Dialogue: Pope Francis vs. Gospel Preaching & Converts? No!

Dialogue: Pope Francis vs. Gospel Preaching & Converts? No! January 3, 2020

vs. Eric Giunta

This came about with Eric’s lengthy response in the combox of my recent post, Pope Francis Condemns Evangelism? Absolutely Not! He wanted a vigorous (and cordial) discussion? He got one. His words will be in blue. Pope Francis’ words will be in green.

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The problem, Dave, is that Pope Francis’s obsession with condemning “proselytism” makes no sense unless he is, in fact, condemning historic evangelization, and instead considers “real evangelization” to be mere do-gooderism: performing good works without inviting people to convert from their false religions and enter into the Church.

This is not what I have found (all the relevant evidence fairly considered). I have documented how he specifically contrasts proselytism and evangelism: thus proving that he is not equating them. You have to consider all the information that we have on this: in my four papers on the topic, three by Jimmy Akin, and two more that I linked to:

Dialogue: Pope Francis Doesn’t Evangelize? [4-29-16]

Pope Francis Condemns Evangelism? Absolutely Not! [10-17-16]

Is Pope Francis Against Apologetics & Defending the Faith? [11-26-19]

Debate: Pope Francis on Doctrine, Truth, & Evangelizing (vs. Dr. Eduardo Echeverria) [12-16-19]

Did Pope Francis just say that evangelization is “nonsense”? 8 things to know and share  (Jimmy Akin, National Catholic Register, 10-1-13)

Pope Francis on “Proselytism” (Jimmy Akin, Catholic Answers blog, 10-21-13)

Did Pope Francis just diss apologists? 9 things to know and share (Jimmy Akin, National Catholic Register, 3-9-14)

When Pope Francis rips ‘proselytism,’ who’s he talking about? He really may not be talking about, or to, Catholics at all (John L. Allen, Jr., Crux, 1-27-15)

Francis: Evangelize by Example, not Pushing Your Faith on Others (Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, Through Catholic Lenses, 12-23-19)

It’s why he never actually refers to making converts.

Really? It’s tough to interpret a passage such as the following in any other way:

133. . . . The Church, in her commitment to evangelization, appreciates and encourages the charism of theologians and their scholarly efforts to advance dialogue with the world of cultures and sciences. I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology.

134. Universities are outstanding environments for articulating and developing this evangelizing commitment in an interdisciplinary and integrated way. Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelization of culture, even in those countries and cities where hostile situations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods. (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 11-24-13; evangelism and proclamation of the gospel are discussed in sections 110-131 as well; my bolded emphases and italics)

You should know much better than to make a polemical statement about anyone (popes included) supposedly “never” doing something. Pope Francis gave an entire meditation about conversion, on 11-18-14, including this excerpt (mixed in with narrative content):

Finally, there is the third call to conversion, that of Zacchaeus. Who was he? “He was a chief tax collector, and rich”. He was a “corrupt man” who “worked for foreigners, for the Romans, he betrayed his homeland. He sought money in customs tariffs” and gave “part to the enemy of his homeland”. In other words, he was “like so many leaders we know: corrupt”; people who, “instead of serving the people”, exploit them “in order to serve themselves”. Pope Francis indicated that Zacchaeus “wasn’t lukewarm; he wasn’t dead. He was in a state of putrefaction. Completely corrupt”. Yet in front of Christ, “he feels something inside”. He feels that “this healer, this prophet who they say speaks so well, I would like to see him, out of curiosity”. Here we see the action of the Spirit: “the Holy Spirit is clever and has sown the seed of curiosity”; and in order to see Jesus, that man even did something “a little ridiculous”: a leader, a “chief executive”, actually climbed a tree “in order to watch a procession”. How ridiculous “to behave this way”. Yet he did, and “he wasn’t ashamed”. He was thinking, “I want to see him”.

Inside this self-assured man, the Pope explained, “the Holy Spirit was at work”. And then it happened: “the Word of God entered that heart”, with the Word, with joy. In fact, men who lived in “comfort” and men “of appearance had forgotten what joy was”; while “this corrupt man received it straight away”.

The Gospel of Luke recounts that he “climbed down in haste and received Him joyfully”: that is, he received “the Word of God, which was Jesus”. And what happened “straight away” to Zacchaeus is what had happened to Matthew (who was in the same profession): . . .

Here’s another example:

But above all, Jesus commissioned the disciples to “proclaim so that the people would convert”. And this required the authority to do so, which, Jesus said, the disciples were to earn by taking “nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts”. Thus, their sole authority came from following in Jesus’ footsteps, devoid of any attitudes of superiority. Rather, they were to be poor, with that “poverty that brings meekness and humility”. It is with this “attitude of poverty, humility, meekness” that we can have the “authority to say: ‘Convert’, to open hearts”. (2-7-19; my bolding)

Next time, do yourself a favor and make a quick search at the Holy See website (like I just did), to back up your sweeping contentions. Otherwise, you will come off looking foolish and overzealous.

As he told the Catholics of Morocco, “our mission as baptized persons, priests and consecrated men and women, is not really determined by the number or size of spaces that we occupy, but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion.”

That was a particular difficult situation, where the Christian population is less than 1%. I addressed it in my recent reply to Dr. Echeverria.

Set aside for a moment your pre-commitment to defending everything the pope says and does:

I have no such “pre-commitment” (and consider such a stance ridiculous and indefensible, since no one knows what the future holds in store; for instance, the pope could go stark raving mad, etc.). For example:

1) I have stated in print (at NCR) that the pope should answer the dubia.

2) I have stated many times that he should clarify in cases of disinformation and false accusations.

3) I roundly condemned the conflicting statements coming out of the Vatican regarding the “Pachamama” fiasco. To the extent that the pope was implicated in that, it was a criticism of him.

4) I have said that he ought to stop talking to Scalfari, since he lies about what the pope said in their discussions.

5) Failing that, he should clarify and refute Scalfari’s false contentions, rather than leaving it for people like me to explain.

6) In a few instances, I freely admitted that I did not know what the pope meant or intended (therefore, I couldn’t defend what I didn’t know).

7) I disagree with the pope on climate change, and said so, in my glowing recommendation of Laudato si (minus this one disagreement). Then I noted that he specifically said in the document that people can disagree on this, and that it wasn’t magisterial.

8) I have disagreed with some of his statements regarding illegal immigration.

9) If he is opposed to President Trump overall (as I have heard), I strongly disagree with him on that.

10) I have said that when the pope makes contrasts that are extreme (as he often does, but as Jesus also did), that he should clarify that he is talking about emphasis, rather than pitting one thing against another (as in the present dispute). Instead, it falls to people like me to defend him. I’m glad and honored to do it, but he could save me a lot of trouble (and — I note in passing – I make very little money for all my efforts, and “the laborer is worthy of his wages”)! Even Jesus explained the parables privately to His disciples, when they didn’t understand what He was teaching.

Is that enough to show you that you have falsely characterized my perspective in this regard?

What normal Catholic talks in this way?

Well, I have already shown that you are factually wrong, so this “summary” is a non sequitur.

What pre-Vatican II Catholic would ever speak in this way?

People (with regard to mere style or emphasis or methodology, not content) talk in different ways at different times, due to development of doctrine and learning stuff over time. Who talked even remotely like Jesus before He came on the scene? Arguably, the prophet Isaiah was vaguely similar but still very far away in all respects. That was as radical a consistent development of Old Testament teaching as can be imagined.

And so, likewise, Catholics talk differently after Vatican II, just as they did after Trent and Vatican I. And the times are different. We live in a postmodern age now. Pope Francis greatly stresses and emphasizes dialogue, while not rejecting straight evangelism and proclamation of the Gospel. I understand it because I do almost precisely the same (minus the extreme contrast: see #10 above). I’m dialoguing with you right now, and I do it all the time (more than 800 of ’em posted on my blog), so I’m delighted to see a stress on dialogue. I have written about how Jesus engaged in socratic dialogue Himself.

The Bible describes St. Paul engaging in dialogue and “disputes” with both Jews and Gentiles. His sermon on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17) is a prime example. He does exactly what Pope Francis recommends: first, dialogue, and acknowledgment of common ground, then Gospel proclamation. Essentially, what the Holy Father recommends is simply what Paul taught: “I have become all things to all men, so that by any means I may win some.”

I’ve followed that approach for 29 years of Catholic apologetics and evangelism, so I couldn’t be more delighted to see the pope concur in explicitly Pauline methodology (and also the approach of Jesus). In fact, Jesus even went beyond this method. At times, He didn’t “preach the gospel” when there was opportunity. I’m thinking of His encounter with the Roman centurion: almost certainly a pagan, and neither Jewish nor Christian (to the extent that he could be the latter before Pentecost).

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10, RSV). He simply healed his servant. He made no attempt to reveal to him the gospel at all. So this would be the “social gospel” as you describe it. If Pope Francis is supposedly “liberal” in this emphasis, then Jesus would be even more liberal and heterodox. As that is nonsense, your view collapses in a heap, due to reductio ad absurdum.

Which of our great missionary saints would ever speak of evangelization in these terms?

St. Paul and Jesus before him, as just shown. That’s sufficient even before we search for historical examples after the apostles.

For example, from an address to the Jesuits of Mozambique and Madagascar:

“Today I felt a certain bitterness after a meeting with young people. A woman approached me with a young man and a young woman. I was told they were part of a slightly fundamentalist movement. She said to me in perfect Spanish: ‘Your Holiness, I am from South Africa. This boy was a Hindu and converted to Catholicism. This girl was Anglican and converted to Catholicism.’ But she told me in a triumphant way, as though she was showing off a hunting trophy. I felt uncomfortable and said to her, ‘Madam, evangelization yes, proselytism no.'”

Exactly! You prove my point and refute yours by this very example (thanks!). He affirms evangelism, but not proselytism, which he defines on the spot as being too “triumphant” and like “showing off a hunting trophy.”  Yet you argue above that he is somehow dissing evangelism. No! How much plainer can the thing be?

This is not how a normal Catholic — let alone a Catholic bishop — would respond to this woman’s introduction. This is not how any non-Catholic Christian save a liberal Protestant would reply.

I don’t see how you can make such a sweeping negative. It’s a lousy way to argue anything. It’s overkill.

And it’s not how you would reply either,

That’s correct. I wouldn’t, because I’m not him, and I have a different methodology and a different role (not being the pope). He goes very deep in His analysis, just as Jesus did. And he isn’t saying anything in conflict with what St. Peter wrote:

1 Peter 3:15 Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence;

Likewise, the pope was (in effect) making the point: “I’m delighted about the evangelism, which is wonderful, but you need to drop the triumphalism and lack of “gentleness.”

though you might claim otherwise because you believe you just have to defend everything the pope says and does.

As I proved above, this is false. So you are mischaracterizing both what the pope says and teaches, and what I write about and teach. You can do much better, just as you did in your excellent articles about the Pachamama fiasco. But now your freely stated hostility to Pope Francis is coming out, as these things always do. And we see how your bias profoundly weakens your arguments and chain of reasoning.

Another example, from his visit to Georgia:

“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.”

He’s making one of his extreme contrasts. It’s just how he talks. But so did Jesus. He said, for example:

Luke 14:26 If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

It’s hyperbole, of course, but atheists and many others completely miss the point because they wrongly interpret hyper-literally. Elsewhere, Jesus clarifies what He meant:

Matthew 10:37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

He explains how He is not pitting one thing against another. It’s not literally hate; it’s relative degrees of allegiance. Same thing with the pope. He’s not saying that we ought to hate or reject evangelism; only that we need to do it with the right spirit. And that’s made clear the more we examine his overall thought on the topic, as I and others like Jimmy Akin have done (and you clearly haven’t done).

I should note, too, that here he was talking about the Orthodox, who are fellow Christians [and very close to us theologically; far more than Protestants]. We are not to talk to them as if they are not, and engage in insulting rhetoric. That’s a specific scenario in which what he is saying makes perfect sense. How to approach them is an extremely complex matter. One needs to read what Pope St. John Paul II in particular thought about that.

My own approach has been to express great respect for all that is good and true in Orthodoxy, but to also respond to errors therein, and to reiterate that the fullness of the truth lies in Catholicism. I have written a long book about that (co-written with Eastern Catholic Fr. Deacon Daniel Dozier).

Can you honestly imagine any of the apostles saying that we should not alert non-Catholics to the spiritually perilous situation that they find themselves in, and never try to convert them to the faith? Did any of the apostles reduce evangelism to doing good works and being a nice person, never to initiate religious conversation, but simply tell people you’re a Christian if asked?

Here is the link to that address (you didn’t provide it).

The pope was stressing common ground (which we oftentimes miss in our polemical zeal):

They are our brothers and sisters, disciples of Jesus Christ. Due to historical circumstances which are so complex we are where we are today. Both they and we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we believe in the Holy Mother of God. “And so what should I do?” Do not condemn. No. I must not do this. Friendship, walking together, praying for one another. Praying and carrying out works of charity together, when this is possible. This is ecumenism. But never condemn a brother or a sister, never refrain from greeting an Orthodox brother or sister because they are Orthodox.

The issues between us are extremely complex. So the pope simply said that they are best left to theologians: “Let the theologians study the abstract realities of theology.” Believe me, I know, having engaged in extensive dialogues with the Orthodox and having hosted an Orthodox priest once in my home, for group discussion. I’ve had a bishop from Eastern Europe ask me for permission to distribute my book about Orthodoxy over there (I gave permission, at no cost).

In the same message, Pope Francis refers to holding the faith and passing it on (so he is not against this!):

And you, who work with young people, should teach them how to listen to grandparents, to speak to them, in order to receive the fresh water of faith, developing it in the present, making it grow – not hiding it in a drawer, no – developing it, making it grow and transmitting it to our children.

The Apostle Paul, speaking to his beloved disciple Timothy, in the second reading, told him to hold fast to the faith which he received from his mother and grandmother. This is the path that we must follow, and this will help us mature greatly. Received the heritage, make it flourish, and pass it on. A plant without roots does not grow. The faith without the roots of a mother and grandmother does not grow. Also, a faith which has been given to me and which I do not pass on to others, to the smallest, to my “children”, does not grow.

That may be a good missionary strategy in certain situations, but Francis considers this an absolute.

You haven’t proven that at all. And I have disproven it.

The notion that by “proselytism” Francis has in mind an idiosyncratic meaning of “forced conversions” — a meaning this word does not have in the real world, but which exists solely in footnotes to obscure Vatican documents — is belied by the context: Literally nowhere in the world today (or for a heck of a long time) is anyone being converted to the Catholic faith by force or subterfuge. Quite the opposite: Anyone who is well-read in Catholic missionary publications knows that the overwhelming, vast majority of what passes for “missionary work” among professional “missionaries” is this-worldly do-gooderism, and that Catholic bishops, priests, deacons, and “missionaries” in the Middle East, Latin America, India, and elsewhere openly boast of the fact that they do not seek converts, that (at least in the Middle East) prospective Muslim converts are actively discouraged from converting, and that they are not telling people they need to become Catholics if they wish to be saved.

I’m sure this is true in many cases. I am explaining the pope‘s overall position, which is not as you describe it. If you want to attack his approach to the Orthodox, you will have to also (consistently) trash what Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI stated about that very same thing. And you’ll have to grapple with Vatican II as well.

For goodness’ sake, Bishop Robert Barron could not find the courage to tell Jewish Ben Shapiro why he needed to become a Christian. Here he was, approached by an apparently sincere man asking whether he needed to be convert to Christianity to be saved, and Bishop Barron told him “No,”

That has to be understood in context (and I haven’t looked at it). “Salvation outside the Church” is another exceedingly difficult issue, and William Most has noted that there were two strains of patristic thought: one more “strict” and another more “open.” Perhaps Bp. Barron was making the point that it is possible for someone not literally a member of the Catholic Church to be saved (under certain conditions). This is true, and is taught by the Church and by St. Paul in Romans 2.

On the other hand, I think we need to communicate that the Catholic faith is the fullness of revelation from God and that anyone who truly understand it and rejects it cannot be saved. Both things are true. So I would have to see the context to figure out what the bishop intended.

For over 1900 years, real Catholic missionaries and evangelists led with the need to accept the Gospel and enter the Church in order to be saved, and only as a footnote mentioned the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, whereas today our “evangelists” and “missionaries” do the opposite: assuming all men are saved unless they are especially, genocidally evil.

In many cases, the emphasis on ecumenism has gone too far, at the expense of evangelism. I can even agree with you that Pope Francis makes the emphasis too great (hence is misunderstood by folks like you). [see, once again I have disagreed with him, as you claimed I would never do, due to preconceived bias] But I do not agree that in so doing, he has rejected evangelism and proclamation of the gospel altogether, since that is demonstrably untrue.

Ecumenism and apologetics / evangelism have to be held in the proper balance, as I have often written about. Human beings have a tendency to extremism and lack of balance. Ecumenism was greatly neglected before (roughly) the 1940s. So it was emphasized at Vatican II, and abruptly became too much emphasized, and evangelism neglected. This is human nature. Both are true and necessary, and are complementary, not contradictory. How we achieve the correct balance is an ongoing task.

No, this did not begin with Pope Francis. And if you turn around and cite similarly wishy-washy takes on “evangelization” by the last two popes you will only prove my point.

Both of whom stressed evangelism . . . But under Pope Benedict it was also strongly reasserted (in a document) that there is but one true Church and one ultimate means of salvation.

Catholic Christianity suffers from a very serious missionary deficit, and the popes have led the charge. Imagine that we live in a time when, in response to Hindu complaints that Mother Teresa tried to convert people to Christianity, the Church’s official response to this is, “No, she didn’t. Here’s the proof!”:

Obviously, I would like to see more apologetics and evangelism: having devoted my life’s work to both. But ecumenism is good, too.

The postulator for Mother Teresa’s cause provides what I believe is a very accurate summation of Francis’s approach to nu-evangelization:

“When I asked [Mother Teresa] whether she converted, she answered, ‘Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.’ She wanted people to come closer to God (however they understood Him) and believed that in this way they would also come closer to each other, love one another, and ultimately create a world that is better for everyone to live in.”

I’ve already written enough; I can’t also delve into St. Teresa’s approach. Perhaps you want to cast doubt on her canonization?

This is exactly what Pope Francis reduces evangelism to: “coming closer to each other, loving one another, and ultimately creating a world that is better for everyone to live in.” This is the “evangelism” of the Social Gospel, not that of the Catholic tradition and especially not that of the Church’s Scriptures.

Again, you haven’t proven that (merely asserted it). You have only shown that he emphasizes ecumenism and a lack of proselytism (and I am inclined to think, myself — with all due respect and reverence — that he does this too much); not that he outright denies (or redefines, like a good liberal dissident) proclamation of the gospel and evangelism.

Thanks for the food for thought and opportunity to dialogue and clarify!

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I find these replies to be disingenuous. Like most modernists, Pope Francis uses traditional words like “evangelize” and “conversion,” but in each case the context makes clear he does not mean these in their traditional sense. There’s absolutely no mistaking what the pre-Vatican II popes meant by these and related expressions — i.e., encouraging people to leave false religions and enter into the Catholic Church. When Francis uses them, he’s referring to this-worldly do-gooderism. When he refers to “passing on the faith,” he doesn’t expressly refer this to non-Christians or non-Catholics; he speaks of Catholic Christianity as if it’s simply one form of valid religiosity, one valid form of culture, among many, and “passing on the faith” to him means Catholics passing on their Catholic faith to their kids, not to non-Catholics.

As I noted, his constant harping against “proselytism” makes no other contextual sense, because the sort of “proselytism” among Catholics that you are trying to claim he’s referring to is virtually non-existent.

You aren’t interacting with my actual arguments, and merely repeat what I have already shown to be woefully inadequate. So I will take this as your concession of defeat.

Moreover, now you have attacked me as disingenuous and have made the altogether predictable reactionary accusation (recently highlighted by Phil Lawler and Taylor Marshall, among many many others) that the pope talks out of both sides of his mouth and is being deliberately deceitful.

If we assume that is true for a moment, for the sake of argument, then it is impossible to ever defend the pope at all, for when we do, and show that he is not a modernist, you come back with the conspiratorial, purely subjective pablum: “but hey, he didn’t really mean that when he was ‘talking orthodox’! It’s just a fooler so he can continue to hoodwink people.”

Right-o!

With this mentality, there is no rational discussion pro or con whatsoever. I refuse to play that game, because it’s an insult to everyone’s intelligence, and I won’t with you again, now that you have played this contemptible “card.” You set up a double-standard scenario where you can cite the pope’s words as evidence that he is supposedly a modernist subversive; whereas if your opponent cites his words to the opposite effect, you have the ready “out” of dismissal of such citations as not honest or truthful in the first place.

That’s conspiratorial madness and the death of any constructive discussion.

***

Lo and behold, I just found out that the pope tweeted this today:

So once again this puts the lie to the claim that he is somehow opposed to the gospel and proclaiming it. But we’ll be told by reactionaries that he doesn’t really mean it [wink wink, “knowing” nudge, nudge].

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Photo credit: Jesus and the Centurion (c. 1571), by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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