Pope Francis has criticized the practice of proselytization a number of times, as in his dialogue with Eugenio Scalfari.
Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.
Some have argued that insofar as “proselytization” has negative connotations, Pope Francis only means to condemn unfair and unreasonable means of persuasion, and not the general idea of trying to persuade people. For example, Fr. Zuhlsdorf says:
The “proselytism” that Pope Francis scorns is not to be equated with “evangelization”.
Surely what Francis scorns is the crude proselytizing à la Pentecostals and Mormons in Latin America.That is the sort of proselytism with which Francis would be familiar. That is the sort of proselytism that we will probably be accused of when we engage in any kind of evangelization.
However, it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that Pope Francis intends to reject all attempts to persuade others to believe what you believe. For example, in his advice reported in this news article, he is said to have given this suggestion:
9. Don’t proselytize; respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: ‘I am talking with you in order to persuade you,’ No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing,” the pope said.
“I am talking with you in order to persuade you,” directly suggests that any deliberate attempt to persuade others is proselytization and should be rejected. Again, Brian Stiller, reporting on a private conversation with the Pope, says that Pope Francis said, “I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.” Of course since this is Brian’s recollection it may not be exact, but it fits with the general tendency seen elsewhere.
It seems to me that the main reason that Fr. Zuhsdorf and others wish to interpret the Pope to be allowing for reasonable persuasion is that rejecting this would apparently fall into heresy. However, this conclusion is probably not necessary, since just as recent Popes have rejected the application of capital punishment at the present time, without asserting that it was wrong at all times, which would contradict Catholic tradition, Pope Francis could be making a prudential judgment that it is currently bad to try to persuade others to adopt your religion. In any case he does seem to present a general rejection of persuasion. When the Church grows “by attraction,” this presumably happens at the initiative of those who enter the Church, without anyone else trying to persuade them to do this.
I have a personal recollection of the Pope being quoted as saying something like “everyone should remain within his own faith tradition,” although I was not able to find the text for this post. This may explain his rejection of persuasion. He sees that someone who abandons his own faith tradition does harm to the previous relationships he had with that faith community. In order to justify this, one has to care very much about the truth, and it does not appear that Pope Francis does in fact care that much, so he puts the priority on the harm done to the existing relationships. It is true, in fact, that religious conversion does this harm, and this fact may have been neglected by many in the past. On the other hand, Pope Francis’s apparent lack of concern for the truth is somewhat disturbing.