Evangelization and Truth

The Christian spirit has always been animated by a passion to lead all humanity to Christ in the Church.

“Today, however, with ever-increasing frequency, questions are being raised about the legitimacy of presenting to others—so that they might in turn accept it—that which is held to be true for oneself. Often this is seen as an infringement on other people’s freedom. Such a vision of human freedom, separated from its integral reference to truth, is one of the expressions ‘of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires and under the semblance of freedom, becomes a prison for each one.’”
—William Cardinal Levada, “On Some Aspects of Evangelization,” #4. 1

“The loving providence of God determined that in the last days he would aid the world, set on its course to destruction. He ordered that all nations should be saved in Christ.” 2
—Pope St. Leo the Great, †A.D. 461, Epiphany Sermon.

“The Christian spirit has always been animated by a passion to lead all humanity to Christ in the Church. The incorporation of new members into the Church is not the expansion of a power-group, but rather entrance into the network of friendship with Christ which connects heaven and earth, different continents and ages.”
—“On Some Aspects of Evangelization,” #9.

Four days after the encyclical Spe Salvi was issued on November 29, 2007, the Feast of St. Andrew, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a relatively short “note” on evangelization. Significantly, this latter day, December 3, was the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, the patron of the missions. Before he died, Xavier sought to enter China to evangelize it. Both Paul VI and John Paul II previously had addressed major documents to the topic of evangelization.3 This present document was approved by the “Sovereign Pontiff in the audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect on October 6, 2007.”

The note does not mention several earlier decisions of the congregation on specific writers whose works have been examined and criticized because of doctrinal theories that cast doubt on the need for any “missionary” activities toward non-believers or non-Catholics. These errors generally deny any need for the Church in the work of salvation. They elevate other religions or philosophies by implying that these provide by their rites and doctrines that which the Church promises. Often, too, they shift salvation from a transcendent destiny for each person to this-world “missionary” work. Salvation becomes some future kingdom or ideological movement within space and time. The salvation of each individual soul as its own drama within the Church is reduced to participation in some collective—usually social justice-based—movement down the ages.

What this note does—the reason it is called precisely a “doctrinal” note—is reaffirm that Christian revelation is true and meant for all men, however slowly the historical process of their encountering it may be. The apostles and their successors are sent to “all nations” to teach and baptize. “By means of the Church, Christ wants to be present in every historical epoch, every place on earth, and every sector of society, in order to reach every person, so that there may be one flock and one shepherd” (#1).

The immediate burden of this document, then, is to explain the central purpose of the Church in the world. This purpose is the affirmation of Christ as true God and true man. He is sent to explain to us that our ultimate destiny—that of every man and woman who ever lived, bar none—needs to be known, affirmed, and practiced as a good. As Dominus Jesus, the previous document of the congregation, stated, salvation cannot be either explained or achieved without some reference to Christ and the Church.

One needs to clearly understand the current world situation to see the importance of this note. The Church knows that only about a fifth of the world’s population is Christian, and not all of these are Catholic. It does not deny the “truth” found in any historic religion or philosophy. It is not “intolerant.” The obvious dynamism behind the present Pope is surely his intellectual endeavor—seen through his views on philosophy and natural law—to have available to each person the means to direct himself to the truth. We can accept the truth contained in other religions and philosophies as it relates to Christian revelation. Benedict, I suspect, is one of the most brilliant strategists to achieve its revelational purpose that we have seen on the Chair of Peter.

Moreover, in this day and age, many in Islam—particularly the so-called “terrorists”—are proclaiming that everyone should, by right and law, worship Allah after the manner of the Koran. Within this worldview, Christianity itself is a heresy. It is not legally or culturally tolerated. Certainly no Christian effort to propagate its faith, no matter how peacefully, is permitted. Even though the few remaining Christians in some Muslim countries are given a kind of second class citizenship, it is nothing remotely close to what the Pope means by “freedom of religion.”

Probably this universalism within Islam to conquer the world has its roots in the universalism of both the Old and New Testaments. In general, this world-conquest side of Islam is played down as “fanaticism” or as “fascism.” In fact, it has religious roots. It betrays such zeal that our intellectuals can hardly comprehend its intensity. They try to explain it on every other basis but its own religious one. It is literally true that this strand of Islam wants to “subject” the world to Allah, even by military means. Military means are in fact seen as religious means.

Why does Islam want to complete the conquest of the world as its armies almost conquered in the first century of its founding? It is not, as we think looking at our own modern political philosophy, about power. Rather, it is in order to worship Allah as required in the Koran. From this perspective, the elimination of other religions and polities is the necessary step to render what is properly due to God. Probably one of the main crises in the West is the inability to see the seriousness of this threat or the earnestness with which it is proposed and pursued. Suicide bombers, after all, consider themselves and are considered within Islam to be true martyrs of the faith. To write it off as simply “fanaticism” is a form of cultural and probably military suicide.

A man writing under the name “Spengler” writes of Islam and the papacy in the Asia Times. His remark on the Pope, within the context of evangelization, seems to be right on the mark:

If we are in a fourth world war…it is a religious war. The West is not fighting individual criminals, as the left insists; it is not fighting a Soviet-style state, as the Iraqi disaster makes clear, nor is it fighting a political movement. It is fighting a religion, specifically a religion that arose in enraged reaction to the West. None of the political leaders of the West, and few of the West’s opinion leaders, comprehends this. We are left with the anomaly that the only effective leader of the West is a man wholly averse to war, a pope…. Benedict XVI, alone among the leaders of the Christian world, challenges Islam as a religion, as he did in his September 2006 Regensburg address (Asia Times, November 6, 2007). 4

Spengler further understands that behind the Muslim advance is something rooted in philosophy and theology going back to the classics and Scripture. Not to challenge, on the grounds of their truth, the theses on which it is based is to leave Islam’s basis intact. This is why Islam is still in the world today as a religion. Western theologians ceased to examine its intellectual foundations. The politicians thought it was sufficient to introduce the “modern” state and democracy to modify the universalism of the religion. Actually, it extended it. Rémi Brague’s new book, The Law of God, shows precisely the importance of returning to this intellectual task and its relation to politics.5

In the context of evangelization, however, Spengler thinks the Pope is pretty much alone even in the West, even in his own Church.

All of the really important issues were fought out over generations in the one Western institution with a long enough memory. That is why the Catholic Church remains the world’s indispensable institution. I do not know whether that will be true a generation from now. The Church has produced a few great leaders, but it is desperately short of sandals on the ground. Where is the monastic order that will fight the spiritual battles of the Church as the Dominicans did in the twelfth century, the Jesuits in the sixteenth, and the Benedictines in the nineteenth? Where are the missionaries who will preach Christianity to Muslims? Perhaps they are being trained now in secret Protestant seminaries in China, but not by the Catholic Church.

One of the reasons why such missionaries are not found is addressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s note. The very reason why there should be a missionary effort has been called into question within theology itself.

Likewise, in the West we still have remnants of a universal secularism or humanism that wants to transform the world in its own image. There is also China, with its world-conquering movements stemming both from its own central kingdom thesis and from its Marxism, which was itself a secular version of Christian universalism, as Benedict pointed out in Spe Salvi. This doctrinal note, then, is not written as if skepticism and relativism were our only problems. We are indeed confronted with a more and more confident Islam that sees the moral disorders of the world to be an invitation to and justification for its own mission to the nations.

In the context of modern relativism and multi-culturalism, as well as of oriental religions, even the statement of this universal purpose is said to be “arrogant” or “dogmatic,” or a violation of man’s freedom and rights. Thus, the note has the delicate task of returning to principle to explain why these truths of revelation are in fact themselves exercises in human freedom. Political societies, on their own bases, ought to foster, not restrict or prevent, that freedom’s presentation.

The note does not mention names of particular states that violate the principles of religious freedom. They are not a few. But it does suggest that, in spite of the widely acclaimed constitutional and international affirmations about freedom of religion, many states severely restrict missionary work. Or simply, they do not allow it at all. Even here, the note contents itself with merely pointing out the irony that “freedom of religion,” which the Catholic tradition considers a basic norm for every civil society, is widely unavailable to those who want and deserve to hear the Catholic understanding of man’s relation to God.

“There is today, however, a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective,” Cardinal Levada writes.

Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church. (#3)

This concise paragraph shows first that the Church does understand what is being proposed contrary to the orthodox teaching on the subject of evangelization.

The Church, of course, is not opposed to efforts to become more human or to the efforts of believers of other religions to find the truth. What concerns it—from the basis of its own structure—is that justice, freedom, peace and solidarity, however good, are not the basic things that Christ commissioned his apostles to preach. The popes have already made that obligation clear from the beginning. Catholicism has been concerned with philosophy as its own truth (Fides et Ratio). We are to know what justice, freedom, peace and solidarity are primarily from philosophy. They are the preambles of the faith. The Church knows that Aristotle already explained pretty much what justice meant. What concerns the Church is: 1) that these natural virtues are not long practiced by most men without revelation and 2) that man is made for something more than this world and needs to know what it is. Whenever these two elements of understanding the whole are ignored, man is in trouble.

What Levada is criticizing here is a “theory” of human nature and theology that seeks to assure the salvation of all by not preaching or presenting the Christian faith as true or as necessary for men to know. The Church is not in any way saying here that we are not to respect the opinions of others. The note is “intended to clarify certain aspects of the relationship between the missionary command of the Lord and respect for the conscience and religious freedom of all people” (#3). To demonstrate that the Lord’s command and this respect are intelligently compatible is the purpose of this note.

The note states its understanding of man, its “anthropology.” We have an intellect and a will. No part of Catholicism denies this fact; rather, Catholicism bases its understanding of the mission to others upon it, upon understanding what intellect and will are. It is assumed that all men seek to know the truth, but that they also are to accept it freely. Men both want to know the truth and they ought to know it. It is not a virtue to hide it, though it is not to be presented as a pesky proselytism: “The work of ecumenism does not remove the right or take away the responsibility of proclaiming in fullness the Catholic faith to other Christians who freely wish to receive it” (#12).

“With ever-increasing frequency, questions are being raised about the legitimacy of presenting to others—so that they might in turn accept it—that which is held to be true for oneself” (#4). Behind this scruple is the idea that there is no common truth. If whatever one holds is true, even contradictions, then there can really be no truth at all. The defense of the mission in this sense is the defense of the mind wherever it is found. Philosophy does have a stake in revelation in this sense.

The note, moreover, sees the place of the example and efforts of ordinary people to explain their faith to others. The faithful are right to urge others to consider the teachings of faith in the light of their own experience and the need for a complete understanding of the purpose for which they are created. “To lead a person’s intelligence and freedom in honesty in the encounter with Christ and his Gospel is not an inappropriate encroachment, but rather a legitimate endeavor and a service capable of making human relationships more fruitful” (#5). Throughout this document, then, “mission” is presented as something needed by the freedom of all men to know what they are.

The Church does not deny, but rather insists upon, the truths found in other persons and cultures. No one can be “forced” to embrace the faith by improper techniques or political pressure (#8). The Church is aware, moreover, that the meeting of revelation with human life always reveals something not only about human life itself, but even about the faith. “Every encounter with another person or culture is capable of revealing potentialities of the Gospel which hitherto may not have been fully explicit and which will enrich the life of Christians and the Church” (#6, a citation from Benedict). Thus the mission ad gentes is seen to be within the context of that general revelation and philosophic experience of all who seek the truth to which revelation is addressed specifically.6 The intellectual part of Benedict’s whole project thus is not merely to add and complete something in those who do not yet know, but also to do so in those who have first received the faith.

“The revelation of the fundamental truths about God, about the human person and the world, is a great good of every human person, while living in darkness without the truths about ultimate questions is an evil and is often at the root of suffering and slavery which can at times be grievous” (#7). What is at the heart of this note, then, is the idea that human beings can address themselves to each other in the name of truth and freedom without, at the same time, fighting or burdening each other. “Evangelization also involves a sincere dialogue that seeks to understand the reasons and feelings of others; indeed, the heart of another person can only be approached in freedom, in love and in dialogue, in such a manner that the word that is spoken is not simply offered, but also truly witnessed in the hearts of those to whom it is addressed” (#8).

The note soberly adds that the mission first given to the apostles is the same one that continues to exist and about which this note is a reminder. Not infrequently, this mission has resulted in martyrdom. The implication is that it still does today, as if to say that the Lord must have accepted this consequence when he sent the disciples forth; they would be treated as he was (#8). But this result did not prevent him from sending them. The liberal notion of denying that truth is necessary in order that killing would not happen seems to run counter to the urgency with which the mission was originally proposed. It is partly this notion of continuity over time with which the modern mind has much difficulty. The note implies that the urgency to know what revelation teaches to all men remains and is in danger of being lost.

The note is also concerned with the ecclesiological and ecumenical implications of evangelization. Two things seem clear: 1) individual conversions are to be encouraged when a person seeks to enter the Church; 2) the ecumenical movement, both with Protestants and the Eastern Churches, is to continue to work out a common understanding of what the Church does teach and how what it teaches can be commonly expressed. The ecumenical movement was never intended to produce a kind of parliament of religion, something that certain forces within the United Nations seem to be fond of promoting.

The note explains that “[generally], the term conversion is used in reference to bringing pagans into the Church. However, conversion in the precisely Christian meaning signifies a change in thinking and in acting, as the expression of that new life in Christ proclaimed by faith” (#9). This attention to an openness to conversion is a necessary consequence of what the Church holds about human freedom, even when it is used erroneously.

The note expresses an awareness of the current arguments against the freedom to convert and evangelize. “For a long time the reason for evangelization has not been clear to many among the Catholic faithful. It is even stated that the claim to have received the gift of the fullness of God’s revelation masks an attitude of intolerance and a danger to peace” (#10). This is a familiar theme today. Democracy, for many thinkers, means dogmatically having no truth or the possibility of any. No truth is the only truth, the only politically safe one. Much of our public life is about the truth or falsity of this view, one that this note seeks to combat. We are not to be indifferent to the truth in the name of religious freedom, or democratic pluralism, or Muslim aggressiveness. Respecting and understanding what constitutes the view of another does not directly entail our denying or minimizing our own relation to truth.

“This apostolic commitment is an inalienable right and duty, an expression of religious liberty, with its corresponding ethical-social and ethical-political dimensions. It is a right which in some parts of the world, undoubtedly, has not yet been recognized and which in others is not respected in practice” (#10). Though it does not make a large issue of this fact, the note is aware of the very real restrictions other religions and polities place on an individual’s freedom to hear and freely accept what is revealed in Christ. By placing the emphasis on each person’s destiny and his right and duty to know it, the note shifts the emphasis from “imposing” to “freely accepting” the truth. This is why there is an explicit emphasis on the relation of faith to individuals within a culture or society. “Evangelization is not only accomplished through public preaching of the Gospel nor solely through works of public relevance, but also by means of personal witness which is always very effective in spreading the Gospel” (#11).

The last section of the document is careful to reaffirm the ecumenical movement within the context of evangelization: “There is evangelization in countries where non-Catholic Christians live, including those with an ancient Christian tradition and culture” (#12). One need not be silent before Protestants or Orthodox. We know, on the contrary, that Protestant evangelization progresses rapidly in many Catholic countries, even in the United States. The note does not mention this, but its logic would assume that these conversion efforts fall within the order of mutual respect and honesty on individual bases. We do not ask Protestants or Orthodox to cease to seek to convert Catholics, but we do insist that the rules of the game be preserved, along with respect for truth and freedom in every case.

Why, in conclusion, this sudden emphasis on evangelization? After all the political and legal distinctions have been made, this emphasis obviously comes from the fact that within Scripture and revelation there is an urgency that men, all men, in all religions, times and cultures, know the truth for their own good. If I do not force it, if I do not violate any principles of manners or respect, it seems clear that telling and making the case for the truths that are necessary to explain what man fully is can only be something that a man has a right to know and a freedom to accept.

This urgency, moreover, is found within revelation itself. Men do want to know the truth, which is often closed to them because of their sins as well as their politics. Moreover, a danger to the world itself exists if we do not know what man really is, what his transcendent destiny means. The alternative forces of universalism in our time have gained confidence and zeal precisely because our culture no longer understands or admits that we have a transcendent destiny that we are freely offered, but the free rejection of which has worldly consequences, consequences we see daily.

  1. William Cardinal Levada, “Doctrinal Note: On Some Aspects of Evangelization,” L’Osservatore Romano, English, December 19, 2007, #4. 
  2. St. Leo the Great, Sermon, Second Reading, Feast of the Epiphany, Roman Breviary, I, 560. 
  3. Paul VI, Evangeli Nuntiandi (1975); John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (1991). The congregation’s Dominus Jesus (2000) also should be included here. 
  4. In this long essay Spengler is reviewing Fergus Kerr, O. P.’s Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians
  5. Rémi Brague, The Law of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 
  6. See Josef Pieper, “Tradition: Its Sense and Aspirations,” For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 233-94. 
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.


  1. HPR Site Admin HPR Site Admin says:

    This was a popular thread on the previous HPRweb site, and we wanted to maintain the conversation regarding it. Some were comments were nested (in reply to other comments, not the article); unfortunately, that formatting has been lost. The comment section follows.


    Mark – The best teacher I never had for class |69.203.89.Xxx |2010-03-25 04:Mar:th
    Fr. Schall is the best teacher I never had.

    “Political societies,on their own bases, ought to foster, not restrict
    or prevent, that freedoms presentation.”

    We could this month say the same of the school newspapers where the Notre Dame Observer refused to publish Prof. Rice’s paper on Catholic teaching.

    On its own bases, these restrictions on proposing ideas are an infringement on philosophy never mind barring one’s theology or free expression of religion.

    Fr. Schall is quite correct. We are free or feel free to recommend and talk about what flavor of yogurt we prefer, whre to shop, where not to shop, what to eat or not eat, what to read or not read, what to do professionally or not, etc., but we must not tread even politely on the most essential things.

    Reading Fr. Schall’s article coupled with Fr. Alvaro’s of March 10th, 2010 makes it easy to recommend HPR.

    Faith and Reason.