Monday, February 14, 2011

Quiz: Are you living out the Church's mission of evangelization?

I am not the most punctual person in the world. Since the AHC conference last October I have wanted to write about the topic of evangelization and proselytism. This project, however, was trumped in our last newsletter by our commentary on Israel as "womb" of the Second Coming, as a response to the controversy with a Palestinian priest on the topic of "Catholics for Palestine" and "Catholics for Israel."

Today, the moment has come. I feel that the topic of evangelization and proselytism is timely for at least two reasons.

The first reason is the urgency of the task of the new evangelization, urgent because formerly Christian countries are seriously threatened on two fronts - by an increasingly aggressive anti-Christian secularism on the one hand, and the equally aggressive growth of Islam on the other.

The second reason is the considerable confusion that seems to reign among many Christians and especially Catholics regarding evangelization and proselytism. Confusion on this topic now would be nothing less than disastrous if  it results in neutralizing believers from carrying out precisely the Church's most critical task of our time. It would not be an exaggeration to even characterize as "work of the devil" any thought construct that would lead to the paralysis of the Church's central mission.

And so today we ask the questions: What is evangelization? What is proselytism? What is the difference between them? How should we relate to non-believers? Should we try to convert them? Or just accept and love them the way they are?

Some would have us believe that proselytism is a great problem nowadays, displaying great disrespect for people of various faiths, religions and walks of life. But is this really the case - in light the Church's definition of  proselytism - or is the real problem actually quite the opposite?

Before we go any further I would like to invite you to do a little self-evaluation quiz. This test will help you to determine where you stand - whether you are being faithful to the Church's call to the new evangelization, and if not, what may be some of the false presuppositions or ideas lurking "below the surface" that are hindering you from responding to the call. The quiz will also hopefully help to make the rest of this article more interesting and relevant to you.

So without further ado, why don't you go ahead and take the quiz now...

[Quiz no longer available]

Well, how did you do?

Allow me to take a guess: My guess is that not too many Catholics are guilty of proselytism. I suspect that more of us are influenced and affected by the secular humanist or post-modernist/relativistic worldview.

Now let's look at a few definitions to help us better understand the results of the quiz. The Church has spoken profusely about evangelization and mission in the last forty years, and so we don't suffer from a lack resources on the topic. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will quote here from only one document - the most recent one published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, called rather unimaginatively Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization (hereafter DNE). It is neither the best nor the most inspiring text, but it is relatively short, simple, straightforward and perfectly adequate for our purposes (I will list some of the other documents at the end of the newsletter).


What, then, is evangelization?

Evangelization "sums up the Church's entire mission." It consists in "the proclamation and handing on of the Gospel, which is 'the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes' (Rom 1:16)."  It is to "proclaim Jesus Christ by one's words and actions."  Note that the document specifies that actions only are not enough; they must be accompanied by words to effectively transmit the Gospel of salvation to others. Every person has the right to hear the good news, and this implies that every Christian has a corresponding duty to evangelize. The gravity of this task is poignantly expressed in St. Paul's words: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). And the primary objective of evangelization? It is to "help all persons to meet Christ in faith" (DNE 2).

Where is Christ most especially encountered? Through incorporation into the community of believers, that is, in the Church. And so "since the beginning, the Gospel, in the power of the Spirit, is proclaimed to all people so that they might believe and become disciples of Christ and members of his Church."  The desire that people be saved through communion with Jesus in the Church is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, "the Christian spirit has always been animated by a passion to lead all humanity to Christ in the Church" (DNE 9).


But isn't this desire to make people Catholics precisely what constitutes proselytism? No, it is not, and this is precisely wherein lies the modern-day confusion.

Proselytism, actually, is using "deception, selfish motives or arrogance" in trying to convert people, thus "failing in respect for the dignity and religious freedom of the partners in dialogue. For this reason, the Church severely prohibits forcing people to embrace the faith or leading or enticing them by improper techniques" (DNE 8). In other words, proselytism is 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" (DNE 12; n. 49).

How then are we to avoid proselytism? In the task of Evangelization, everyone should "'refrain at all times from any kind of action which might seem to suggest coercion or dishonest or improper persuasion, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people" (DH 4). In short, "the witness to the truth does not seek to impose anything by force, neither by coercive action nor by tactics incompatible with the Gospel" (DNE 12).
Simple enough? Don't force people into the faith at gunpoint (or the equivalent - through fear, guilt trips, etc...). Inviting people into the faith, however, is quite another matter.

"I don't proselytize": Respect for others or cop-out from one's duty to evangelize? 

I have mentioned above that many people nowadays see proselytism as a big problem - a terribly disrespectful and intolerant thing to do. Put on the defensive by such criticism, one often hears Catholics - even some involved in missionary work - assuring us that they "don't do" that awful thing, proselytism. But what do they mean by that? The next time you hear someone make such a statement, ask them to clarify. Do they mean:
"I don't use any dishonest, deceptive or coercive measures to try to convert people" (the right answer!)
Or do they mean, rather:
"I have no interest at all (or lack the courage) to help people come to salvation by inviting them, in respect and love, to repent of their sins, accept Christ's forgiveness and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit through faith and communion with the Church."  (If this is what they mean, they will probably tend to muddle the answer a bit).
Sadly, I fear that too many Christians who claim to not proselytize really mean that they don't evangelize. Perhaps they are simply intimidated be the daunting task, and this is understandable. But perhaps they have fallen prey to what Pope Benedict has calledthe "dictatorship of relativism," that symptom of the post-modern world which refuses to accept any truth as definitive apart from one's own subjective whims.

Relativism: The Great Enemy of Evangelization

Under the leadership of Benedict, the Church has tackled the bull of relativism by the horns. In our document, she expresses her concern for the "growing confusion" today which
"leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective. Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to... invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church" (DNE 3).
Quite opposite to this relativistic mentality, the Church invites us not to lose confidence in the truth and goodness that Jesus the Messiah has come to reveal to humanity. For this reason,"love impels the followers of Christ to proclaim to all the truth which saves" (DNE 10) - the truth which is Jesus Christ Himself. As then cardinal Ratzinger said a few years ago, "mission and dialogue should no longer be opposites but should mutually interpenetrate. Dialogue is not aimless conversation: it aims at conviction, at finding the truth; otherwise it is worthless" (Many Religions, One Covenant, p. 112). Interreligious dialogue is thus not an end in itself but rather a "moment" in the Church's mission of evangelization (AG 11-12).

Let us, then, not lose heart, and may we work with renewed ardor to testify to the risen Lord with all our being, in our witness of holiness and in our words. Let's not forget that "even witness by itself is not enough because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run, if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called ‘giving a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Pet 3:15) – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus'" (DNE 11). 

Important Church Documents on Mission and Evangelization

Second Vatican Council - Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church Ad Gentes (1965)
Pope Paul VI - Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975)
Pope John Paul II - Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio on the permanent validity of the Church's missionary mandate (1990)
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith - Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (2000)
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith - Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization (2007)

See also Catholics for Israel's PowerPoint presentation:
Go into all the World! The Church's Missionary Mandate