Catholic / Orthodox Relations
An Inquiry into the Russian Orthodox Concept of Proselytism
Many people in the Orthodox Church feel that Catholics in Russia are guilty of Proselythism; Catholics, however, reject such a claim. This controversy seemingly continues, because the word 'proselythism' is understood quite differently by the two traditions. The logical development of the Orthodox understanding is challenging to Russian theologians.

Since the opening up of the Soviet Union and the constitutional recognition of freedom of conscience and of religion in the period of the early nineties, Russia has experienced an increase in religious activity by the Orthodox Church as well as by many other religious denominations and sects, be they of Christian or non-Christian origin. One of the consequences of this increase of religious activity and of diverging religious groups has been the conversion to these non-Russian religious groups or congregations of ethnic Russians, as well as of other traditionally-historically Orthodox ethnics. Similar in many ways to the Catholic Church in Latin America, the Russian Orthodox Church feels wounded by the loss of many of her members and potential members to these other denominations which are foreign in their origins.

The Russian Orthodox Church has so far responded to this challenge by

1. Condemning the religious activities of these other denominations as a proselytist invasion of Russian Canonical Territory.

2. Seeking to control their activities and even existence through the Russian juridical system.

The Catholic Church in Russia falls also under the Russian Orthodox censure concerning proselytism. In order to appreciate the problematic which the Catholic Church is faced with in this aspect of her relations with Orthodoxy, an analysis of the concept of 'proselytism' and other connected conceptions might serve as a step in resolving some of the related confusion and ambiguity.

Equivocal meaning

In comparison to the Orthodox, the Catholic understanding of the word 'proselytism' tends to have a restricted meaning, usually signifying the luring or seducing of a person to a religion or a faith through money or other material goods.

The Orthodox use of the word in recent years tends to signify actively or passively encouraging baptized or un-baptized Russians, all of whom are held to be part of the flock entrusted to the Russian Church by God's providence to join another religion, denomination or sect. This active or passive encouragement or acceptance seems to signify any activity which does not go to the point of discouraging or not accepting ethnic Russians or traditionally Orthodox ethnics into non-Orthodox faiths.

Logical extension of Orthodox meaning

The word 'proselytism' as understood in Orthodox circles, must however be more universal in its application than its usage within the Russian situation. Consequently, Russian Orthodoxy is forced into giving one of two definitions to the concept of 'proselytism' as they generally use it:

1. Proselytism is the active or passive encouraging of members of a certain ethnic or national group to join a religion / denomination / sect which is neither traditional or historical to that ethnic group or nationality.

2. Proselytism is the active or passive encouraging of individuals (or groups) to join a particular religion / denomination / sect, whether such individuals (or groups) can be considered members of another religious group or not.

While the Catholic use of the word 'proselytism' carries with it a very negative tone, the Orthodox use demands a neutral evaluation of the concept in question.

It would seem that the Russian Orthodox use corresponds largely to the western notion of 'mission' or 'evangelization' of non-believers or of heterodox-believers. Accordingly, when the Orthodox Church seeks to convert people to Christianity it is itself engaging in a positive form of 'proselytism'. However, due to the defensive nature of the use of the word 'proselytism' by the Orthodox Church in recent years, it is unlikely that the logical implications of that use can be estimated neutrally.

Note On the ground level the differences in usage of or at least of understanding the concept 'proselytism' has led to a certain amount of difficulty in the area of Catholic-Orthodox relations: Orthodox accuse Catholics of proselytism (passively or actively encouraging previously baptized Orthodox or unbaptized Russian ethnics to become Catholic, and a subsequent accepting of them into the Catholic Church). Catholics deny being 'proselytist' (luring or seducing people to become Catholic through financial and material benefits). While the same word is used by both sides of a polemical situation, the signification has a radical difference. A dangerous consequence of this confusion that arises at times is a building-up of feelings of mistrust, accusations of dishonesty, a sense of being attacked, etc.

Encouraging an Orthodox clarification of 'proselytism'

One of the major difficulties with the Orthodox use of the word 'proselytism' is that it tends to be rather weak. Its usage and its comprehension generally lacks the various and necessary distinctions which can have serious theological implications. One of the challenges for the Orthodox Church and for its intellectuals is to distinguish between the various types and means of what is refered to as 'proselytism' (and which the Catholic mind might refer to as mission or evangelization). For instance the difference between luring people to a particular religious denomination

by offering money or material goods

in attracting people through psychological types of propaganda and brain-washing.

by playing on their emotional needs and weaknesses

by frightening them into joining, etc.

ought to be clarified.

A second form of categorization which is necessary regards the type of people who are being lured. Thus, there is both a sociological and a theological difference between

the baptized and

the unbaptized.

Similarly, one can also distinguish very easily among the baptized,

those who do not practice their faith from

those who regularly practice their faith and attend Church services.

A final and probably the most important clarification that ought to be made regards the various groups that are considered to be 'proselytist'. Herein serious moral, theological and ecclesial clarification ought to be made. Thus, 'proselytism' performed by the occult is worse than that performed by Baptists. 'Proselytism' performed by Hare Krishna's is more damaging, theologically speaking, than the equivalent activities of certain Christian groups. Only by making such an analysis will it be possible for Orthodoxy to maturely present its objections to the various forms of 'proselytism' as they express themselves to the Russian Orthodox Church in modern day Russia.

One of the challenges for the Catholic Church therefore, would seem to be, to seek to understand, how her existence and activities in Russia ought to be evaluated by mature and logical Orthodox thought.


One of the difficulties for the Catholic Church in understanding Orthodox admonitions of 'proselytism' is the complicated inter-weaving of this concept with other concepts, other concepts which themselves demonstrate a conflict of method or ecclesial understanding between the Catholic and the Orthodox traditions or points of view. Such areas of conceptual tension would appear to exist between

The Orthodox conception of 'canonical territory' (corresponding to the Catholic understanding,'traditional territory' or 'historical flock') and the Catholic principles of the freedom of conscience and respect for the basic human right of religious freedom (the Orthodox. tend to a philosophy of culturally conditioned religion < possibly corresponding to the Catholic idea of 'Christian inculturization' > as well as in many cases to a theological principle that the Latin Church is the Christian Church of the West as the Russian Orthodox -Byzantine- Church is the Christian Church of Russia. The relations between these Churches ought to be canonically controlled).

A mature evaluation of Orthodox condemnations of 'Catholic proselytism' would seem to require a deep and honest research into what the Orthodox really mean and if there is any ecclesial or ecumenical reasons or justification on their part. However, the Orthodox themselves ought to challenge themselves to explain certain activities of their clergy and members in areas that are traditionally Catholic, or have been evangelized by the Catholic Church.
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