First, Pope Francis was quoted as saying “There is no Hell.” Later, he reportedly denied the deity of Christ, saying that while Jesus lived on earth he was a virtuous man but “not at all a God.” Then, the Pope reportedly said that His death, Christ appeared as a spirit, as opposed to the bodily resurrection of Christ. Now he has said that those who try to “proselytize” an unbeliever are “not a disciple of Jesus.”
The other times the man who is said to be the custodian of the Christian faith reportedly said something that seemed to deny a central tenet of Christianity were in the context of a discussion with his atheist friend, the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. The Vatican insisted that the journalist was not accurate in his reporting. This time Pope Francis was talking to a group of high school students in Rome, responding to a question about how to deal with atheists and people of other religions.
Here is what he said:
In front of an unbeliever the last thing I have to do is try to convince him. Never. The last thing I have to do is speak. I have to live consistent with my faith. And it will be my testimony to awaken the curiosity of the other who says: “But why do you do this?” And yes, I can speak then. But listen: Never, never bring the gospel by proselytizing. If someone says they are a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, they are not a disciple of Jesus. Proselytism is not done, the church does not grow by proselytism. Pope Benedict had said it, it grows by attraction, by testimony. Football teams proselytize, this can be done. Political parties, can be done there. But with faith there is no proselytism. And if someone says to me: “But why?” Read, read, read the Gospel, this is my faith. But without pressure.
To be sure, “proselytize” has the connotation of evangelizing in the wrong way–high pressure, canned presentations, being manipulative, etc.–though simply telling people about Jesus is often branded as proselytizing. This is how it is taken in the growing number of countries with anti-proselytizing laws, which are often being used today to persecute Christians, something the Pope should be sensitive to.
But setting that aside, the Pope’s answer suggests what might be a useful tactic in evangelism: Wait to be asked. Instead of trying to convince your Muslim, Jewish, and atheist friends to become Christians–which might create big trouble for a contemporary European teenager–live out your faith so that they become curious and ask you about it. Then you can speak.
Fair enough. The problem, though, is that the Pope puts his prohibition about not trying to convince unbelievers and not proselytizing so strongly. Those who do so are not just well-intentioned but ineffective, or wrong-headed and naive. “They are not a disciple of Jesus.” Is he saying that if you try to convert someone to Christianity, you yourself are not a Christian?
Evangelical Christians are well-known for evangelizing, for “witnessing” to others about their faith, giving their “testimony” about their own coming to faith in the course of “sharing the Gospel.” In their recent ecumenical zeal, Catholics have finally accepted Protestants as Christians, though as “separated brethren.” But does the Pope believe that evangelicals and Pentecostals who try to win others to their faith “are not disciples of Jesus”?
But here is the biggest problem. On the first Pentecost, St. Peter faced a diverse, multicultural Jewish audience “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). He preached to them about Jesus, called on them to repent and be baptized, and “with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them” (Acts 2: 40). As a result, “about three thousand souls” became Christians (Acts 2:41). Later, St. Peter won converts by preaching to the crowd at Solomon’s Portico (Acts 3). Still later, St. Peter presided over the conversion of a Roman centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10).
How does this align with what Pope Francis said? “In front of an unbeliever the last thing I have to do is try to convince him. Never. The last thing I have to do is speak.” Didn’t St. Peter speak first and try to convince his audience? These people already had a religion, whether Judaism or Roman paganism. So wasn’t St. Peter trying to get them to change their religion? Couldn’t this be seen as proselytizing? The Pope said, “Never, never bring the gospel by proselytizing. If someone says they are a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, they are not a disciple of Jesus.” Would the Pope say that St. Peter, whose office he claims to hold, is “not a disciple of Jesus”? But St. Peter was, literally, a disciple of Jesus.
St. Peter and the other Twelve Disciples, along with other Apostles like St. Paul, spread Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman world, from India to Spain. None of them seem to have followed the contemporary ecumenical approach, sometimes expressed by Pope Francis, that “If you follow your own religion faithfully–whether you worship Zeus, Jupiter, or any other deity represented in the Roman Pantheon–you will be saved.” Instead, they said things like, put away your idols and turn to the living God (cf. Acts 14:15).
The subsequent generations of the Early Church also convinced multitudes of unbelievers from still more religions. A large number of the saints venerated in the Catholic Church were missionaries, apologists, and martyr witnesses. And some, arguably, were proselytizers. Does the Pope really believe that these saints of the church are not disciples of Christ? If so, is he going to de-canonize them?
I know quite a few people who have become Catholics. They say that the Catholic Church gives them certainty, that having a living oracle from God in the papacy protects the church from change and from liberal theology, ensuring a living tradition that is continuous from century to century. Recent popes, like St. John Paul II and Benedict VI, played that role. But Pope Francis does not.
That he is continually undermining not just historic Catholicism but historic Christianity in favor of beliefs that interest him more, such as environmentalism and ecumenism, undermines the office of the papacy itself. Orthodox Catholics, whose conservative theology has always manifested itself in allegiance to the Pope, are put in the position of having to resist what the Pope teaches. For non-Catholics, the papacy and thus the church that he rules lose all credibility.
To be sure, Pope Francis is still pro-life, though remarkably tolerant of Catholic politicians who are not. He still believes in the supernatural, unlike some liberal theologians, to the point of recognizing demonic possession and promoting exorcisms. And maybe all of these controversial statements are just misunderstandings or mistranslations.
For Lutherans, the Popes of history have not, contrary to the claim, been the custodians of historic Christianity. Rather, they have been a means of making changes in Christianity, adding innovations such as Purgatory, indulgences, saint worship, relic veneration, ritualism, legalism, and the consequent effacing of the Gospel itself. Pope Francis makes clearer what Lutherans have always professed about the office of the papacy, that it is not of Christ but Antichrist, not as the dispensationalist end times bogeyman but as a usurper of Christ within the church (2 Thess 2:3-4). If you want an objective guardian of the faith that never changes, look to God’s Word, not to a fallible human being who claims to be infallible.
Photo by Tânia Rêgo/ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)] via Wikipedia Commons