What is the Difference between ‘Evangelism’ and ‘Proselytism’? A Serious Question

The mission of the Catholic Church is to “make disciples of all nations,” which is to say, to evangelize the entire world, in fidelity to her Divine Founder and His command recorded in the Holy Gospels (Matt. 28:18–20, Mark 16:14–18, Luke 24:44–49).

Saint Paul was deeply impressed with this mandate as a personal obligation upon himself, binding under sin: “For if I preach the gospel, it is no glory to me, for a necessity lieth upon me: for woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).

Evangelizing the word — or “proselytizing,” to use another word for it — has been the business of the Church since her foundation. Now we have heard in recent years that “proselytism” is a bad thing.

Why?

Dictionary.com gives this definition of the word:

noun
1. the act or fact of becoming a proselyte; conversion.
2. the state or condition of a proselyte.
3. the practice of making proselytes.

Proselyte, in turn, is defined as “a person who has changed from one opinion, religious belief, sect, or the like, to another; convert.”

The word does not seem to have a negative connotation. In a religious setting, it means actively seeking to “make converts” — or, more accurately, taking into account the necessity of grace — seeking to help God in making converts, for only He makes them. And all that’s good, right?

Have I missed something?

I am unaware that the word has an accepted Catholic theological definition distinct from the common definition found in a non-specialized dictionary.

Now comes this from Pope Francis:

“Proselytism among Christians, therefore, in itself, is a grave sin,” said Pope Francis.
The journalist then asked, “Why?”

“Because it contradicts the very dynamic of how to become and to remain Christian,” he said. “The Church is not a soccer team that goes around seeking fans.”

A correspondent of mine — a highly educated, highly informed priest-theologian who also happens to be a convert himself — sent me the following comments on the passage:

Trying to help non-Catholic Christians, by reasoned argument and apologetics, to recognize and embrace the fullness of revealed truth — and Francis certainly includes this under “proselytism” — is now to be condemned as sin, and indeed, grave sin? Even though Vatican Council II (to which the Holy Father professes his full adherence) clearly restates that all have a moral duty to seek, embrace and hold fast to this truth of the Catholic Church (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, #1)? Even though the Council (Lumen Gentium, #14) and the Catechism (#846) reaffirm the dogma “Outside the Church there is no salvation”, explaining it to mean that those who recognize the Catholic Church as embodying the true religion, yet refuse to enter or remain in her, cannot be saved?

Father made it clear that, as a convert from Protestantism, he was not at all happy with these remarks, which, he holds, demean legitimate attempts to win over converts from other Christian denominations to the true Church — converts such as himself. He called the comments superficial and puerile, and lamented that this “Soccer team ecclesiology” is “outright heterodoxy.”

He is not the only one upset by the remarks. While I was looking for the context of the Holy Father’s statements, I happened upon Pastor Hal Mayer’s comments on them. He, too, is upset because he thinks that the Pope is forbidding Protestant efforts at bringing Catholics into their denominations. But he also thinks that the Bible “describes the Catholic Church as the beast and a wicked woman,” so he’s not quite so informed about Catholic things as my correspondent.

The question remains: What is the difference between “evangelism” and “proselytism”? Have I failed to see a nuance? Is my priest-theologian friend wrong where he says that Pope Francis includes “Trying to help non-Catholic Christians, by reasoned argument and apologetics, to recognize and embrace the fullness of revealed truth” in the Catholic Church under the heading of “proselytism” — which the Holy Father condemns as “grave sin”?

Somebody help me out.

Duccio Panel from the Maesta Italian, 1308-1311. Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (source)

Duccio Panel from the Maesta Italian, 1308-1311. Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (source)

  • John Patrick

    It started with taking the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews out of the Mass in the ’60s to the recent Vatican document called “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable”, which condemns any organized attempt to convert Jews. That logic is now being applied to Protestants and will soon be applied to Muslims, Buddhists and pagans. The doors to the Church and the Kingdom are literally being closed as we speak. We’re near the end.

  • Matt

    It just isn’t actually a grave sin, that’s all. The Pope must’ve “misspoke”. Again.

  • Craig Roberts

    The word ‘proselytism’ has changed over the years. Much like ‘sanctimonious’ (which used to mean acting in a holy manner but now means acting self-righteous) proselytism implies a certain condescending attitude towards the listener. Instead of, “I love and respect you and want to share the truth I have learned through the Church with you.” the proselytizer says, “You’re wrong and I’m going to show you why.” This implies that the proselytizer is superior to the ones he is speaking to.

  • Beth Van

    Pope Francis seems to have his own ideas about what the Church should be and he is trying to fashion it according to his will as quickly as possible before the end of his papacy. Whether it was Jesus, an apostle, doctor of the church, previous popes, or councils, etc., that have stated and/or reinforced the Faith, it just doesn’t matter to him. He seems to want “ecumenism” at the expense of Catholicism and is developing a hybrid. He is not naive and has the support of puppets, or yes men, who are more than willing to assist him. I pray for him and all priests everyday, but if they will not accept God’s Truth and Wisdom, that is their choice. It is odd that, having only committed to the Catholic faith six years ago, I feel I am under attack by the Pope and his followeres for my “rigidity”, etc. The opposition within the Church leadership to the true teachings is, to me, scandalous. It is no matter of a word or phrase that the Pope says now that causes me confusion because I believe that he has, over time, shown himself. He is consistent, and dangerous.

  • tallorder

    I’m actually surprised that there are seemingly faithful Catholics, like the person above, who still listen to what Francis has to say!

    I would say to the person asking the question, proselytize. Be gentle and listen to their concerns. Appeal to reason and back it up with traditional theology. You can’t go wrong with the tools of the Faith of all time.

    I have found the most frightening thing for a Protestant thinking about converting is… Pope Francis. In fact, my in-laws said privately to my wife that they would convert if it weren’t for him.

    If this ever comes up in your situation, let it be known that not all popes are defenders of the faith. The Faith will out last him as it has out lasted every innovator and pretended reformer.

  • bosco49

    When you refer to “the person above” I presume you aren’t suggesting God, rather ‘Matt’ who at present is in the number one post position and might just be pulling our leg or being franci-tious.

  • tallorder

    No, I wasn’t referring to God.. or Matt. I mistakenly took this article as a real question from someone.

    This question of proselytism reminds me of the serious letter that Marcus Grodi from the EWTN program, “The Journey Home”, wrote Francis about “proselytism is solemn nonsense”, asking if he should quit his program. Of course, he wouldn’t really quit his program, but the question to Francis was serious.

  • bosco49

    I understand. The question: “Who’s on first?” was more succinctly clarified by Abbott and Costello than any ever put to Francis.

  • veritasetgratia

    I don’t see any difference at all between the terms. No one can convince anyone of anything at all without personal conviction. I admire my Evangelical friends because of their conviction and dedication, and when we discuss certain points of faith, they may not agree with me but always tell me “yaaay go for it!”.

  • I do ask a real question in the article. It was not a mistake for you to think that. And I appreciate your thoughtful considerations.

  • Thank you to all who have posted replies to this.

  • Thomas Hoffmann

    As a Protestant clergyman, but one who respects deeply the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, I add a comment for what it’s worth–and of course only representing my own views.

    My denomination’s “mission” statement is, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.” Thinking about how “evangelism” and “proselytism” are *commonly* understood in my circles (and realizing that different persons will always have different working definitions) I immediately resonated with Pope Francis’ comments. I do see a wide colloquial difference between evangelism and proselytism–and between evangelism and discipleship, for that matter.

    “Evangelism” is a sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ; asked only (only?) to be a witness, we fulfill this by giving testimony to God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ as we take the courtroom “stand” through our word and deed, to be interrogated by the voices of a sinful world.

    Using this courtroom context, it is clear that the Judge remains the one to make final decisions. My job is to witness in truth, not to change anyone’s mind. Our denomination’s theology holds that conversion happens only via the Holy Spirit’s action on the human heart. Because Jesus has asked us to be his witnesses, we do so in obedience, and trust that he will use our testimony in his gracious economy in the salvation of others–or not. In this colloquial understanding, then, “proselytism” would be considered in a negative light in that it seeks to take over God’s role in the act of conversion at worst, or at best, trying to convince people to change “teams” or “gods” or whatever needed worldview shift may be required (aka Pope Francis’ analogy).

    Here’s one way I understand this: evangelism/conversion is an “imputed” act of righteousness, facilitated wholly by the salvific work of Christ. “Making disciples,” however, follows conversion and is a lifelong journey to have such righteousness “imparted” to me as I cooperate with God in Jesus Christ. After conversion, I don’t need to be evangelized; rather, I need to be proselytized in a good way–using Paul’s words, my “fleshy nature” needs to be convinced more and more each day of a better way of life, through the daily “renewal of my mind.” Thinking about it this way, proselytism follows and is for the converted, never for the unconverted.

    One caveat: I do think that apologetics has a role in the civic arena. I think that publicly and boldly offering a distinct Christian view as a response to the world’s events is a powerful way for persons listening to us to consider changing how they view and react to such events. I also think that participating in compassionately generous but radically honest ecumenical and interfaith conversations are very important. In each of these I guess you could say that proselytizing is at work. But as I think deeply about each of these, I still see these actions primarily as evangelism or witness (lit., “martyr,” which means that witnessing alone is tough enough for us), and not trying to win a debate. I have to remember that Christ has already won the debate through his sacrifice.

  • tallorder

    I thought it was a user submission, actually.

    We enjoy the newsletters you guys send. Thanks Brother.

  • ockraz

    I’m not sure that the words mean different things, but I grew up with
    one Catholic parent and one Unitarian Universalist parent, and so I have
    some thoughts about the ‘soccer team’ metaphor. FWIW, I think it sounds
    a bit like the detente that my parents needed to establish. My thinking
    is that there is a difference between a) trying to recruit someone to
    change allegiances and to join your team and b) merely letting someone
    know that they’d be welcomed if they wanted to switch teams, and if they don’t object offer
    them reasons why they might wish to do so. It’s fine to do ‘b,’ but ‘a’ can
    create conflict where there needn’t have been any.

  • Adrian Johnson

    I know heresy when I hear it. That it’s mixed in with other orthodox teaching is tricky: It’s like the occasional drop of poison on what is otherwise wholesome food.
    Pope Francis is Jesuit, formed in the Modernist Jesuit Order; he endorses the goals of the NWO, and was elected through the machinations of the Vatican Freemasons. We are living through Chapters 8-13 of the Apocalypse, in the time of the Great (but largely unnoticed) Apostasy.
    Thank God for Cardinal Burke and those like him, for soon they will demonstrate the de-facto Schism that separates the Faithful Catholics (who will be insulted and persecuted so that they have to go “underground”) from the “Ecumenical” Catholic Church that doesn’t believe in sin, but only “mercy” and salvation for everyone, repentant or not; Catholic or not. Malachi Martin said that many prophecies described the last Pope of the era as under the influence of satan; and who would diminish the power of the papacy.
    A pontiff that sounds very like Pope Francis.

  • Adrian Johnson

    While the manner of some missionaries may be unfortunate, it does not mean that their words are not true.

  • Bruce Lilly

    To speak of “the” difference between evangelism and proselytizing presumes that the words have unchanging meanings across, time, culture and context, independent of translations via other languages, and without speaker-dependent nuances. That having been said…

    Both words originated in Greek, through Latin and Old French:

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=proselyte
    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=evangelize

    Some of the differences:
    Proselytization originally specifically referred to conversions to Judaism, the convert being known as a proselyte. Evangelism had no such specific denotation (however, note from the etymology that the latter term went via “Church Latin” as opposed to regular Latin).

    In modern usage, prosetylization usually has a negative connotation in English (N.B. possibly more so in other languages); some sources may differ regarding the extent and range:
    http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/american_english/proselytize
    http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/proselytize#dataset-american-english

    Prosetylization no longer (usually) specifically refers to Judaism; as noted in one of the definitions referenced, it can be applied outside of religious contexts, e.g. to politics.

    The negative connotation arises when the person attempting to convert another persists even if the attempt is uninvited and unwelcome, or if religious conversion is used as a form of extortion e.g. as a requirement for receipt of charity; it is a clear violation of the contrapositive of the universal “Golden Rule”, which contrapositive could be expressed as “do not do unto others as you would not wish to have done to yourself”. It is one thing to explain one’s religious beliefs when requested, another thing entirely to push one’s beliefs on another uninvited, still another to make a nuisance of oneself when clearly and politely told that such advances are unwelcome, and yet another to engage in extortion. The latter two (extortion is assumed to require no explanation) may indeed be violations of law:

    https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/crc/2011-Religious-Discrimination-and-Accommodation.htm

    So much for definitions and usage.

    If Francis’ comment used proselytization in the original sense (Francis might reasonably be expected to have some knowledge of Latin…), it is neither surprising nor unorthodox that he should find attempts to convert Catholics to Judaism undesirable from his point of view! If his comments were instead (or in addition) along the lines of the contrapositive of the Golden Rule, that too should raise no eyebrows.

  • Apparently some of the commentators refuse to distinguish between proselytism and evangelism. Francis would never in a million years call evangelism a “grave sin” – you are all dishing out misinformation when you attempt to equate the two. And you attempt to mislead the little ones which is a GRAVE SIN. Shame on you.