Catholic education, done rightly, is a special and important means of evangelization, the mission of the Church. It brings young people to Christ and provides for the integral formation of mind, body and soul.

And so, judging from the reaction that I have been hearing from some parents and educators, there is a bit of consternation over Pope Francis’ strong words last week against “proselytism” in Catholic schools. My colleagues from The Cardinal Newman Society who were present for the Holy Father’s conversation with educators—part of the World Congress on Education, a Vatican conference to address the “educational emergency” that leaves young people ignorant of Christ—also noted the Holy Father’s words with some concern.

The fear is that the Pope’s words could be misused, as his words have been abused in the past, to take Catholic education in a more secular direction. That would be a tragic reversal of the renewal of Catholic identity that is taking hold at all levels of Catholic education, and it would be contrary to the Vatican’s stated goals for Catholic school and colleges.

So what did the Holy Father actually say?

Speaking at the Congress, Pope Francis urged educators “to lead young people, children, in human values in the whole of reality, and one of these realities is transcendence.” What is authentic in this world can increase our awareness of God, His creation and His presence, but Pope Francis lamented that education today is exclusively focused on “immanent things” without introducing students to “the total reality.”

So far, so good. But this statement raised eyebrows:

One cannot speak of Catholic education without speaking of humanity, because, precisely, the Catholic identity is God who became man. To go forward in attitudes, in full human values, opens the door to the Christian seed. Then faith comes. To educate in a Christian way is not only to engage in catechesis: this is one part. It is not only engaging in proselytism—never proselytize in schools! Never!

A couple years ago in an interview, Pope Francis also said that “proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.” And in an address to catechists, he cited Pope Benedict’s own concerns about proselytism in a 2007 address to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean:

The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction“—just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfills her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.

These admonitions against proselytizing can seem confusing for American Catholics, who are beneficiaries of the great missionary work of the Church in the New World. The zeal and courage of the early Catholics in America were recently celebrated by the Pope’s nuncio in his address to the U.S. bishops this month—especially in the context of their contributions to Catholic education—and they were celebrated by the Holy Father himself with the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, O.F.M.

Certainly, therefore, Pope Francis could not be condemning catechesis (which he takes care to explicitly reaffirm) or strong Catholic identity in schools—yet even so, problems arise with the term “proselytism,” which can be ambiguous. There’s a negative connotation to proselytizing that’s difficult to pin down, which allows it to be confused with healthy forms of evangelization. As Lawrence Uzzell wrote a decade ago in First Things, “Today’s Christian missionaries often contrast ‘proselytism’ with ‘evangelism’; the former is what they accuse rival denominations of doing, while the latter is what they claim to do themselves.”

In a footnote to its 2007 statement on evangelization, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged the term’s ambiguity but settled on the most negative connotation:

The term proselytism originated in the context of Judaism, in which the term proselyte referred to someone who, coming from the gentiles, had passed into the Chosen People. So too, in the Christian context, the term proselytism was often used as a synonym for missionary activity. More recently, however, the term has taken on a negative connotation, to mean 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.

So proselytism is seen today by the Church as an abuse of religious freedom, and in the context of education, it is a means of teaching the faith that denies the free use of reason and appeal to conscience. It is nothing that a good catechist or evangelist would do.

Very well. But then we have to ask the questions that my colleague Dr. Dan Guernsey asked, soon after hearing Pope Francis condemn proselytism, “How significantly is this a source of the educational emergency facing Catholic schools? How many universities and high schools seem to be coercing their students with unworthy Catholic propaganda?” It would seem that fidelity and Catholic identity should be greater concerns today.

I suspect the answer is that abusive proselytism is not, in fact, a priority concern for the Holy Father. The point about proselytizing was made off the cuff and was not central to his comments to the Congress.

Taken as a whole, his statements centered on rebuilding a more “human” education—relax the “rigidity” of schools, reach out to the margins of society, decrease the emphasis on intellectual “selectivity” that tends to exclude rather than invite participation, and open young hearts and minds to God:

For me, the greatest crisis of education, in the Christian perspective, is being closed to transcendence. We are closed to transcendence. It is necessary to prepare hearts for the Lord to manifest Himself, but totally, namely, in the totality of humanity, which also has this dimension of transcendence. To educate humanly but with open horizons. Any sort of closure is no good for education.

This closure to transcendence is precisely the educational emergency that has befallen secular education and even many Catholic schools and colleges. The focus on “immanent things” and worldly gain is what concerns so many American Catholics about the Common Core in Catholic schools.

Taken as a whole, the comments by Pope Francis to the Vatican Congress should not be construed as pulling the reins on evangelization in schools. Instead, we should celebrate Catholic education as the Church’s key means of evangelization, in human formation that invites the student to know, love and serve God.