Catholic / Orthodox Relations
What's Wrong with Proselytism?
The complaints of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy suggest a critical misunderstanding of missionary activity
In coming weeks the focus of Catholic reporters' attention will shift eastward, as Pope John Paul II undertakes his historic trip to Ukraine. For the first time, the Pontiff will be traveling inside the geographical orbit of the Russian Orthodox Church: by far the largest of the Eastern churches. And as the Moscow Patriarchate has been reminding the world almost weekly, in a series of steadily more pointed statements, the Pope will be traveling without an invitation from the Ukrainian Orthodox hierarchy.

To be slightly more accurate, the Pope has not been invited by those Orthodox bishops who enjoy the favor of the Moscow Patriarchate. One leading Ukrainian Orthodox prelate, Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, has indicated that he welcomes the Pope's visit. But Filaret broke with Moscow in 1992, after insisting that the Ukrainian Church should be independent of Russian influence. So Patriarch Filaret and his followers have been labeled "schismatic." In the view of the Moscow Patriarchate, the only legitimate Church leaders in Ukraine are those who have Moscow's blessing.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksei II has voiced two complaints against the Roman Church. He resents the vigorous activities of the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church, and he objects to the missionary efforts by Catholic priests in traditionally Orthodox lands. But really those two complaints boil down to a single one. Moscow condemns Catholic "proselytism" within the Orthodox sphere of influence. UNWORTHY ATTITUDES

What's wrong with proselytism? To be sure, the word can carry negative connotations. If some Catholic missionaries are offering material inducements to would-be converts, or subjecting them to any sort of pressure, that is certainly wrong. But if they are merely proclaiming the Gospel--to people who have been starved of the Good News for decades under an atheistic regime--how can any honest Christian object? The Ukrainian and Russian people who are trickling into Catholic parishes are not devout Orthodox believers; if they were happy with their own religious affiliation they would not be tempted to switch. These people are essentially unchurched, and the Catholic Church is their first, best road to salvation.

Should Catholics ignore the spiritual needs of the people in eastern Europe, in order to forestall Orthodox complaints? Should we hide our light under a bushel, because the glare is troublesome to Moscow? Such an attitude would be unworthy of a Christian. We are called to bring the Word of salvation to all people, with or without their leaders' welcome.

In fact, could we not accuse Moscow of engaging in "proselytism," in the negative sense? Isn't the Russian hierarchy seeking to gain adherents--or, in this case, to maintain their Orthodox ties--through political pressure rather than apostolic activity? Regrettably, some Catholic prelates, especially in Latin America, have succumbed to a similar temptation, asking for government efforts to curb the missionary activities of the "sects," rather than meeting the Protestant preachers head-on with the powerful truth of the Catholic faith. The goal of all truly apostolic activity is conversion, not competition. We bring new believers into the Church by bringing them to Christ, through preaching and the sacraments--not by cutting off their opportunities to hear preachers of other faiths. The battle in which we are engaged is not a struggle for jurisdiction but a struggle for souls.


When we lose sight of our own beliefs, we quickly lose confidence in our ability to persuade others. Then missionary work loses its proper focus. Speaking in Rimini, Italy, in 1990, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed: "In the Church today, it seems to me that we are experiencing the temptation--undoubtedly understandable in human terms--to be understood even where there is no faith."

The cardinal then went on to note a second category of mistakes about the nature of the faith: the tendency to see the Church as the arbiter of moral laws, rather than as the path to salvation. He told a press conference at Rimini:

It is also believed that the bridge between the faith of the Church and today's attitudes could be the moral dimension. Everybody, more or less, can see that there is a need for the moral dimension, and so they offer up the Church as a guarantee of morality--as an institution of morality--and they do not have the courage to present the mystery.

The focus of all Catholic evangelizing activity--in Russia, Ukraine, or anywhere else--must be to introduce people to the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ. We are not interested in competing with other religions; we are interested in saving souls. And if some people regard that missionary activity as "proselytism," so be it.
Philip F. Lawler
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