But Whom May We Evangelize?

People are curious. They like to know “what’s new.” Most people, whatever their background, do not, however, like to be proselytized, to be made unsettled in their normal beliefs and practices by some sharp stranger wanting to convert them to something or other. We tolerate many diverging views provided that their advocates do not seek to put them into effect by force or deceit. While error can be described, debated, and discusses, people in error are to be left free to defend or propose their views in a responsible way in public fora. Persuasion, argument, and conversation in reason are to be the means by which differences in every field are resolved or at least explained. To be civilized does not mean that no differences will ever arise among human beings. It does mean that such differences will not be promoted by force or lying. Civilization also means that when beliefs are promoted by force, it is reasonable to use counter-force to protect reason and freedom.

In the New Testament, when Christ sent the apostles out to preach what the Father had given Him, He told them to go to the places where they are welcomed. But if they chanced on places where they are not welcomed, they were to leave, brush the dust off their shoes, and move on to greener pastures. The same instruction is evident in the Acts of the Apostles. When local opposition was stirred up against Paul or Barnabas, he went on to the next town. Both Testaments are surprisingly full of accounts of people who will not listen to what God has to tell them. We cannot escape the fact that there are people who will not listen and who will take every means to prevent the apostles from being heard. If we universalize this experience, it will mean that, at best, the world is filled with pockets of believers and unbelievers, rather like the parable of the wheat and the tares in which both good and bad are allowed to grow till the harvest.

The implication of this record, even in the early Church, is, again, that some people will not listen. They will threaten to stone or kill those who try to present Christianity to them. It is best to let them alone. Yet, Christ seems to insist that those who positively reject the good news be given a chance to reject it. On several occasions, Pope Francis has noted that opposition to Christianity in many lands today is violent and can results in martyrdom. We do not want to prevent altogether people from talking to us or presenting new ideas to us. Freedom of speech and religion presumes that we are beings who speak and listen to each other on a normal basis. But it also presumes rules of propriety, good taste, and proper occasion. If we do not want to listen to an ad or pitch or speaker on television, we can always shut it off.  But that would involve turning the TV off and on every few minutes.

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“New evangelization” is in the air. The Church has committed herself to it. Initially, the term, “new evangelization,” refers to efforts to re-evangelize Europe and other areas that have long had the faith but which have in the meantime lost it on a wide scale. At first, this effort seems like mainly an internal problem of the Church itself. The reason we have all those pagans and apostates out there has to do with some fault of the Church. Fix that, and all will be fine. Scripture from the beginning told us not to be “lukewarm” about the good news, as if its effect on others had something to do with its effect on us. There is some truth to this view, of course.

The last words of the gospels have to do with going forth to teach all nations. It does not say anything about whether these nations want to listen to what the disciples had to say. The assumption is that the gospel has something to say to everyone in every time and place, something everyone ought to know about whether he wants to or not. It involves the very explanation of what ultimately man is. Over the centuries, thinkers developed theories about a duty to listen to this good news. Efforts to prevent its peaceful presentation were seen to be in opposition to the movement of the Spirit Himself.

Within the Church, as I have mentioned before, we talk as if the reason most people do not listen to us is our fault. Thus, some propose to restructure the Vatican or episcopal curia or personalize the bureaucracy, or drop supposedly unpopular doctrines and practices. They say we must find new techniques and means to get our message across. Straighten these things out and people will flock to us.

But a case could be made that it is precisely when the Church is doing what it is supposed to, when it is devout and holy, that opposition to it is greatest and most lethal. A tepid Church threatens nobody. When Scripture speaks of those who do not accept the gospels when cogently presented to them, it does not blame the apostles for this failure to believe or for lack of technique. It blames the people who refuse to listen. The problem evidently is not one of technique, ecclesial structure, or of external method.


The Church has especially taken up the  “dialogue” format as a model for dealing with other faiths and philosophies, particularly at official levels. It “dialogues” with almost everybody. My impression is that few people initiate efforts to dialogue with the Church. The Church, however, is energetic in establishing relations with almost anyone, including the devil if she knew his address. I do not think this effort is a bad thing. It is significant that the initiatives usually come from the Church, which holds that it has something to say that others ought to know for their own good. The Church is conscious of its responsibility to make Christ’s teaching known in a reasonable and free manner. She is also aware that what the Church holds can be, and often will be, rejected. The reasons for this “rejection” become part of the dialogue to be tested at the bar of fact and reason.

In his address to the Diplomatic Corps, the new pope noticed representatives there from nations with whom the Vatican did not have official relations. He hoped this situation would change. I suppose this observation meant principally China, a perennial problem for the Church. Chinese culture, be it in the Confucian or Marxist mode, is more a closed religion than a political entity. The Jesuits in particular formed their reputation under Ricci and his companions over the question of China and its conversion, over what was religious and what was political in Chinese tradition. It is said that many “underground” Christians exist in China today, while nobody really believes in the communism that still governs the country.

What I have to say here is conditioned by John Paul II and the fall of communism, something at the time as unexpected and thought impossible. During the communist era, there were many so-called “Christian Marxist Dialogues.” Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether there was any difference. But the way to deal with China was not for Christianity to present itself as an overlay of Marxism. That route would be more of a conversion of Christianity to Marxism than of Marxism to Christianity.

For a time in the modern era, it looked like a political or constitutional solution could afford the space needed for Christianity to pursue its purpose. With the proper limits of Church and State, the Church would be free to pursue its transcendent and public purpose.  Citizens of all lands would be free to listen or not to listen. But, as we reached the Third Millennium, it became clear that the rapid decline of faith in Europe combined with the rise of Islam, with its very closed system, with China, and even India and other countries, the main obstacles to the presentation of the faith in the modern world are not internal to the Church. They lie in the ideologies and religions that compose and control the vast majority of mankind in terms of numbers. Ironically, one could say that the most active groups seeking to “convert” others in the world today are the evangelical Christians and Mormons seeking to convert not Muslims or Hindus but Catholics. When it comes to India, or China, or the Muslim countries, we run into a closed system the likes of which the world has seldom seen before on quite the same scale.


My point, in conclusion, is that when we talk of evangelization today, we have to talk directly and seriously about and to the systems that are politically and culturally closed to any such notion that Christianity can be presented freely in their domains. We have tried to develop a constitutional system in which such things were possible. But this effort could only succeed if politics and metaphysics or religion were not identified under the same political control. The “new evangelization” is blocked off and hindered primarily by forces outside of the Church. And they are backed with law and force. Any serious talk of new evangelization has to begin here where the masses of people in the world really are.

At least three quarters of the world’s present population live in politico-religious systems that make any real evangelization next to impossible. Perhaps a few places in Africa and Asia will allow some outside presence, but, for the rest of the world, including increasingly the Western states themselves, any fair presenting of what Christianity is becomes almost impossible. This situation need not be looked on as outside of providence or as hopeless, as John Paul II showed in the case of Marxism. But the contemporary alternative to Marxism in practice is not always or even often Christianity. One final observation is worth adding. There is no indication in Scripture that, in the end, there will be more than a few real believers in the world. Christ’s advice to the Apostles remains, go to those who will listen to you; leave those who will not.

Editor’s note: The image above painted by Raphael is entitled “Paul Preaching in Athens.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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