Evangelisation and Proselytisation

Evangelisation and Proselytism: A matter of Ecumenical and Interaith Ethics

Defining the terms

The Greek verb “evangelizo” or “evangelizomai” literally means “to be a messenger of good [news]”. It is a verb, a “doing word”, as we used to say in primary school. It is what the archangel Gabriel did to Zechariah when he told him he was going to have a son (Luke 1:19) and what Jesus says he has to do to the towns of Judea (Luke 4:43). We can translate “evangelizo” literally as “to evangelise”. As far as I can gather, in ancient Greek there was no corresponding noun to mean “the act of evangelising”. There is a similar noun, “evangelion”, but that means simply “the good news”, that is, that which the evangeliser announces, not the act of proclaiming it.

In modern English however we have two nouns that mean “the act of evangelising”: “evangelisation” and “evangelism”. I have used the word “evangelisation” in the title of this paper. I could have used “evangelism”. There has been a lot of ink wasted by Catholic writers on the difference between “evangelisation” and “evangelism”. A random search of the internet through Google threw up the following quote from Benedictine Christopher Jamison[1], who has the misfortune to be my example. Fr Jamison writes:

Firstly, we need to distinguish evangelism and evangelisation. Evangelism explicitly confronts people with a dramatic call to have faith now, at once. Evangelisation, on the other hand, is a daily invitation to see the Spirit who is already present. This is achieved by organising daily life in such a way that there are opportunities to learn to see with the eyes of faith. While one may lead to the other, the two are still distinct. In particular, evangelisation more clearly respects personal freedom…

My search revealed a similar comment from Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, a man whom I have met and for whom I have a great respect. He says, in an article to which I will refer again later on called “Evangelisation and Interreligious Dialogue”[2]:

Evangelization, or evangelizing mission, is a very Catholic concept. Other Christian denominations will speak more readily about evangelism, by which they mean the direct preaching of Jesus Christ. The World Council of Churches, for instance, has within its structures a body called the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. Mission here is taken in a wide sense and includes many activities of the church in the fields of education and health, for example, while evangelism refers to bringing about conversion to Christ.

Now, I will grant that the Catholic Church has a very unique concept of the “evangelising mission” of the Church, but we are in the Mad Hatter’s Wonderland when we insist that a word means what we want it to mean rather than the way in which it is commonly used. Contrary to Catholic supposition, Protestant Christians use the words “evangelisation” and “evangelism” as synonyms. Furthermore, they use both words as synonyms of “mission”, for they know of no other mission of the church than the mission to proclaim, in word and deed, the good news of universal salvation through Jesus Christ.

I suspect that the distinction in Catholic circles has in part grown from the fact that the documents of the Magisterium use the word “evangelization” in their Latin texts. The synonym “evangelism” would convey the wrong meaning in Latin, since the English suffix “-ism” derives from the adjectival Latin suffix “-issimus” meaning “most”. In normal English usage (I am taking the Concise Oxford Dictionary as my source) “evangelism” means “the preaching of the gospel”, and “evangelization” is simply the noun of “evangelise”, which also means “to preach the gospel”, with the additional meaning of “to win over to Christianity”. In which case, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it is “evangelisation” and not “evangelism” that denotes a concerted effort to win the unbeliever to the Christian faith.

Be this as it may, why do Catholics fear the word “evangelism” and why have they attempted to distinguish it from something else called “evangelisation”? I believe that what we see here is a strong desire (which can be sensed in both Fr Jamison’s and Archbishop Fitzgerald’s remarks) to distinguish not only a specifically Catholic methodology but also a specific Catholic ethos of proclaiming the Good News from the ethos and methodology of the so-called “evangelical” or “pentecostal” Christians and of the many (barely Christian) sects that abound in the world today. I use the word “ethos” because Catholics have a sense that the way in which we go about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to others has ethical implications.[3]

In fact, we do not have to make spurious distinctions between evangelisation and evangelism to express this ethos. We have a perfectly good word to represent unethical methods of evangelisation: that word is “proselytism.”[4] Originally, as with the word “evangelism”, there was nothing negative in this word. In the New Testament world, a proselyte was simply a convert to Judaism (the word literally means “one who has arrived”). Nicolas, one of the seven deacons in Acts 6, was said to have been a proselyte. Today, however, in all quarters, the word has an undeniably negative tone. The verb “to proselytise”, and the noun “proselytism”, are generally used to refer to overt efforts to gain a convert from one creed or faith to another. Most people agree that proselytism is something to be condemned.

But even here we need to be careful. In condemning proselytism, are we not condemning any desire and any action aimed at converting others to the Catholic faith? For instance, I overtly desire my good friend Pastor Fraser Pearce of the Lutheran Church, who is giving next week’s address here at Caroline Chisholm Library, to convert to the Catholic faith. Is my desire unethical or sinful? If not, does it become so if I actually put my desires into action and try to convince him of the truth of the Catholic faith? In fact, my desire is no secret to Pastor Pearce. He knows my own joy in my Catholic faith and good-naturedly accepts my desire to share it with him on most occasions. I cite this example only for the ethical questions it raises.

It is my belief that there are many who, in rejecting what they believe to be unethical proselytism, have in fact rejected evangelisation itself. I believe that the common objection to the word “evangelism”, defined as “the direct preaching of Jesus Christ”, is a clear symptom of this, because ultimately, as we shall see, the evangelising mission of the church must include such a direct proclamation.

And so we come to the point at issue. Evangelisation is a command of our Lord to the Church. We do not have the option to evangelise or not to evangelise. Jesus Christ himself commanded his apostles to “Go and make disciples of all nations” and that command remains foundational to the apostolic nature of the Christian Church. On the other hand, proselytism, is a sin–at least it is if proselytism is understood in its usual modern sense of seeking to gain converts by unethical means.

In this paper then, I seek to distinguish evangelisation (and evangelism, for that matter) from proselytism, and to clarify the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church regarding this distinction. In so doing I hope to combat two common errors: on the one hand, a lack of zeal for carrying out the Lord’s command to proclaim the Gospel to all nations; and on the other hand, the use of unjustifiably unethical means to obtain the positive and justifiable end of conversion to the true faith of the Church. Between these two missiological errors we will find the true and faithful understanding of the evangelising mission of the church.

A new world view

To understand how we got where we are today, we need to go back to before the Second Vatican Council–not all that long ago really. Up until the Council, one doctrine was central to all Catholic missiology: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). This doctrine was defined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and held sway over the next 8 centuries. It is important to note that as a definition of an ecumenical council, it remains in force today. However, today, as we shall see, it is interpreted in a new way.

It is important to remember that this doctrine was defined in a specific historical context. It came out of a European society that was monolithically Catholic; in which those who did not hold the Catholic faith were regarded just as much as the enemies of the state as of the church. It came out a society which knew nothing of “rights”–a concept that was only to be developed 500 years later. Even as the concept of rights began to gain ascendancy in the 18th and 19th centuries, still many within the Church held that “falsehood had no rights”. On the one hand, these were centuries of unprecedented mission work, as the European voyages of discovery opened up new lands and nations. The Church felt the positive burden to bring the Gospel to these new tribes who would otherwise be condemned to hell. On the other hand, in their zeal for conversions, they often utilised methods of evangelisation that were clearly unethical, believing that the end justified the means.

But the world changed, and eventually the Church changed too. In November 1964, the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio). In two strokes, without changing the letter of the teaching that “outside the Church there is no salvation”, the Council Fathers completely changed the context within which this doctrine was to be interpreted. Then, a year later, they did it again, when they issued the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes), the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) and the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).

Here, briefly, are the headlines:

From Lumen Gentium (16):

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

From Unitatis Redintegratio (3):

…The separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.

From Gaudium et Spes (22):

All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.

From Ad Gentes (13):

The Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles. By the same token, she also strongly insists on this right, that no one be frightened away from the Faith by unjust vexations on the part of others. In accord with the Church’s ancient custom, the convert’s motives should be looked into, and if necessary, purified.

From Nostra Aetate (2):

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

And finally, from Dignitatis Humanae (2, 10):

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits…

In fact, it is worth quoting again from Dignitatis Humanae (4):

…In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonourable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.

And again (10):

It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. …. It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded.

You can see from all this, that we are now in what appears to be radically different territory. Opponents of Vatican II to this day find in these statements indications of the apostasy of the modern Catholic Church. Seemingly contrary to the centuries that have gone before, the Catholic Church now teaches that those outside its visible structures, both Christian and non-Christian, can and do have access to God’s salvation. Furthermore it states that the beliefs of other Christians and other faiths are far from being without value or wholly evil. In fact, goodness and truth may be found there as well as within the Church. And finally, in matters of faith, all must be free to follow their conscience, even if they chose to believe what the Church regards as false.

It is clear that the Council intended to condemn any attempt to “allure”, “entice” or “coerce” another into changing their faith “by worrisome wiles”. Not only should “the convert’s motives…be looked into”, but also and more especially the motives of the proselytiser.

It should be noted however that, in these “headlines”, I have quoted the Council’s documents selectively. There is much, much more to be said. It is true that statements such as these have left many people wondering “Why then should we bother about evangelising?” The truth is that, even while condemning proselytism, the Council was at pains to make the duty of evangelisation quite clear, and in fact Vatican II represented the beginnings of an era of “new evangelisation” in the Catholic Church. For instance, there is no way that anyone reading the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes) could possibly think that the Catholic Church has reneged on its obligation to evangelise, or decided to “soft-peddle” the faith. Yet only ten years later, in 1975, Pope Paul VI found it necessary to issue a new Apostolic Exhortation regarding the necessity of Evangelisation, Evangelii Nuntiandi. In our own time, Pope John Paul II has simultaneously championed ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and called the faithful to embark upon new and vigorous efforts to bring the Gospel to every human being.

A call to the new evangelisation

Immediately after the Council had declared, in Lumen Gentium, that “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace [yet] strive to live a good life” were not without the “helps necessary for salvation”, it went on to declare:

But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain…or…are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG 16)

The main message of the Decree Ad Gentes, is along the same lines:

This missionary activity derives its reason from the will of God, “who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:45), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. For Christ Himself “by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.” Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity. (AG 7)

Here we can see quite clearly that the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus is still in force, though with the nuance that only those who remain outside the Church “aware the God…founded [it] as something necessary”, are truly culpable. Evangelistic activity continues to be encouraged none-the-less, not because the unbeliever may be condemned to hellfire (which remains a possibility), but because it is a “sacred duty” commanded by God who wishes all men to come to the knowledge of truth and thus be saved.

Still the clearest enunciation of the necessity of carrying out the evangelising mission of the came with the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, released on the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Council. Perhaps he sensed that the “uncertainty and confusion” (EN 1) of his time had also begun to affect the Church’s zeal for the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, in this encyclical, Paul VI sums up the entire purpose of the Council “to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century” (EN 2). Evangelii Nuntiandi begins with three questions which are very relevant to our topic today:

In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience? To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century? What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect? (EN 4)

In answer to these questions, Pope Paul VI proposed “a fresh forward impulse, capable of creating within a Church still more firmly rooted in the undying power and strength of Pentecost a new period of evangelisation” (EN 2).

And so the term “new evangelisation” was popularised. Paul VI went on to place in concrete several important observations regarding this new evangelisation. First he attempted a broadening definition of evangelism. In EN 8, he states that “for the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new.” Later commentators have picked up this definition and broadened it even more, looking at all the activities of the Church that contribute to this transformation of the world. The most comprehensive definition so far issued is from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, in their document “Dialogue and Proclamation.” There they define evangelisation as…

Definition of evangelisation in Dialogue and Proclamation

Perhaps this is what has Cardinal Kasper to remark recently:

In strictly theological terminology, evangelisation is a very complex and overall term, and reality. It implies presence and witness, prayer and liturgy, proclamation and catechesis, dialogue and social work. Now, presence and witness, prayer and liturgy, dialogue and social work, which are all part of evangelisation, do not have the goal of increasing the number of Catholics. Thus evangelisation, if understood in its proper and theological meaning, does not imply any attempt of proselytism whatsoever.[5]

He is correct, but no matter how broadly we might define the evangelising mission of the Church, Paul VI reminds us in Evangelii Nuntiandi that lived witness without clear proclamation

always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed. (EN 22)

This does not mean that Paul VI condoned proselytism. In a well argued passage that deserves quoting at length, he taught that it would be

an error to impose something on the consciences of our brethren. But to propose to their consciences the truth of the Gospel and salvation in Jesus Christ, with complete clarity and with a total respect for the free options which it presents- “without coercion, or dishonourable or unworthy pressure” – far from being an attack on religious liberty is fully to respect that liberty, which is offered the choice of a way that even non-believers consider noble and uplifting. Is it then a crime against others’ freedom to proclaim with joy a Good News which one has come to know through the Lord’s mercy? And why should only falsehood and error, debasement and pornography have the right to be put before people and often unfortunately imposed on them by the destructive propaganda of the mass media, by the tolerance of legislation, the timidity of the good and the impudence of the wicked? The respectful presentation of Christ and His kingdom is more than the evangeliser’s right; it is his duty. It is likewise the right of his fellow men to receive from him the proclamation of the Good News of salvation. God can accomplish this salvation in whomsoever He wishes by ways which He alone knows. And yet, if His Son came, it was precisely in order to reveal to us, by His word and by His life, the ordinary paths of salvation. And He has commanded us to transmit this revelation to others with His own authority. It would be useful if every Christian and every evangeliser were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them; but as for us, can we gain salvation if through negligence or fear or shame- what St. Paul called “blushing for the Gospel” – or as a result of false ideas we fail to preach it? For that would be to betray the call of God, who wishes the seed to bear fruit through the voice of the ministers of the Gospel; and it will depend on us whether this grows into trees and produces its full fruit. (EN 80)

Pope John Paul II

Twenty-five years after the conclusion of the Council and the publication of the Decree on Missionary Activity Ad Gentes, fifteen years after the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi issued by Pope Paul VI, and in continuity with the magisterial teaching of my predecessors,2 I wish to invite the Church to renew her missionary commitment. The present document has as its goal an interior renewal of faith and Christian life. For missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others! It is in commitment to the Church’s universal mission that the new evangelization of Christian peoples will find inspiration and support.

God is opening before the Church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel. I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples.

(Redemptoris missio On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate Ioannes Paulus PP. II 1990.12.07)

Much more recently, Pope John Paul II has repeated urged bishops throughout the world not to give up the evangelising mission of the church. Here two examples will suffice. First to the bishops of India:

“Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Christ’s parting words to his disciples are both an invitation and a challenge to go forth and proclaim the Good News. Understood in this way, evangelization is a charge in which all the members of the Church share by virtue of their baptism. Therefore, all the baptized “should everywhere on earth bear witness to Christ and give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs” (“Lumen Gentium,” 10). How unfortunate it is then that even today in many places in India unnecessary obstacles still impede the preaching of the Gospel. Citizens of a modern democracy should not suffer because of their religious convictions. Nor should anyone feel compelled to hide his or her religion in order to enjoy fundamental human rights, such as education and employment.

Intimately related to the Church’s efforts for evangelization is a true and profound respect for culture… Bishops, it is your obligation to ensure that interreligious dialogue continues. However, while engaging in this mutual exchange, you must never allow it to be influenced by religious indifferentism. It is vital that Christ’s call to discipleship be preached and lived with conviction by every Christian.

And the Pope’s address to the Australian Bishops.

Pope John Paul’s address to the Australian Bishops 26 March 2004

4. Intimately linked to the liturgy is the Church’s mission to evangelize. While the liturgical renewal, ardently desired by the Second Vatican Council, has rightly resulted in a more active and conscious participation of the faithful in the tasks proper to them, such involvement must not become an end in itself. The “purpose of being with Jesus is to go forth from Jesus, in his power and with his grace” (“Ecclesia in Oceania,” 3).

It is precisely this dynamic that the Prayer after Communion and the Concluding Rite of the Mass articulate (cf. “Dies Domini,” 45). Sent by the Lord himself into the vineyard — the home, the workplace, schools, civic organizations — disciples of Christ find no room for “standing idle in the marketplace” (Matthew 20:3) nor can they be so deeply immersed in the internal organization of parish life, that they are distracted from the command to evangelize others actively (cf. “Christifideles Laici,” 2). Renewed by the strength of the Risen Lord and his Spirit, Christ’s followers must return to their “vineyard” burning with a desire to “speak” of Christ and to “show” him to the world (cf. “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” 16).

The need of a new evangelizationOn the threshold of the new Millennium, we rightly speak of the need for a new evangelization: new in method, but always the same with regard to the truths it proclaims. The new evangelization is an immense task: universal in its content and destination, it must take on new and diverse forms, adapting to the needs of different places. How can we not sense the need of God’s help to sustain our weakness and limitations? (John Paul II, Homily at Znjan esplanade, Croatia, 4-10-1998. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/cultr/documents/rc_pc_cultr_06031999_doc_i-1999-doc_en.html)


VATICAN CITY, FEB 6, 2004 (VIS) – The Holy Father today received Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the participants in the biennial plenary assembly of the congregation. He noted that it is their “delicate duty to promote and defend the truth of the Catholic faith in service to the Magisterium of the Successor of Peter, . the Supreme Pastor,” and for this reason their mission is eminently pastoral.

“Today’s cultural context,” affirmed the Pope, “which is marked by both a widespread relativism and the tendency to a facile pragmaticism, demands more than ever a courageous proclamation of the truth that saves man and a renewed evangelizing impetus.” He added that “full adherence to the Catholic truth does not diminish, but rather exalts human freedom and draws it towards its fulfillment, in a love that is free and filled with concern for the good of all men.”


VATICAN CITY, APR 1, 2004 (VIS) – Pope John Paul’s general intention for the month of April is: “That solid preparation of the candidates for holy orders and permanent training of ordained ministers may be carefully provided for.”

  His missionary intention is: “That the missionary spirit of ‘ad gentes’ may become a theme of reflection and a matter of constant commitment in the ordinary pastoral activity of the Christian community.”

The continued rejection of proselytisation

For anyone who searches, therefore, there is no lack of affirmation of the Church’s obligation to evangelise the world in the witness of the Magisterium. It is necessary however, to make clear not only what the Church requires of the faithful, but also what it forbids. And so, alongside the regular affirmation of evangelisation, we can also find a consistent rejection of anything that smells of proselytism.

Manipulation or base proselytism, at times practiced in the media, is incompatible with the ecumenical task and with the spirit of inter-religious cooperation, as the Word of God indicates and as the decisions of ecclesiastical authorities affirm. (CRITERIA FOR ECUMENICAL AND INTER-RELIGIOUS COOPERATION IN COMMUNICATIONS (4), Pontifical Council for Social Communications)

(82) Statements about proselytism can be found in the following:

In this spirit Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I together stated clearly: “We reject every form of proselytism, every attitude which would be or could be perceived to be a lack of respect” (December 7th, 1987).

This touches the problem of mission towards Jews, a painful question with regard to forced conversion in the past. Dominus Jesus, as other official documents, raises this question again by saying that dialogue is a part of evangelisation. This affirmation stirred Jewish suspicion. But this is a linguistic problem, since the term evangelisation, in official church documents, cannot be understood in the same way as it is commonly interpreted in everyday speech. In strictly theological terminology, evangelisation is a very complex and overall term, and reality. It implies presence and witness, prayer and liturgy, proclamation and catechesis, dialogue and social work. Now, presence and witness, prayer and liturgy, dialogue and social work, which are all part of evangelisation, do not have the goal of increasing the number of Catholics. Thus evangelisation, if understood in its proper and theological meaning, does not imply any attempt of proselytism whatsoever. (JERUSALEM, 19-23 NOVEMBER, 2001 PRESENTATION BY CARD. WALTER KASPER The Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Foundations, Progress, Difficulties and Perspectives http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/card-kasper-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20011123_kasper-jews-christians_en.html)

In the name of this charity, we reject all forms of proselytism, in the sense of acts by which persons seek to disturb each other’s communities by recruiting new members from each other through methods, or because of attitudes of mind, which are opposed to the exigencies of Christian love or to what should characterize the relationships between Churches. Let it cease, where it may exist. Catholics and Orthodox should strive to deepen charity and cultivate mutual consultation, reflection and cooperation in the social and intellectual fields and should humble themselves before God, supplicating Him who, as He has begun this work in us, will bring it to fruition. (COMMON DECLARATION OF POPE PAUL VI AND OF THE POPE OF ALEXANDRIA SHENOUDA III Tower of St. John in the Vatican gardens From the Vatican, May 10, 1973. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/anc-orient-ch-docs/rc_pc_christuni_doc_19730510_copti_en.html).

Since the beginning of Christianity it has been strictly forbidden to christen anybody against their will. This implies also the exclusion of material promises and gifts as a means of mission. Mission also excludes proselytism. The Christian faith is according to its inner nature only possible as a free act. In this perspective mission, properly understood, is also a dialogic process leading to mutual exchange and enrichment. (27 Feb 2003, REFLECTIONS BY CARD. WALTER KASPER Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/card-kasper-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20030227_ecumenical-dialogue_en.html)

73. The proselytizing activity of the sects and new religious groups in many parts of America is a grave hindrance to the work of evangelization. The word “proselytism” has a negative meaning when it indicates a way of winning followers which does not respect the freedom of those to whom a specific kind of religious propaganda is directed (Cf. Instrumentum laboris, 45). The Catholic Church in America is critical of proselytism by the sects and, for this reason, rejects methods of this kind in her own evangelizing work. Presenting the Gospel of Christ in its entirety, the work of evangelization must respect the inner sanctuary of every individual’s conscience, where the decisive and absolutely personal dialogue between grace and human freedom unfolds. (

73. The proselytizing activity of the sects and new religious groups in many parts of America is a grave hindrance to the work of evangelization. The word “proselytism” has a negative meaning when it indicates a way of winning followers which does not respect the freedom of those to whom a specific kind of religious propaganda is directed (Cf. Instrumentum laboris, 45). The Catholic Church in America is critical of proselytism by the sects and, for this reason, rejects methods of this kind in her own evangelizing work. Presenting the Gospel of Christ in its entirety, the work of evangelization must respect the inner sanctuary of every individual’s conscience, where the decisive and absolutely personal dialogue between grace and human freedom unfolds. […] (John Paul II, Post-synodale Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in America”, 22-1-1999, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/cultr/documents/rc_pc_cultr_06031999_doc_i-1999-doc_en.html)

A second consequence is the rejection of all undue forms of proselytism, with the avoidance in the most absolute way in pastoral action of any temptation to violence and any form of pressure. At the same time, pastoral action will not fail to respect the freedom of conscience and the right which each individual has to join, if he wishes, the Catholic Church. In brief, it is a matter of respecting the action of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth (cf. Jn 16:13). The Council’s Decree on Ecumenism stated this and gave the reason thus: “it is evident that the work of preparing and reconciling those individuals who wish for full Catholic communion is of its nature distinct from ecumenical action. But there is no opposition between the two, since both proceed from the wondrous providence of God” (Unitatis redintegratio, 4). (Pope John Paul II, LETTER TO EUROPEAN BISHOPS ON THE RECENT CHANGES IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE, From the Vatican, 31 May 1991 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_19910531_relationships-catholics-orthodox_en.html)

Even today much remains to be done to overcome religious intolerance, which in different parts of the world is closely connected with the oppression of minorities. Unfortunately, we are still witnessing attempts to impose a particular religious idea on others, either directly, by a proselytism which relies on means which are truly coercive, or indirectly, by the denial of certain civil or political rights. (Pope John Paul II, MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS  POPE JOHN PAUL II  FOR THE XXIV WORLD DAY OF PEACE “IF YOU WANT PEACE, RESPECT THE CONSCIENCE OF EVERY PERSON” 1 January 1991 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_08121990_xxiv-world-day-for-peace_en.html)

7. The presence of non-Christian immigrants in countries of ancient Christianity represents a challenge to the Church communities.  The phenomenon continues to activate charity in the Church, in terms of welcome and aid for these brothers and sisters in their search for work and housing. Somehow, this action is quite similar to what many missionaries are doing in mission lands. They take care of the sick, the poor, the illiterate. This is the disciple’s way: he responds to the expectations and necessities of the neighbor in need, although the fundamental aim of his mission is the proclamation of Christ and his Gospel. He knows that the proclamation of Jesus is the first act of charity towards the human person, over and above any gesture of solidarity, however generous it may be. There is no true evangelization, in fact, “if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.” Ap. Exhort. Evangelii nuntiandi, 22). Sometimes, due to an environment dominated by growing religious relativism and indifferentism, it is difficult for the spiritual dimension of charitable undertakings to emerge. Some people fear that doing charity in view of evangelization could expose them to the accusation of proselytism. Proclaiming and bearing witness to the Gospel of charity constitutes the connective tissue of the mission towards migrants (cfr. Ap. Lett. Novo millennio ineunte, 56). (MESSAGE OF THE HOLY FATHER FOR THE 87th WORLD DAY OF MIGRATION 2001, 2 February 2001 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/migration/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_20010213_world-migration-day-2001_en.html)


20. The Church in Asia is all the more eager for the task of proclamation knowing that “through the working of the Spirit, there already exists in individuals and peoples an expectation, even if an unconscious one, of knowing the truth about God, about man, and about how we are to be set free from sin and death”.68 This insistence on proclamation is prompted not by sectarian impulse nor the spirit of proselytism nor any sense of superiority. The Church evangelizes in obedience to Christ’s command, in the knowledge that every person has the right to hear the Good News of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ.69 To bear witness to Jesus Christ is the supreme service which the Church can offer to the peoples of Asia, for it responds to their profound longing for the Absolute, and it unveils the truths and values which will ensure their integral human development. (POST-SYNODAL APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION ECCLESIA IN ASIA OF THE HOLY FATHER JOHN PAUL II TO THE BISHOPS, PRIESTS AND DEACONS, MEN AND WOMEN IN THE CONSECRATED LIFE AND ALL THE LAY FAITHFUL ON JESUS CHRIST THE SAVIOUR AND HIS MISSION OF LOVE AND SERVICE IN ASIA: “…THAT THEY MAY HAVE LIFE, AND HAVE IT ABUNDANTLY” (Jn 10:10), sixth day of November in the year 1999, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_06111999_ecclesia-in-asia_en.html)

Allow me to add another observation. When we consider the vast number of migrants of other religions we meet, we cannot avoid the world of inter-religious dialogue and the discovery and appreciation of other religions, their values and spiritualities. That leads us to justly put emphasis on sensitivity for the convictions of such migrants, thus avoiding anything that gives the impression of proselytism or of taking advantage of people in vulnerable situations, on respectful dialogue, and on the witness of charity. All of this is correct and, in fact, obligatory for us. At the same time, we also touch a dimension of our identity as Church, which exists to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Our just concerns can sometimes block us in carrying out this mission, which is not an option among others in the Church. Here, too, we need to constantly reflect and look for ways of respectfully giving an account of the hope that is in us (see 1 Peter 3:15), not simply in the sense of sharing “common values” but rendering explicit testimony on how the love of Christ, the Living and Risen One, urges us to be among migrants and refugees. The Holy Spirit does the rest in his own mysterious time and ways. (Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, People on the Move – N° 90,   December 2002, p. 77-83. Migrants and Refugees in the World* H. E. Archbishop Stephen Fumio HAMAO, President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/migrants/pom2002_90/rc_pc_migrants_pom90_hamao.html)

Interreligious dialogue “remains oriented towards proclamation” and “cannot simply replace proclamation.”[6][21] Announcing the gospel and evangelizing activities are constitutive of the People of God. Good news is not to be kept under a basket. The means to be used require discernment, but the difficulty of the task cannot discourage us from it. That is not, of course, an invitation to proselytism or backtracking on what was said above about inter-religious dialogue. There are ways of respectfully and lovingly sharing the “wonderful works of the Lord” in one’s own community and personal life and letting the Spirit of the Lord do the rest. (Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, People on the Move – N° 90,  December 2002, p. 113-127, Towards an Ecclesiology of Migration* Rev. Fr. Michael A. BLUME, S.V.D., Undersecretary, Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrations and Itinerant People, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/migrants/pom2002_90/rc_pc_migrants_pom90_Blume_Ecclesiology.html )

            Specific attention should be given the realities found in different regions. The presence of the Catholic Church amongst other beliefs and religions is also intended to be a sign. It is clearly a double challenge: on one hand, the necessity to give signs of charity, because this is part of the ecclesiastical mission; on the other hand is the risk that such signs are considered as proselytism on the part of the Catholic Church. The Church cannot but fully live her conviction of faith. The help which she gives does not recognize ethnic or religious differences. The charitable sector therefore opens up a fraternal and sincere collaboration. The Catholic Church, with her works of charity makes visible, also in the social fabric, the salvation which Christ has won for us. ( DIAKONIA  IN  SOME  COUNTRIES  BETWEEN  EUROPE  AND  ASIA From 2-5 July 1998, a meeting was held in the Vatican at Domus Santæ Marthæ organized by the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”.  The meeting, entitled “THE CHURCH FOR THE SALVATION OF HUMANITY:  DIAKONIA IN SOME APOSTOLIC ADMINISTRATIONS AND SUI IURIS MISSIONS IN EUROPE AND ASIA” focussed on the charitable activity of the Catholic Church in these territories. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/corunum/documents/rc_pc_corunum_doc_07021998_Attivita_Incontri_Diakonia_en.html)

As the Church believes and has taught repeatedly, “The Church evangelizes in obedience to Christ’s command, in the knowledge that every person has the right to hear the Good News of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ. To bear witness to Jesus Christ is the supreme service which the Church can offer to the peoples of Asia, for it responds to their profound longing for the Absolute, and it unveils the truths and values which will ensure their integral human development” [EA n. 20; cf. RM 46]. To accuse the Church of violence or of a fanatical spirit of proselytism is completely false. “The Church proposes, she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures and she honours the sanctuary of conscience” [RM n. 39]. At the same time she considers it an act of freedom and a fundamental human right to be able to change one’s opinion, even when dealing with religious matters. Therefore, the Church cannot renounce this right, this duty to proclaim the Gospel through the witness of life, through dialogue, through preaching and through an inculturated evangelization etc… We stand in awe and respect of those many Christians of different confessions who brought the witness of their faith even to being martyred, and to those who, even today, suffer discrimination because of their faith. (NATIONAL ASSEMBLY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN INDIA (BANGALORE, 20-24 SEPTEMBER 2000) GREETING OF CARD. JOZEF TOMKO Wednesday 20 September 2000 http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cevang/documents/rc_con_cevang_doc_20000920_card-tomko-greeting_en.html)

Source documents:



Second Vatican Council

Ad Gentes

Nostra Aetate

Dignitatis Humane

Lumen Gentium

Unitatis Redintegratio

Guadium et Spes

Pope Paul VI

Evangelii Nuntiandi

Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Shenouda III, Common Declaration (May 10, 1973)

Pope John Paul II

Address to the Australian Bishops (26 March 2004) http://www.acbc.catholic.org.au/ad_limina_2004/0329_address.htm

World Council of Churches

“Common Witness and Proselytism: A Study Document” Appendix II of the Third Official Report of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches 1970. http://www.prounione.urbe.it/dia-int/jwg/doc/e_jwg-n3_06.html

The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness (1999) http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/ecumenical/jwgpr-e.html

Dialogue Documents

“Proselytism, Evangelization, and Common Witness, The Report from the Fourth Phase of International Dialogue [1990-1997] between the Roman Catholic Church and some Classical Pentecostal Churches and Leaders” http://www.pctii.org/cyberj/cyberj4/rcpent97.html

The Baptist-Roman Catholic International Conversations, 1984-1988, “Summons to Witness to Christ in Today’s World: A Report on the Baptist-Roman Catholic International Conversations”, IS n. 72, 1990 I, pp. 5-14, esp. 9-10

The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, 1977-1984, “A Report”, IS n. 60, 1986 I-II, pp. 70-97, esp. 95-96

Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion”, IS n.83, 1993 II, pp. 95-99


“A draft report of the committee for mission to the Archbishop of Melbourne” (September 2003) http://www.melbourne.catholic.org.au/committee%20for%20mission%20draft%20report.pdf

Borchard, Therese. “Faith and my friendship with non-Christians” (The Catholic Weekly Online 14 September 2003) http://www.catholicweekly.com.au/03/sep/14/13.html

Boys, Mary C. et al. “Theology’s sacred obligation: a reply to Cardinal Dulles” (America, Oct. 14, 2002) http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/articles/BoysCunnPaw.htm

Dulles, Avery. “Covenant and Mission” (America, Oct. 14, 2002) http://www.sfarchdiocese.org/dulles.html

Dulles, Avery. “Ecumenism and Evangelization” (Origins 33:23, 13th Nov 2003)

Federici, Tommaso. “Study outline on the Mission and Witness of the Church”


Fitzgerald, Michael. “Evangelisation and Interreligious Dialogue” (Origins 33:23, 13th Nov 2003) http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/articles/fitzgerald_Oct03.htm

Karkkainen, Veli-Matti. “Proselytism and Church Relations” (The Ecumenical Review, July 2000) http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m2065/3_52/66279078/print.jhtml

Proselytism, indoctrination or evangelism (RESource Website of the CEO Melbourne http://resource.melb.catholic.edu.au/religion/broad.html

Dominus Iesus

2.  In the course of the centuries, the Church has proclaimed and witnessed with fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus. At the close of the second millennium, however, this mission is still far from complete.2 For that reason, Saint Paul’s words are now more relevant than ever: “Preaching the Gospel is not a reason for me to boast; it is a necessity laid on me: woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). This explains the Magisterium’s particular attention to giving reasons for and supporting the evangelizing mission of the Church, above all in connection with the religious traditions of the world.3

In considering the values which these religions witness to and offer humanity, with an open and positive approach, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions states: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”.4 Continuing in this line of thought, the Church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), today also makes use of the practice of inter-religious dialogue. Such dialogue certainly does not replace, but rather accompanies the missio ad gentes, directed toward that “mystery of unity”, from which “it follows that all men and women who are saved share, though differently, in the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ through his Spirit”.5 Inter-religious dialogue, which is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission,6 requires an attitude of understanding and a relationship of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment, in obedience to the truth and with respect for freedom.7

(3) Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad gentes and Declaration Nostra aetate; cf. also Paul VI Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi: AAS 68 (1976), 5-76; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio.

(4) Second Vatican Council, Declaration Nostra aetate, 2.

(5) Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Instruction Dialogue and Proclamation, 29: AAS 84 (1992), 424; cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 22.

(6) Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, 55: AAS 83 (1991), 302-304.

(7) Cf. Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Instruction Dialogue and Proclamation, 9: AAS 84 (1992), 417ff.

22. … In inter-religious dialogue as well, the mission ad gentes “today as always retains its full force and necessity”.95  “Indeed, God ‘desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim 2:4); that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary”.96 Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes.97 Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions. Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom,98 must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish, but rather increases the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

(95) Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad gentes, 7.

(96) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 851; cf. also 849-856.

(97) Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio, 55; Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, 31.

(98) Cf. Second Vatican Council, Declaration Dignitatis humanae, 1.

17. As the Son was sent by the Father,(131) so He too sent the Apostles, saying: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world”.(132) The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth.(133) Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel”,(134) and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the Gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves continue the work of evangelizing. For the Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God’s plan may be fully realized, whereby He has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith. She gives them the dispositions necessary for baptism, snatches them from the slavery of error and of idols and incorporates them in Christ so that through charity they may grow up into full maturity in Christ. Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil and the happiness of man. The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state.(21*) Although, however, all the faithful can baptize, the priest alone can complete the building up of the Body in the eucharistic sacrifice. Thus are fulfilled the words of God, spoken through His prophet: “From the rising of the sun until the going down thereof my name is great among the gentiles, and in every place a clean oblation is sacrificed and offered up in my name”.(135)(22*) In this way the Church both prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in Christ, the Head of all, all honor and glory may be rendered to the Creator and Father of the Universe.

35. … Just as the sacraments of the New Law, by which the life and the apostolate of the faithful are nourished, prefigure a new heaven and a new earth,(204) so too the laity go forth as powerful proclaimers of a faith in things to be hoped for,(205) when they courageously join to their profession of faith a life springing from faith. This evangelization, that is, this announcing of Christ by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world.

[1] http://www.osb.org/icbe/worth/talks/purpose.htm

[3] Cardinal Kasper has written that the current ecumenical situation requires an ‘“ethos” involving renunciation of all kinds of open or hidden proselytism’ (Present Situation and Future of the Ecumenical Movement, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20011117_kasper-prolusio_en.html)

[4] I actually like to use the word “proselytisation” just to confuse things a little more!

[5] (JERUSALEM, 19-23 NOVEMBER, 2001 PRESENTATION BY CARD. WALTER KASPER The Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Foundations, Progress, Difficulties and Perspectives http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/card-kasper-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20011123_kasper-jews-christians_en.html)




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