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Evangelism and Freedom in the Catholic Church


Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 340-347


Evangelization and Freedom in the Catholic Church

James LeBar


Twenty years ago October 28, 1965, to be exact the Catholic Bishops of the work in the final section of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated a document that revolutionized the attitude of Catholics toward other religions. Known by its first words in Latin, Nostra Aetate (“In our age”), this document has provided the basis for dialogue and collaboration among the non-Christian religions.

During the year 1985 the Jewish community throughout the world joined with the Catholic Church to mark the anniversary of this document and the progress in understanding and brotherhood that has been achieved over the past twenty years. There were interfaith meetings at the Vatican in the spring and fall, and the Thanksgiving Square Foundation sponsored a symposium in Dallas, Texas, at which the President of the Vatican Secretariat for non-Christians, Francis Cardinal Arinze, was the principal participant. After a day of discussions, a banquet was held during which leaders of seven world religions expressed thanksgiving to God and to the Catholic Church for this document.

Less than two months after the release of Nostra Aetate, on December 7, 1965, this same Vatican Council issued the decrees “Dignitatis Humanae (of Human Dignity) and “Ad Gentes Divinitus” (Divinity Sent to the Nations). The first is usually called the Decree on Religious Liberty and the second is the Decree on Missionary Activity of the Church. These two documents, coupled with Nostra Aetate, provide the schema for missionary activity of the Catholic Church at the present time.

The Founders of the Second Vatican Council could scarcely have known, twenty years ago, how different the missionary scene would be in the 1980”s, with the rise of the cults, gurus, and self-proclaimed messiahs in the United States and other countries. Although fundamentalism did exist at that time, its rapid expansion, often in the form of cult-like groups, could not have been predicted.

In the midst of its own efforts at renewal the Catholic Church experienced both positive and negative reactions to the many changes decreed by the Vatican Council. Many could not understand the new relationship of openness and dialogue with other Christian Churches, with Jewish leaders, and with other non-Christian groups. At the same time that the cults and gurus were increasing their influence, society found itself in a very materialistic period. In reaction to this materialism, many persons began to seek goodness, peace and God; however, they looked outside the framework of the Churches, Catholic and otherwise. They were ripe for the cult leaders and the gurus.

Other enterprising people saw the Bible as a drawing card for followers, and many biblically oriented cultic groups arose. Nevertheless, there were then, and are now, many biblically based churches and other organizations that are not cults, even though they do not resemble traditional churches. Many Catholics have become involved with such groups, and the Church, although concerned about their departure, respects this choice. The Decree on Religious Liberty states:

The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on die part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others. The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known by the revealed word of God and by reason itself.

“This particular idea is repeated in the Decree on Missionary Activity with a different emphasis:

The Church strictly forbids that anyone should be forced to accept the faith, or be induced or enticed by unworthy devices; as it likewise strongly defends the right that no one should be frightened away from the faith by unjust persecutions.

The Church does object, however, when it becomes obvious that many of its members are deceitfully enticed away from the Church of their heritage without the individual person making a conscious, free choice to move to a new religious group.

With the above concepts in mind, let us examine a problem that has become prevalent in the present time: the excessively aggressive missionary activities of some religious groups and the problems they cause for themselves and for other groups who seek to exercise freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

There are many factors to consider whenever one discusses religion and freedom especially in America. Americans are particularly sensitive to their First Amendment freedoms and will tolerate no intrusions in this area. Americans are used to making choices, and they resent any group or individual who places restrictions on their ability to do so. In addition, Americans have developed a sense of fair play and mutual respect even in areas of intense competition. Thus, while we may witness a fierce political campaign, when it is over we all accept the results of the election, and respect and honor are given to the elected officials, even by members of the opposition party. However, when matters of religion and faith are concerned, all these influences converge with a tenacity that defies explanation.

For the Christian, Catholic or otherwise, the impetus for missionary activity comes from the Gospel, from the words of Jesus himself. Sometimes called the “Great Commission,” these three passages are significant:

Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name, penance for the remission of sins is to be preached to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)

Jesus came forward and addressed them in these words: “Full authority has been given me both in heaven and earth; go therefore and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20a)

Then he told them: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation. The man who believes in it and accepts baptism will be saved; the man who refuses to believe in it will be condemned.” (Markl6:15-16)

Concentrating on the early Christians for the moment, we note that the Apostles did follow this Great Commission and saw to it that the Gospel the Good News was proclaimed and preached to the whole world. Ancient secular history attests to the fact that the followers of Jesus, first called Christians at Antioch, were quite enthusiastic about their faith, and as such converted many to this "new way.

In later centuries the Church continued to expand through missionary activity, more formalized and organized than in the days of primitive Christianity. Great men such as SL Patrick in Ireland, Saints Cyril and Methodius in the Slavic lands, and Saint Boniface in Germany appeared on the scene to spearhead missionary efforts. Religious communities were also formed to bring the message of Christ to foreign lands through health care, education, and pastoral care. For the most part, Christianity prospered and spread far and wide.

Opposition to the spread of Christianity was not long in coming, however. The Romans persecuted the Christians, for example, by throwing them to the lions. Later, Islam took a fanatical, warlike position that saw the Moslems and Christians engaged in fierce wars for many years, particularly over the custody of the holy shrines in Jerusalem.

For the most part however, the spread of Christianity and opposition to it operated well within the realm of proper social influence and custom. There were influences, to be sure, sometimes even intimidation, but the causes that influenced decision-making

All this may seem to be a rather long way to the heart of the problems caused by groups which use high-pressure methods to proclaim the Good News. But it is a necessary preamble if one is to understand the dangers in these groups.

It is not difficult to recognize the more prominent cult leaders and their followers. But when a particular group purports to use the Bible as its source of information and authority, and has a leader who is energetic, enthusiastic, and motivating, the true value of the group is more difficult to ascertain.

Today’s society has a large number of self-appointed people who seek to fulfill the Great Commission according to their own designs, without recourse to any higher human authority. Sometimes their enthusiasm slips from proper boundaries and a problem ensues. Many missionary groups have centered their activities on college campuses, and utilize high-pressure tactics to secure recruits. Such methods are quite successful because so many students today lack a basic religious education of whatever faith group and either do not know how to counter the efforts or, perhaps, not having had true religious experiences in the past are open to whatever is suggested. Furthermore, they are not aware of the manipulation of their freedom of choice and their power to evaluate ideas properly.

Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, Archbishop of Chicago, in an address to the opening session of the then newly-founded National Council for Catholic Evangelization on June 12, 1983, defined true evangelization in these words:

So as not to spend all my time explaining what evangelization is not, allow me to make a few positive statements about what I believe it to be. In the Scriptures, Jesus never evangelized through coercion. Rather, he did it by invitation. Jesus evangelized by inviting people to embrace several realities ... all of which are connected and interrelated ..

Let me summarize. Evangelization is always an invitation to the Kingdom to conversion, to discipleship. Jesus evangelized through word and deed. At times, his very presence evangelized. When Jesus evangelized, he offered meaning to people. He joined words and meanings to gestures of healing ... Evangelization is not just a piece of the Church’s educational ministries. It is surely that, but it is much more. It is the integrating force and thrust of all the church’s ministries.

How different this attitude is from groups which thrust the Bible or biblical verses at people so fast that they scarcely have time to think before an answer is required. “Me Catholic Church does indeed recognize the evangelism of other religious groups, and in many instances cooperates to some extent in areas where it is possible. But when any individual or group exceeds the boundaries of proper behavior, the Church is concerned, not because some of its members may be lost, but rather because the recruits for such a group, be they from the Catholic Church or any other Church, have no opportunity to make a free decision in the matter.

To determine whether a particular biblical group is helpful or harmful, several questions need to be addressed.

1. Is excessive pressure put on a recruit to become a member immediately?

2. Are members allowed to evaluate the teaching of the group with other groups, or with their own present church?

3. Are biblical texts used in persuasion quoted accurately and in context?

4. What are the purposes of the group? Can the recruit observe these purposes in action?

5. Who are the leaders of the group and where do they get their guidance, instruction, and leadership responsibility?

6. Regarding the group itself, what category of student is being recruited: the unchurched, the unbeliever, the alienated, the members of other churches?

7. What relationship does the group have with other religious groups on campus, citywide, or nationally? Does it participate in ecumenical activities?

8. How does the particular group regard members of other denominations with regard to salvation?

If, for example, a particular group on a college campus or elsewhere, for that matter -transforms a recruit into a “born-again Christian” overnight, talks against the previous faith of the recruit, and wants nothing to do with any other group, claiming they have the only way to salvation, then there is a high degree of probability that the group is a dangerous one.

Nor is there assurance that established churches are immune from such unethical behavior. An isolated small congregation might have a manipulative pastor who leads the flock astray. Within the Catholic Church, for example, there have been problems with Charismatic groups that have become too authoritarian and have refused to listen to the authority of the Bishop. (The Bishop of Cleveland and the Archbishop of Newark have recently had to take action in this regard.) The very traditional and loyal Opus Dei organization has been criticized as well, and in Great Britain, Basil Cardinal Hume issued guidelines for the group in his Archdiocese. Thus, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical system permits such abuses to be corrected when detected. Two additional instances, one recent, the other from a century ago, can serve as examples of this process:

A year or two ago in the Archdiocese of Miami, Florida, the Archbishop rescinded the baptism of a Jewish child. The baptism had been done during a child custody case, against the will of the parents. His reasoning for the action was that the parents had indicated a desire to raise the child as a Jew, and thus the baptism, done at the instigation of an outside party, was improper, unwarranted and invalid.

In the nineteenth century, Theodore Ratisbonne, after a rather stormy early life, converted from Judaism to Catholicism and in 1830 became a priest. He had a rather renowned life as a priest, gaining fame for his preaching, scholarship, and evangelization, specializing in the con- version of the Jews. In this latter capacity, two scandals occurred which involved Abbe Ratisbonne and damaged his reputation considerably. One of them was clearly a case of excessive proselytization. A Jewish child, whose mother died in childbirth, was raised with the consent of the father by a Jewish foster family who had her educated in Catholic Schools. When her foster parents died, her father claimed her guardian- ship, and the girl, by now eighteen years of age, claimed she had been pressured to become Catholic. The civil government and the Church both stepped in to rectify this situation, though this was not always the case.

In both these instances, the civil and/or the ecclesiastical authorities stepped in to rectify a situation gone astray. Religious groups which recognize no authority but their own, on the other hand, can easily fall into excessive practices that violate moral and ethical codes. If there is no safeguard through accountability, an individual leader can be mesmerized by success, adulation of the community, or other factors and use more and more controlling means to rule the flock.

Proselytizing has been a part of society since the beginning of the Christian era, if not before. Our concern here is not proper use of this tool, but its inordinate application coupled with other psychological and psychosocial techniques. No one can realistically prohibit or place restrictions on proselytizing without being accused of restricting of freedom. In a pluralistic society such as ours in America, groups have the right to seek new members, but they have no right to use deception, high pressure, and guilt to force the decision of an individual.

True evangelization (evangelism) is done according to the norms that Jesus used. He invited. He invited people to hear his message, to decide to follow Him, and then to do so. The choice to stay or depart must be up to the individual. When Jesus taught a difficult doctrine, he saw many walk away, so many in fact that he asked his disciples, 'Will you also go away?' (John 7:66-69) Any group wishing to be faithful to the Great Commission must do likewise.

As a final thought, the example of Mother Teresa and the Missionary Sisters of Charity comes to mind. Here is a woman who wanted the religious life as a Catholic Sister. She left her homeland of Yugoslavia and went to India where she was so moved by the extreme poverty of the 'unwashed' that she received permission to work with these people. Eventually she left the teaching order she had joined, and after other young women joined her, some from the order she had left, she founded her own community dedicated to the service of the poor. And today, more than fifty years later, the community prospers, and has more applicants than it can handle.

In October, 1984, Mother Teresa, at the invitation of Pope John Paul II, addressed the international priests' retreat at the Vatican, at which I was present. There I heard her give what I consider to be the most perfect example of evangelization. No pressure, no compulsion, no deception - just the life of a good person and the desire of a good ruler to help his people. Transcribed excerpts from her talk follow.

I remember sometime ago, some years back, when the President of Yemen asked for our Sisters to come to Yemen. And I was told that for so many, many years there has been no public chapel, public Mass, or publicly known fact that a person is a priest. So I told the President 'I am willing to give you the Sisters, but without a priest, without Jesus, we don't go.'

Then, they must have had a consultation between them and they decided, 'Yes.' (And something struck me so much.) And the priest came. There was the altar. There was the tabernacle, there was Jesus. And only he (the priest) could bring Jesus there.

After that the government built the building for us when we went there to take care of the street people, the dying, and the destitute; and they built a convent for us also. And then the governor who had sponsored the building - (Sister asked him, 'Kindly make sure that one room be beautifully done because Jesus is going to be there") - built our chapel. And this governor asked Sister, 'Sister, show me how to build the Roman Catholic Church right here." (He meant the little chapel, and instead of saying chapel, he said 'Roman Catholic Church right here!') And they built that chapel so beautifully, and it is there today, and the Sisters are there.

And then they asked us to open [a center] - they gave us a whole mountain - to rehabilitate the lepers, the many, many lepers. So, we went to see the place, and I saw there an open grave. The smell, the awfulness of the bodies.. I cannot express what I saw. And I was thinking, 'Jesus, how, how can we leave you like that?' And then, I accepted that place. And if you went now, you would see quite a different place. And then I asked - they were all Muslims, not a single Catholic there - one of the rich men ... I said, “These are all Muslim people. They need to pray. Kindly build a Mosque for them that they can pray." And the man was surprised that I, a Catholic Sister, would ask such a thing, but he built a most beautiful Mosque for the people. And you see those lepers, crawling, crawling, going there to pray. And then, when that Mosque was completely open, he turned to me and he said, "I give you my word. The next thing I will build here is the Catholic Church for the Sisters.'

These are beautiful examples of the hunger of people, of our poorest of the poor: the ignorant, the unwanted, the unloved, the rejected, the forgotten ... yes, their hunger for God.

If only all missionaries could follow this model, this world in which we live would be a different place. Evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics, and others would be truly fulfilling the Great Commission, which after all is to preach the commandment of love: "Love one another. such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.' (John 13:34-35)

Father James LeBar is Catholic Chaplain of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center and is on the staff of the Office of Communications of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which he serves as a consultant on religious cults.