The Pope and Proselytism

How to differentiate between an unhelpful proselytism and a healthy evangelism?

As soon as I read Pope Francis’ recently released “Top 10 Secrets to Happiness” I could already imagine the push back from some Catholics when they read his ninth suggestion:

We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: “I am talking with you in order to persuade you.” No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing.

Some will take this to mean the Pope is a religious relativist who doesn’t want Catholics to spread the faith but instead wishes to leave everyone to believe whatever they want after having a friendly dialogue about our personal identities. I don’t think that is what the Pope believes.  

Francis is right here: proselytism is a deeply unattractive activity and therefore very unhelpful to the mission of making Christ known to the world. I illustrate how unhelpful aggressive proselytism is at the beginning of every semester by recounting the story of my grandfather in interwar Scotland that I recounted in a previous essay (see point #4). I tell this story to my students—who are required to take two theology courses in my department—in order to allay any fears they may have that my job is to beat them over the head with a Bible and catechism and make them accept every truth claim in both under pain of failing the course. We are embarking, I tell them, on an intellectual exploration in an academic setting; we are not beginning an RCIA class or another catechetical undertaking. If this class leads you to the doors of the Church, then I shall be the first to very gratefully and sincerely say with the psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your Name give the glory!”

But my first goal is not to use my power as professor over students to proselytize them. Why not? The Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae answers that question well: “truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power” (no. 1). Note well where “power” occurs in that sentence—at the end, in a qualifying and totally dependent position as a consequence of the prior conviction inspired by the advent of truth. Power (understood in the Augustinian sense of libido dominandi or, as Hermann Goering famously put it, “power is my fist on your throat!”) is not, as the Council saw, to be out in front of truth as its Pretorian Guard muscling you to agree first and (maybe) ask questions later. Truth does not need power to impose itself on someone. In a wonderfully succinct and very important line from Pope John Paul II, “the Church proposes; she imposes nothing” (Redemptoris Missio no. 39).

Is my classroom then a free-for-all where anything goes? Am I—as the stereotype of most academics has it—some kind of hippy-dippy relativist throwing out a bunch of propositions at random without imposing any kind of order, much less truth? Far from it. I have a mandatum from the local bishop, and I take very seriously my promise to him, and to the Church, that I will always teach what the Church teaches. Any other kind of “theology” is a lot of rubbish fit only for bonfires. 

How, then, to differentiate between an unhelpful proselytism and a healthy evangelism? Consider an experience many of us have likely had that may shed light on the distinction Pope Francis was making.

Your doorbell rings on a quiet Saturday afternoon, and there on your step are two well-intentioned Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses—or even an earnest young salesman trying to convince you that you need new energy-efficient windows. All three are, in essence, used-car salesman trying to sell you on something, and will often (in my experience) badger you with questions, ply you with literature, and ask for a return appointment when they hope to get inside your house and seal the deal. Who likes this experience? Who looks forward to being pressured into making a sale or joining a club? Don’t you feel as if you need to have a shower or six after dealing with such shady, oleaginous characters? This, I submit, is what unhelpful proselytism feels like to us when we are on the receiving end of it.

By contrast, then, what is healthy evangelism? Here I go back to September 2011, when I was one of 50 young academics specially selected to attend a conference (“The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization”) sponsored by the doctrine committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which wanted to build a better relationship between academics in Catholic universities and bishops. It was a splendid conference, and as I wrote elsewhere in several places, the bishops deserve enormous credit for this initiative (which they repeated again last year in a similar conference). 

One of the speakers there, John Cavadini, was then the chairman of the theology department at “the obscure university up the road” as we here in Ft. Wayne refer to our South Bend sister, Notre Dame. He spoke of trying quietly to evangelize in the classroom without proselytizing, noting that you cannot have a programmatic check-list of things to do, but must take each individual student and each class on its own terms, and look for ways to help them—as the Pope has said—discover an attraction to God. It is possible to evangelize in the classroom without proselytizing, and sometimes, in my experience, it involves a very apophatic method: getting out of the way. When I drive to the university before class, I constantly find myself offering this prayer: “Lord, if I can’t do anything positive to bring them to know you, then at the very least prevent me from getting in the way.” 

That, it seems to me, is the better part of what evangelism is: getting out of God’s way so that He can be seen and attract people to Himself. Here I turn to my favorite of all the male saints, whose beheading we will celebrate at the end of this month: John the Baptist and Forerunner. He went before Christ and then got out of the way, noting that the task of every Christian is that Christ must increase, and I must decrease, until everyone may say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

This is not a call to “quietism.” There are times when you need to get out of the way and keep your mouth shut, but there are also times when you need to take a stand and speak up. And when those times come, I find again and again and again with my students that they most certainly are not going to listen to a Westboro Baptist-like harangue (“You must kiss the pope’s ring or you’ll fry in hell, heretic!”). And they are not interested in being first told what you can and can’t do as a Christian, or how many dogmatic or “lifestyle” statements you have to sign. What they most want to hear about is the difference a relationship to God makes in your life, and whatever struggles you have with that. They want to hear it all in a realistic account free from pious treacle. How do you believe all that stuff? How can you fast? Do you ever doubt? How do you put up with bad bishops or pervert priests?

The job of any Christian is to help others see the attractiveness of the Risen Christ—to discover their own attraction to Him—in spite of the often unattractive people and institutions who bear His name. Here is where, I think, Francis would return to Benedict: people are attracted to Christ’s Church because of her saints and her art, both of which bear witness not with pushy sales tactics or gimmicky showmanship, but quietly, with their power coming solely from the beauty of the resurrection.

What my students—and others—most want is a simple sense of purpose and of joy. Following my late spiritual father, Archpriest Robert Anderson, who was a master-teacher from New York with more than 30 years in the classroom, I try to “evangelize” by summing up the “evangelion” of Christianity very easily: it is the way to survive death. Live your life in Christ, and live forever, finding joy even beyond the grave. Does that not sound like good news indeed?

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).