholic faith and that he teaches that the other denominations are “gravely deficient.” Pope Francis has given no indication that he disagrees or disputes with the teaching of Dominus Iesus in any way.

So what do they mean when they dismiss proselytization? To understand we have to take time to understand terminology. “Proselytization” means “to attempt to convert someone to another belief or religion.” It infers some kind of force being used to convert people. The most obvious use of force is physical force of the sort we see being used by ISIS in Northern Iraq: “If you do not convert we have nothing to give you but the sword.” There have been times when Catholics used physical force to coerce conversions. One is reminded of Pope Innocent III’s crusade against the Cathars and the sack of Beziers in which 20,000 supposed heretics were slain. When the soldiers complained that Catholics were mixed in with the Cathars the Abbot in charge of the onslaught was reported to have said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

While Catholics abhor such tactics now and do not use force to convert anyone these days, it has not been very long since certain forms of financial pressure were used to encourage conversions. The poor realized that food, shelter, education and jobs might be more available from missionaries if one were a Christian. In India some converts were derisively termed “rice Christians” because, it was said, that they converted in order to get regular food rations.

Physical and financial coercion are obvious means of pressuring people to convert, but there are other measures that are more subtle. Manufactured heavy guilt by teachers and preachers is a form of psychological pressure. Social pressure is exerted in which a person’s peers, family or social groups dominate the individual. Anybody who has attended an old time Baptist revival meeting or Catholic mission may well have experienced emotional, psychological and social pressure all wrapped up in one powerful punch.

Aggressive apologetics, argumentation and blanket condemnations of heretics are all forms of forceful proselytization and it is these techniques that Pope Francis and Pope Benedict rightly condemn as being not only pointless, but harmful. They are pointless because they don’t really do much good in the long run. A man who is convinced against his will is unconvinced still. Real conversions cannot be forced. Not only is proselytization pointless, but it also does harm to the cause of the gospel. How many people are convinced by an angry Catholic uttering deprecations against the unrighteous? How many Protestants are convinced by shrill anathemas against all those who are outside the Catholic Church?  Continue Reading

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