Imagine a war between the United States and China. America emerges victorious. As one of the terms of China’s surrender, President Joe Biden requires Chinese president Xi Jinping to be baptized Catholic, with Biden serving as Xi’s godfather.
Americans, even American Catholics, would recoil at this demand. And even though Biden is one of Pope Francis’s favorite world leaders, our current pontiff would also be horrified about this arrangement. After all, Francis often speaks out against conversions, to say nothing of forced conversions.
Yet one of the most revered Catholic kings in history did exactly this and Catholics of the time accepted it as a legitimate demand. What does that say about Catholics’ evolving attitudes about conversion and evangelization?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In 878, King Alfred (“the Great”) of Wessex was in a tight spot. His kingdom was teetering on the brink of complete conquest by the Vikings, led by the vicious pagan Guthrum. Alfred spent weeks in hiding, engaging in small hit-and-run attacks on enemy forces while amassing an army to launch a sizable offensive on Guthrum.
In May of that year, at the Battle of Edington, Alfred’s forces decisively defeated the Viking army in one of the most celebrated battles in English history. Among the requirements of the peace treaty that followed, Alfred required Guthrum and 30 of his nobles to be baptized, with Alfred serving as Guthrum’s godfather and Guthrum taking the Christian name Aethelstan.
It’s impossible to read a modern recounting of this event that does not express outrage or at least deep embarrassment at the baptism requirement. And the arrangement does seem to modern ears to unduly wed the political and the religious while disrespecting the religious freedom of the defeated Vikings. Yet by all accounts Aethelstan remained true to his baptismal vows, and with his former adversary no longer a threat, Alfred established what was to become one of the world’s greatest Christian kingdoms.
Of note is that Alfred’s actions were not controversial in his own time. No one, from the pope to the lowliest parishioner, would have thought anything wrong with the baptismal demand. Yet clearly such actions today would be roundly condemned, from the pope to the lowliest parishioner.
So should we just chalk this up to “progress?” Should we just look at our Catholic forebears with embarrassment or even disdain for their pre-modern attitudes?
While I don’t think Catholics today need to accept every viewpoint of past generations uncritically, it would also be wrong to casually dismiss the deep-seated attitude of our fathers and mothers in the Faith who were fervently religious and committed to the cause of Christ.
While Alfred’s actions understandably seem extreme to us, what’s more troubling is the significant divide between the attitude of the great missionaries of the New World and today’s Catholic. This divide came to the fore during the pope’s recent visit to Canada, with many critics confusing, perhaps purposefully, the difference between legitimate missionary work and forced acceptance of Catholicism.
That confusion can be excused coming from non-Catholics, however, since it also seems to exist with the Church’s leader, Pope Francis. From the beginning of his pontificate Francis has waged an all-out war against what he calls “proselytism,” as I detail in my book Deadly Indifference. Pope Benedict XVI also condemned proselytism, but he meant using physical force to bring about the conversion of non-Catholics, while Francis has so loosely defined the term as to encompass all evangelization and missionary work.
One of the most popular sayings among Catholics is fake news: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” This quote, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi—although it goes completely against his own practice of continually preaching with words—has been used as an excuse to avoid proclaiming the Gospel with our words. The Poverello’s namesake, Pope Francis, has insisted time and again that the wordless form of evangelization is the only proper one.
While we might believe that King Alfred’s actions were too extreme, the pendulum has swung too far to the other side today. Church history, after all, has countless stories of aggressive Catholic missionaries that didn’t employ forced conversion.
St. Boniface cut down the sacred oak tree dedicated to Thor. The first Franciscan martyrs went into Mosques to openly condemn Islam, and when they were killed, St. Francis himself praised them as “true Franciscans.” The North American Jesuit missionaries urged baptism to the Native Americans, telling them that hell awaited those who refused the cleansing waters of Christ.
None of these examples involved force as did Alfred’s treaty, but all would likely be condemned harshly today by Church leaders as undue “proselytism” (or perhaps sins against interreligious dialogue).
What is the balance then between respect for the freedom of individuals and following the command of Christ to make disciples of all nations? Where should we fall on the spectrum from Pope Francis to King Alfred the Great?
Frankly, a lot closer to Alfred. Jesus commanded—not suggested—that his followers make disciples of all nations. He didn’t tell us to just live our lives and leave non-Christians alone. No, he wants us to actively work for the conversion of everyone, and history and common sense tells us that won’t happen just by living a quiet Catholic life in the suburbs.
We must be aggressive—yes, aggressive—about spreading the Faith. This can be done while still respecting each person’s human dignity. In fact, I’d argue the best way to honor someone’s dignity is to urge them to live up to it fully by becoming Catholic. In an age where aggressive secularization has led to millions of fallen-away Catholics, we need to be equally aggressive in bringing people back into the fold.
How does this aggressive evangelization look in the modern world? In many ways, just like it looked in previous generations: unapologetically proclaiming the truth of Catholicism and the fact that outside the Church there is no salvation. It includes being clear that Catholicism is not simply one option among many, but is the One True Faith.
While we don’t need to force people to baptism, we are called by our Lord to urge people to the baptismal font. Keeping quiet and hoping for others’ conversions is not the mission of Catholics in any age.