Ignorance of the Catholic faith I can accept. Intentional ignorance and the effort to proselytize Catholics I have no respect for. Simple ignorance is a weakness, a lack of true knowledge that can be addressed through education. Intentional ignorance and proselytizing is a conscious avoidance of the truth and fundamentally a disrespect to the other person which masquerades under the guise of christian care.
You would think that having grown up in East Tennessee and now serving as a priest for fifteen years here I would not even bat an eye at the efforts by some groups to proselytize Catholics (being so used to it) but I am still taken aback whenever I encounter it. I think because it runs so counter to a sense of respect for the other person that is deeply ingrained in the Catholic understanding and because these efforts are so often so blatant and “in your face” as if these groups actually think they are outsmarting and pulling one over on us poor Catholics.
I believe they think they are getting away with it because the Church does not respond in kind to their proselytizing efforts. What they fail to realize is that the Church’s decision to not play the game is not a demonstration of the Church’s obliviousness but rather a demonstration of its true discipleship. The Church is fully aware of what these groups are about but just because they choose these tactics does not mean that we have to. The temptation is certainly there to respond in kind. Like James and John we also might want to call down “fire from heaven” (Lk 9:54) but again and again throughout its teaching and documents on evangelization and mission the Church denounces proselytism and its methods because, at heart, these techniques and the mindset that form their foundation are a denial both of the dignity of the other person and of true christian discipleship.
Below is a list of some of the tactics of proselytism with my own thoughts offered in brackets:
• an unjust criticism and ridicule of Churches and their religious practices; (This might come out in blatant scoffing, promoting a superficial view of the Church as outdated or be expressed through pointed questions asked in “concern” but if one is attentive you quickly realize that the desire to actually listen to and even receive the answers given is lacking. There is no true dialogue if the other is unwilling to listen and possibly even have his or her own perceptions challenged.)
• the use of moral compulsion and psychological pressure through certain publicity techniques in the communications’ media; (Emotion-filled worship services making use of hi-tech gadgetry and advertising methods is a common technique. It should be noted that this was also a favorite method used by the Nazi propaganda machine in Germany. I have a friend who has attended some of these types of services and he describes them as being “an inch wide and an inch deep”. If you ever happen to be in one look around and see if his description is accurate.)
• the explicit or implicit offer to help in areas of education and health as well as in material and financial assistance, as a means to create dependency; (The intention here is key. The help offered is not freely given but it comes with strings attached. Because of these “strings” it is completely legitimate to ask what is the real motive.)
• attitudes and practices which exploit people’s needs, psychological weakness or lack of education, especially in situations of exhaustion and desperation, with no respect for human freedom and dignity. (Any form of manipulation is a denial of human dignity and it has nothing to do with the christian message.)
These points are taken from “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America” (Vatican City, 1997).
What then to do in response? There are some things we can do but, it must be noted, they are all “choices for” and not “decisions against”. Again, we must avoid the temptation of James and John. As Christians we are fundamentally for Christ and the fullness of the gospel rather than being against anything.
Be Church in all its fullness, follow Christ in authentic and mature discipleship and promote a true and full understanding of Sacred Scripture and when encountering proselytizing groups say, “God bless you. Now go away and let me get on with my life. When you are able to enter into true dialogue then we can talk.”
In the end all will be revealed and that which is lacking will be made known.
A further note: As I have continued to reflect on this topic I realized that proselytism and its tactics can be applied not just to certain religious groups but also to certain strains of secularism. Just as there can be religious proselytizers there can also be secular proselytizers, both of which by their tactics deny respect for the other person.