How is proselytizing different from debating with intent to convert?

This is something that I’m having a bit of trouble understanding. I know that we’re not supposed to proselytize, but what is the dividing line between engaging in debate with the intent to convert, and proselytizing?

I think they mean the same thing. Proselytize, according to, means “v. To convert or attempt to convert”.

According to your definition, there is no difference. :slight_smile:

We don’t engage in debate with the intent to convert. Apologetics isn’t doing that. It’s presenting the faith and letting the Holy Spirit do the convincing, if any needs doing. Anything beyond than that is being intrusive on another’s conscience and free will.


Okay then… I need to work on that.

Thank you both for your responses.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website has a document on this subject, “Proselytism and Evangelization: Important Distinctions for Catholic
” written by Fr. Leo Walsh.

If I understand the document correctly, proselytizing involves the use of unjust means to try to effect conversion.

Proselytism occurs when the attempt to convert takes one of two extremes; either the use of force, or the promise of a reward that the other person needs.

For example: entering a village in an armed force and saying “everyone in this village has just converted to our religion, anyone who objects will be beheaded.”

The other extreme: people are starving. Someone comes along and says “we’ll give you food, but first you have to convert to our religion.”

In both forms, it can be much more subtle than those examples.

When you are engaging in a debate, if the other person is free to walk away, and there are no consequences to that, then it’s (usually) not proselytism. Statements like “accept this or you’ll go to hell” is actually not proselytism as long as they are actually truths of the faith. If those statements are used in a harassing way, then that’s proselytism because the threat is “I won’t give you any peace until you convert.”

True debate seeks the truth, nothing else. Christians seek the truth because Jesus Christ is Truth Himself.

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

Some people can be bashed over the head with the truth and still will not accept it. St. Paul walked away when people wouldn’t accept the truth. He knew that God does the converting, not men. Our job is to preach the truth.


Nice to see you, ProdglArchitect. My two cents? I think the difficulty is that you use the phrase “not supposed to proselytize” without any distinctions w.r.t. who is the recipient of the efforts.

Surely you’d agree that it makes a difference whether the other person is, say, an Eastern Orthodox or a Mormon, right?

Well, if proselyzation is immoral, then it is immoral regardless of to whom I am speaking.

Apologetics, Evangelism, and Proselytizing are different. Proselytizing is wrong, as described in this thread.

Apologetics - if this is meant by the term “debating” - puts ideas out **only to those who are interested. ** It affirms what (we) believe as true, on 3 levels:
That the evidence for God’s existence is greater than against;
That Christianity is a fuller exposition of the Truth than other religions;
That Catholicism is the fullness of Christian Truth.

It may be a brief conversation, posting on the Internet, or some other communication.
Jimmy Akin is a better Apologist than me; but my sister-in-law with doubts doesn’t know Jimmy, and knows me. So I try to couch my answers as “to the best of my knowledge”.

Apologetics can clear the way for evangelism, if there are intellectual difficulties or misconceptions blocking the person taking the next step. Keep in mind many Catholics have been raised with incomplete religious education, compounded by manipulative media, so that is who I need to defend Catholicism with the most. Apologetics is primarily listening, and then some talking/writing.

Evangelism has more to do with the person’s own relationship with God, and others - including the evangelist. It is about conversion.

I try hard to be as friendly, and respectful as I can. The worst, worst, awful “apologetics” comes from Catholics who argue with people, who take the Faith like a 2x4 and hit any and all comers. God silent me should I ever lapse into that.

I think it should be noted that the definition of prosyltizng seems to have changed over the years. The dictionary definition sounds perfectly appropriate, but it is used by churchmen today in a derogatory manner. The dictionary definition of evangelization is essentially the same, yet no one speaks poorly about evangelization. It’s clear that the dictionary and the bishops define the words differently. Perhaps the dictionary people haven’t caught up yet?

I never proselytize…but I am all about counter evangelism when someone seeks to proselytize me away from our most holy faith.

             Does God want everyone to be Catholic?               
                                                              [Apologetics for the Masses #208]("")

I wouldn’t say immoral, but rather pushy, which isn’t an effective tool for helping inquirers. There’s another thread on CAF about a Catholic guy whose friend is making a pest of himself by constantly imposing his beliefs on him. Now, that’s proselytizing to the max. We cannot impose our will on others. Even God doesn’t do that. We can only present the truth, have a give and take exchange with inquirers, and let God do the rest. When we begin to think it’s all up to us, like in any other apostolate, we’ll make a mess of things for others as well as for ourselves. It’s one thing to present convincing arguments, and quite another to try to overwhelm others in order to convince them. Does that make sense? :slight_smile:

As others alluded to, when the Church says proselytism is wrong, here’s what is meant:

[quote=Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith][49] The term proselytism originated in the context of Judaism, in which the term proselyte referred to someone who, coming from the gentiles, had passed into the Chosen People. So too, in the Christian context, the term proselytism was often used as a synonym for missionary activity. More recently, however, the term has taken on a negative connotation, to mean the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person. It is in this sense that the term proselytism is understood in the context of the ecumenical movement: cf. The Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, “The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness” (1995).

The whole thing is a good read. Persuading with arguments and evidence and encouraging someone to freely convert (together with grace and the Holy Spirit of course) is a good thing. So is being a good example. Coercing or tricking them, or doing it for some bad motive, is what is wrong.

Yes indeed, we can use friendly persuasion, but not brow-beating, being uncharitable or making a nuisance of ourselves. :yup:

Yeah, I don’t wanna be like some of the n-C folks I remember…like the Presbyterian woman at a youth group Bible study who tried to grill my Mom and when Mom shut her down she told me , “She’s so lost.” :mad:

I never went back to that group,

I had a similar experience in a Baptist youth group when I was told I was lost because I was (at the time) Episcopalian. People can be well-intentioned but poor apologists. I have been sometimes, too, sad to say. :blush:

What I get from that article is the end does not justify the means. Using an improper means actually drives people away. So it has the opposite effect. Evangelism, however, is not just presentation of the basic gospel message, according to the article, but involves catechesis. It involves a more comprehensive approach.

  It is important to recognize that proselytizing always carries with it a

moral judgment. “To engage in
proselytizing implies a moral judgment of error (in assent) or impropriety (in action) on the part of the aliens being proselytized, and the consequent adoption of a course of action designed to bring the mistaken aliens into the fold of those who think rightly or behave properly. Particular proselytisms, then, imply (and are sometimes explicit about) the rightness or propriety of what they proselytize on behalf of, and, concomitantly, the wrongness or impropriety of what they
proselytize against” (“Proselytizing for Tolerance,” 32).

It is this element of moral judgment that gives the term its pejorative connotation in the present-day climate that so highly extols the virtue of
“tolerance.” We can find many historical
reasons for this attitude, but it is enough to acknowledge that, in the present day, the terms “tolerance” and “proselytism” are understood to be
diametrically opposed.

Another factor contributing to the pejorative sense of the word is frustration with the attitudes and methods employed by proselytizers

Aberrant proselytism includes certain activities and methods that are directly intended to induce people to change their church affiliation. These include 

• Making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs
and practices and even ridiculing them

• Comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other

• Employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure, e.g., the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers

• Using political, social and economic power as a means of winning
new members for one’s own church

• Extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care, or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts

• Manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs,
weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress, and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity (ibid., par. 19)

The problem with proselytism as it is understood in the twenty-first century is that, by doing the wrong thing for the right reason, the result is not increased unity but even deeper division in the Body of Christ. One can be very sincere, but very, very wrong.
Thomas Aquinas was right when he said that one is never justified in using an evil means to a good end

Praise God and thank you for offering this explanation as a priest.

I would add that it is my own opinion (and in reply to the OP, not to this post) that being ‘a bit pushy’ in trying to convert someone would not be wrong in itself but depending on the particular person could easily be imprudent. Not everybody has this great aversion to being persuaded of the truth though and some people who are ‘pushed’ would recognise in what could be termed ‘pushiness’ a zeal for truth and a charitable concern for their soul. Showing a lack of persistence could be imprudent too because the person might forget the things you have said to them or simply not muster the effort to give serious consideration to becoming a Catholic. Just raising matters of Faith and inviting people to Mass etc., repeatedly when they have said they have shown aversion to these things is not coercion either. In summary, as long is there is no actual coercion or bribery then it is a matter of prudence how to convert someone. Of course, strictly speaking, no-one can actually ‘convert’ anyone but God, we can however proclaim the Faith in word and in deed and we can motivate people to seek the truth and use reason to remove any objections or difficulties they might have.

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