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.


Dictionary.com gives this definition of the word:

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)