Did Pope Francis just say that evangelization is “nonsense”? 8 things to know and share

Did Pope Francis just say that evangelization is "nonsense"?
Did Pope Francis just say that evangelization is "nonsense"? (photo: Register Files)

Pope Francis has given a new interview to the Italian journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari.

Some of the things he said are already raising eyebrows, including remarks he made about trying to convert people.

Here are 8 things to know and share . . .


1) How did this interview come about?

It’s an outgrowth of a previous written exchange that Pope Francis had with Scalfari.

At that time, Scalfari said that he hoped at some point to meet the pope to engage in dialogue, so the Pope picked up the phone and arranged a meeting between them.

You can read the full text of the interview here.

Reportage from Edward Pentin here.


2) Are there reasons for caution in reading this interview?

Yes. First, the interview is written partly as narrative, and it is not clear how accurate the pope’s words are or if the context they are set in is complete.

Unlike the recent interview the Pope did with La Civilta Cattolica, we do not have an indication that the Pope reviewed the Italian text prior to publication to ensure that it represented his views without distortion.

Second, there is the matter of how good the translation is.

Problems with the translation are already being reported.


3) Does the interview have a bias or angle it’s working?

Yes. The interview is clearly being written with an agenda. At one point, Scalfari writes:

Francis  -  I allow myself to call him that because it is the Pope himself who suggests it by the way he speaks, the way he smiles, with his exclamations of surprise and understanding  -  looks at me as if to encourage me to ask questions that are even more scandalous and embarrassing for those who guide the Church.

So Scalfari says he perceives from the Pope’s body language that the pope wants him to ask scandalous and embarrassing questions?


That’s an awful lot to get out of body language.

If the Pope didn’t say, “Feel free to ask me scandalous and embarrassing questions” then how do we don’t know the Pope wasn’t just signaling friendliness and openness by his body language?

In any event, this reveals Scalfari’s goals: He was trying to generate scandalous and embarrassing material for use in his news paper.

Caveat lector. Let the reader beware.


4) What did the Pope say about converting people?

Early in the interview, the following exchange occurs:

The Pope smiles and says: "Some of my colleagues who know you [Scalfari] told me that you will try to convert me [to atheism]."

It's a joke I tell him. My friends think it is you [the Pope] want to convert me [to Christianity].

He smiles again and replies: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us."

Later, this exchange occurs:

[Pope Francis:] "Do you know what agape is?"

[Scalfari:] Yes, I know.

[Pope Francis:] "It is love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing, it is love. Love for one's neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good."

Finally, the Pope later says:

I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope.


5) Does Pope Francis’s statements regarding proselytization mean that he believes we should not evangelize or convert people?

No. Pope Francis has an extremely clear focus on evangelization. To cite just the first example that came up when I did a Google search of the Vatican web site for “Francis evangelization”, Pope Francis in June said:

I would like to emphasize the importance of that Assembly’s [upcoming Synod of Bishops’ meeting] theme: “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”.

There is a close connection between these two elements: the transmission of the Christian faith is the purpose of the new evangelization and of the entire evangelizing mission of the Church which exists for this very reason.

Moreover the expression “new evangelization” sheds light on the ever clearer awareness that countries with an ancient Christian tradition also need a renewed proclamation of the Gospel to lead them back to an encounter with Christ which truly transforms life and is not superficial, marked by routine [SOURCE].


6) Isn’t proselytization the same thing as evangelization?

Although the word has historically been used this way, in recent decades a new, technical meaning for “proselytization” has emerged in ecclesiastical circles.

It is not the same thing as evangelization, and Pope Francis was not dissing evangelization in his remarks.


7) So what is “proselytization” in this new sense?

Basically, it’s trying to strong-arm people into the faith, putting undue pressure on them rather than allowing them to make a free choice for Christ.

An explanation of this usage is found in the 2007 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled Instruction on Some Aspects of Evangelization.

According to that document:

In this connection, it needs also to be recalled that if a non-Catholic Christian, for reasons of conscience and having been convinced of Catholic truth, asks to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church, this is to be respected as the work of the Holy Spirit and as an expression of freedom of conscience and of religion. In such a case, it would not be a question of proselytism in the negative sense that has been attributed to this term.

A footnote then explains:

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.


8) So what did Pope Francis mean by his comments on proselytization?

He and Scalfari were joking about converting each other in the interview, and Pope Francis assured Scalfari that he wasn’t going to strong-arm him to convert to Christianity right in the interview.

He said that employing such strong-arm tactics is “solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other.”

Later he contrasted proselytization with the way Jesus preached the Gospel, which was based on love.

Finally, he emphasized: “I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope.”

In other words, the Pope believes that evangelization should not involve trying to strong-arm people (proselytization) but that the Gospel should be preached with love and involve a dialogue in which Christians listening to unbelievers and their concerns and help them move toward Christ through a positive demonstration of word and action.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the interview, but that will have to wait for a future blog post.



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