National Catholic Register


Is the Great Commission a Call to ... Proselytism?

BY Father James V. Schall

April 1-7, 2000 Issue | Posted 4/1/00 at 1:00 PM


The Washington Post of Feb. 20 described a religious theme park in Orlando built by “Marvin Rosenthal, a Jew who became a Baptist minister.”

The Florida park seems to be a replica of downtown Jerusalem in Christ's time. It has an entry fee of $17 and evidently attracts mainly aging Christians. However, certain objections to the park have arisen on the grounds that the park's theme attempts to “proselytize” Jews and, presumably, anyone else who voluntarily goes through it. I do not know if Catholics, say, object because it entices them to become Baptists.

Yet, to present Christianity as if it did not have a very specific Jewish background, a background the Christian holds as true, is difficult. To conceive Christianity without the Hebrew revelation is an old heresy called Marcionism. One cannot be a Christian and deny that Christ fulfilled the Law.

Most Jews hold that, to be Jews, one cannot, at the same time, hold that Christ as the Word made flesh did fulfill the Old Testament promises. Hopefully, this logic does not mean that, for practical purposes, either the Jew or the Christian must deny what he holds. To acknowledge what each respectively maintains to be true cannot itself be considered an affront or a violation of freedom of religion or of philosophical authenticity.

All of this anti-proselytism business, however, comes at a time when the Holy Father has been telling us that we are a missionary Church and that making the faith known to others is the first priority of business, something that has been rather neglected in recent decades. Cardinal Ratzinger's document Dominus Jesus was, in fact, directed to the theoretical reasons for this very neglect.

Pope John Paul II, in his audience of January 25, for example, remarked: “Many people, especially the young, ask what path they should take. In the storm of words that they endure every day, they ask: Where is the truth? How can we overcome the power of death with life?

“These are basic questions which express the reawakening in many of a longing for the spiritual dimension of life. These questions Jesus has already answered when he affirmed, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’ The task of Christians today is to re-propose this decisive proclamation with all the power of their witness.”

Yet, if I maintain that Christ has answered all the basic questions, and I re-propose this position with all the power of my witness, what am I doing but proselytizing?

What is ‘Truth’?

The word proselytize comes from a Geek word meaning to approach, hence to convert or change someone else's belief. The word emphasizes the active effort to engage someone in a serious consideration of life and how it ought to be lived. Today, the word has a rather pejorative connotation. It is considered bad taste, if not bad philosophy, to assume that anyone has anything to convert to. All philosophies and religions are held to be equal, so why bother? No firm truth exists. Thus, any claim to truth borders on “fanaticism” or “absolutism.” Besides, we have the right not to be pestered by fanatics who want us to become something other than we are.

Across our campus, in its main plaza, on the day I write this column, is a TV set sponsored by the Muslim students. It's running a video explaining what Islam is. They are proselytizing — trying to change people's views.

The two most active proselytizing groups on campus, it strikes me, are not the Catholics and Baptists, but the Muslim students and various branches of feminism, including pro-choice types. They are covered by what is called free speech. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are often accused of politely badgering us. Why cannot the world stay just as it is? People resent any implication that what they already hold is not sufficient.

The Holy See, for its part, has, in recent years, been officially engaged in a long series of dialogues with almost every religion and philosophy about what they hold and how one belief or position is related to the Catholic faith. Of course, this dialogue would not be called proselytism, as the respective representatives are not engaged in a conversion context.

They are simply explaining and clarifying their own position. Hopefully, the effort is directed to arriving at some agreement that would not involve radical change — that would find, when the words are clarified, that after all, much agreement already exists. Yet, behind this papal effort is the clear purpose of restoring unity to the Christian faith. To accomplish this, it is necessary to have proper understanding between differing religions and philosophies at least about what they claim themselves to be.

The difficulty is that, at bottom, Catholicism in particular is a doctrinal religion. This dogmatic side of it is no doubt part of its attraction and, in any case, essential to what it is. It has, as it were, an articulated intellectual content to it. There are some things it definitely does not say or hold about God or about itself.

In a most enlightening address given in the Vatican on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the issuance of John Paul II's encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Francis Cardinal George brought up this same issue.

The Christian revelation is a received revelation. Christians did not invent it.

“John Paul II repeats the argument that the Church proposes — and does not impose — the Gospel to persons who are free to accept or reject it. The Church's mission, in fact, promotes human freedom,” said the cardinal, as quoted in L'Osservatore Romano on Jan. 31.

“The Church rejects the view that the call to conversion addressed to non-Christians is proselytism, for every single person has the right to hear the truth of the Gospel. It is not enough, as some would suggest, to limit one's missionary service to promoting human development and helping people preserve their own religious traditions.”

We should not underestimate the extent to which these latter two ideas are held — namely, that today the Christian mission consists solely in human political or economic development and that people are saved in whatever religious tradition they are in so that no effort to make Christianity known is needed.

The Christian revelation is a received revelation. Christians did not invent it. This revelation contains a definite content that has the right and duty to be itself. At the same time, this revelation is not self-contained. It is not meant just for some, though how it reaches all we are not explicitly told; we are asked to hand on what we have received.

In today's relativist climate of opinion, we often hate to think that what we hold is, in fact, true. It is “arrogance.” We are, by our very positions, “proselytizing.” Cardinal George repeats what we hold if we be Christian:

“We affirm that Christ has united himself with every human being by his Incarnation, and that his Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in the paschal mystery. We reject the view that Christ is mediator of salvation only for some, or that he reveals only some aspects of the truth about God and the truth about the human person. It is not possible to remove the 'scandal’ of the Christian claim that we are saved in ‘no other name’ and remain a believer.”

We are free to go our own way, but we are not free to maintain that Christianity is something other than what it is defined and declared to be in a revelation that it did not invent, but only received. In no other name are we saved. The only greater scandal would be to deny this truth and call it Christian.

Jesuit Father Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.