instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Negative aspects of witness which should be avoided

As recently as yesterday, I saw comments from people who are still -- well, from puzzled to beyond scandalized by Pope Francis's [paraphrased but not repudiated] statement that, "Proselytism is solemn nonsense." After all, "to proselytize" means "to try to persuade people to join a religion, cause, or group," and isn't that what the Church is supposed to do?

A search for "proselytism" on the Vatican website is instructive. It turns up, for example, a 1988 report on Baptist-Catholic International Conversations, which goes into great detail on the question [bolding added]:
32. A historical overview shows that the understanding of “proselytism” has changed considerably. In the Bible it was devoid of negative connotations. A “proselyte” was someone who, by belief in Yahweh and acceptance of the law, became a member of the Jewish community. Christianity took over this meaning to describe a person who converted from paganism. Mission work and proselytism were considered equivalent concepts until recent times.

33. More recently the term “proselytism” in its pejorative sense has come to be applied by some to the attempts of various Christian confessions to win members from each other. This raises the delicate question regarding the difference between evangelism/evangelization and proselytism.

34. As Baptists and Catholics we agree that evangelization is a primary task of the church and that every Christian has the right and obligation to share and spread the faith. We also agree that faith is the free response by which people, empowered by the grace of God, commit themselves to the Gospel of Christ. It is contrary to the message of Christ, to the ways of God’s grace, and to the personal character of faith that any means be used which would reduce or impede the freedom of a person to make a basic Christian commitment.

35. We believe that there are certain marks which should characterize the witness we bear in the world. We affirm:
—  that witness must be given in a spirit of love and humility,
—  that it leaves the addressee full freedom to make a personal decision,
—  that it does not prevent either individuals or communities from bearing witness to their own convictions, including religious ones.

36. We also admit that there are negative aspects of witness which should be avoided and we acknowledge in a spirit of repentance that both of us have been guilty of proselytism in its negative sense. We affirm that the following things should be avoided:
—  every kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure (For example, we noted the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media which might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers);
—  explicit or implicit offers of temporal or material advantages such as prizes for changing one’s religious allegiance;
—  improper use of situations of distress, weakness or lack of education to bring about conversion;
—  using political, social and economic pressure as a means of obtaining conversion or hindering others, especially minorities, in the exercise of their religious freedom;
—  casting unjust and uncharitable suspicion on other denominations;
—  comparing the strengths and ideals of one community with the weaknesses and practices of another community.
This isn't, of course, official Church teaching, but it's a better source than Merriam-Webster for understanding the distinction between "proselytism" and "evangelism" that has made in the Church for more than twenty-five years.