Persecution, Evangelization, Dialogue

In the Catholic press, we find three recurring notions, though seldom considered together and distinguished. They are persecution, evangelization, and dialogue. The Church is of its nature “missionary.” That is, the “Go forth and teach all nations” is not just a pious exhortation. Looking at the world with eyes of cold realism, however, we can recognize that by far the greater part of the world, after two millennia, remains to be evangelized and converted by missionary activity. Evidently, tremendous obstacles stand in the way of peacefully and calmly presenting the case for Catholicism.

However, we are supposed to “evangelize,” not “proselytize.” This latter word does not have a bad name in the dictionary. But it has become currently a big political sin. It implies using dubious methods to achieve conversion, like brain washing. It assumes that no one can possibly change religions on any other grounds but because of such overt or covert coercion. We Catholics insist we do not proselytize, but we do evangelize. The purpose of evangelization is to convert people to the faith, but through means that are open, sensible, and free. “Proselytism” had gone the way of “propaganda,” both originally good words.

Dialogue is something different. This ancient word is everywhere used. We do not dialogue to convert or evangelize. The Church has sponsored untold numbers of “dialogues” in recent decades with various Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, scientists, Evangelicals, atheists, and I do not know what all. The purpose of dialogue is to clear the air. It seeks to establish what the partners really say, whether points of agreement exist, even if we speak in different words or tongues. Dialogue is supposed to take the place of warfare and acrimony. No more calling names or bitterness, just calm presentation of views.

Persecution is another matter. As Robert Royal pointed out in his Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, rather more persecution happens in our enlightened age than we like to think.

L’Osservatore Romano (August 6), for instance, carried a column about new proposed laws in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The law says that “anyone intending to convert must inform the magistrate, that is, the highest local authority representing the nation.” A person who converted without informing the law would be fined a thousand rupees and the priest officiating would be subject to a year in prison and a five thousand rupee fine. Evidently, this proposal has not received final approval yet.

In reading the article, it seems that the Catholic priest who was assigned to state the Church’s case argued that there had been no conversions to Catholicism in the area. In fact, only one conversion was recorded and that was of a Christian woman who became Hindu. No charges were leveled. But if there were no conversions, what of evangelization? Does the law make it in effect impossible?

The same edition of L’Osservatore carried a piece from Pakistan where a judge ruled that two Christian sisters “were converted to Islam legitimately.” The girls were ten and thirteen. They had been abducted from their uncle’s residence. The girls were then married to two Muslims. Their parents, on this basis of conversion, were denied the right to have their daughters returned. Many fear that such abductions are designed to secure the girls for prostitution.

I cite these latter two cases because they emphasize that, in fact, because of religious and political power, it is almost impossible in much of the world to “evangelize” in the Catholic sense. If we add proselytism, it is also difficult to “evangelize” in even the most sophisticated manner without being accused of undue pressure. The notions of freedom of religion and speech are becoming more and more attenuated before our very eyes.

We can add the lethal notion of “hate language,” which, in not a few states, now forbids even citing what the Bible says about homosexuality and other such practices, or even discussing the health and psychological conditions connected with them.

The fact is that any attempt to evangelize in a vast part of the world will be considered against the local law. It will sometimes be worth one’s life. The result of this situation is increased internal pressure on Catholicism itself to change its own doctrines to conform to the civil law or custom.

Thus we hear the cries: “Stop teaching that Christ is the only Savior.” “Stop insisting on the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” “Stop claiming that the Church is true.” It is just another “religion” and ought to join the parliament of religions where all is fine provided we do not claim truth for our faith.

So there remain these three: Increased Persecution, Endless Dialogue, Little Evangelization.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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