On February 28 the Catholic bishops of Alta and Baja California issued a "Pastoral Exhortation Concerning Proselytism." The document mentions the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals--in other words, the groups most successful in wooing Catholics.
The pastoral took most people by surprise. Certainly the non-Catholic groups mentioned in it were surprised. What were these bishops up to anyway? Why had they broken with what seemed to be a long-standing custom of keeping their mouths shut on this touchy issue? And why were they naming names?
Catholics were surprised too. What--you mean there are bishops who know what's going on, how our sons and daughters (or fathers and mothers) are jumping ship and going over to these other religions? Who'd have thunk it?
We print here the entire text of the pastoral. Following it we print a commentary by an official representative of the Mormon Church and a statement by Bishop William Weigand of Salt Lake City. Last, we give our own evalutation.
We, the members of the Episcopal Commission of Alta/Baja California, are deeply concerned about some of the so-called "missionary" efforts directed toward Hispanic Catholics by other religious groups both in the United States of America and in Mexico. Such efforts we view as proselytism and not as proper evangelization.
By proselytism we mean the use of unfair and coercive methods--that is to say, those which apply pressure--to convince a person to leave his/her religion and join another.
By evangelization, on the other hand, we mean giving witness to God as revealed through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit in a simple and direct manner. It includes the renewing of humanity, witness, explicit proclamation, adherence with the heart, entry into the community, acceptance of signs, and apostolic initiative. It means to carry the good news to all areas of human life and through its influence transform from within and renew humanity itself, but without pressure.
Through this pastoral exhortation we wish to express our concern about the phenomenon of proselytism by non-Catholics. We address the statement to three audiences:
--To the Catholic clergy, religious, and lay leaders who collaborate with us in preaching the gospel and responding to the ministerial needs of the Hispanic people.
--To Hispanic Catholics who have left the active practice of their faith to become members of other religious groups as well as to those who have been invited to do so by representatives of such groups.
--To leaders and members of sects and other religious groups who invite Hispanic Catholics to leave the Catholic Church to join them in the practice of their own beliefs.
By historical churches we understand the main branches of Christianity: the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Protestantism in its various denominations born in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and also the Anglican Church in its various forms.
By sects or new religious groups we mean those religious organizations founded in the past century which have grown progressively stronger and which reject or directly oppose the historical churches. We refer especially to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals in a variety of forms, and others.
Basic characteristics of the various church groups:
1. The historical churches are ecumenical, that is, they search for Christian unity; they respect all religious beliefs; they look for the truth at every level (e.g., historical, biblical, etc.); they assess and appreciate spiritual and temporal values (e.g., the economy, politics, etc.); they work for the establishment of the kingdom of God even in this world.
2. The sects or new religious groups are most aggressive in their proselytizing; they make a great effort to increase their membership at any cost, exerting pressure of all types (psychological, moral, and economic); they do not appreciate temporal values; they manipulate historical and biblical data; they tend toward religious legalism; and they do not project a plan for the future as they believe that the end of the world is imminent.
The focus of our pastoral exhortation is principally this second category, namely, the sects or new religious groups.
For some years now, the sects have been growing in an impressive way. Among the reasons for such growth are these:
1. Erroneous understanding of ecumenism on the part of some Catholics: The practice of a naive or misunderstood form of ecumenism results in letting all guards down despite the constant and systematic attacks on the Catholic faith made by these new religious groups.
An overly optimistic view of ecumenism may explain why some Catholics have fallen away from the practice of their faith without resisting advances of the sects and without receiving sufficient guidance from the Church.There has been some confusion even within the Catholic community, because the same methods used to relate to the historical churches were used to relate to the sects or new religious groups. Some did not understand that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when it spoke of ecumenism, had in mind the attitude of openness by the historical churches and not the proselytism of the sects.
To avoid even greater damage to the faith in the future, it is most important that we re-evaluate our attitude toward the sects and the new religious groups. In accord with the principles of sound apologetics, we must put the Christian faithful on the alert.
2. Erroneous interpretation of the option for the poor: Another factor which led some to oppose the Catholic Church was a misunderstanding of her preferential option for the poor. Trying to block the success of the Church's efforts to increase public consciousness of the needs of the poor, they decided to strengthen the missionary efforts of various sects and new religious groups. And these, with greater financial resources, could take effective action in the most needy environments, with clearly recognizable results.
3. In addition to this, the bishops of Baja California and Sonora experience the fact that the sects have for some time now been receiving large sums of money for financing their activities.
[Some long-standing internal causes:]
1. In some areas there has been insufficient pastoral care and a lack of religious formation due to an insufficient number of priests and an inadequate structure for evangelization. This does not permit the personal attention which is needed. The regions most affected by these factors are rural areas, suburbs, and migrant communities, where the sects and other religious groups are growing daily.
2. A poor experience of God due to a merely ritualistic worship which is not in touch with the present world.
3. Insufficient integration of the laity into a pastoral plan due to an overemphasis on the role of the clergy.
To face this problem realistically and seriously, we wish to underline clearly some doctrinal principles which are found in the Sacred Scriptures and in tradition, interpreted by the magisterium of the Church. The truth concerning Jesus stands at the center of evangelization. That is its essential content: There is no authentic evangelization unless the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom, and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are announced (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 22).
Jesus Christ, the Word and Son of God, became man in order to draw close to all men and women and, through the power of his mystery, to make salvation available to them as God's great gift (John Paul II, "Address to Latin American Bishops' Meeting in Puebla, Mexico," I.5).
Christ established only one Church, which is to last until the end of the world (Matt. 16:18, 28:20). This one and only Church, founded by Christ, subsists in the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8). History clearly confirms this.
Both in Mexico and in the United States a variety of religious groups have identified Hispanic communities of Catholics as nominal or unchurched Christians in need of evangelization and baptism.
Many of these Hispanic people have lived all their lives in a thoroughly Catholic environment and have been formed as Christians by the tradition, culture, piety, and religious practices of the Catholic Church. Others have been uprooted by immigration and find themselves in a foreign environment, alienated by language and culture.
In either case, these traditionally Catholic people appear, by the criteria of various religious groups, to be only nominally Christian or really unchurched. We feel that such an assessment is based on a lack of understanding and appreciation both of the rich history of the Catholic faith in Hispanic culture and of the theology of baptism.
The Scriptures speak to us of our adoption by God in Christ and of the place of baptism in Christian practice. Christ, sent by the Father, came to bring God's life and love to all people. United with Christ, who brings them to the Father, they become adopted sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in the Lord (cf. John 1:12; Rom. 8:14).
Through baptism, by means of which believers are born to eternal life (John 3:15), Christ forgives their sins and unites them with himself through likeness to his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:30; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:12). He forms them as living members incorporated into the one body of Christ in his Church (1 Cor. 12:13, 27; Rom. 12:4).
Recent ecumenical dialogue has brought Christians to a common expression of belief in the saving effects of baptism and in the need for all believers to grow in the understanding of their faith:
"Both the baptism of believers and the baptism of infants take place in the church as the community of faith. . . . In both cases, the baptized person will have to grow in the understanding of faith. . . . All baptism is rooted in and declares Christ's faithfulness unto death. It has its setting within the life and faith of the church and, through the witness of the whole church, points to the faithfulness of God, the ground of all life in faith" (World Council of Churches, "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry," IV, A, 12).
Claims are made by some who recruit former Catholics that they must be rebaptized when they become members of another Christian group, but the same worldwide ecumenical dialogue reached agreement that baptism cannot be repeated: "Baptism is an unrepeatable act. Any practice which might be interpreted as `rebaptism' must be avoided" (ibid., 13).
Here particular mention should be made of the practical consequences of the missionary efforts of those Christian communions and parachurch groups which overemphasize their practice of exclusively "believer's baptism."
In their insistence on rebaptizing those who have already been baptized as infants, whether as Catholics or as members of other Christian communions, they sometimes claim that none of God's gifts have yet been bestowed on such persons; but that, in fact, they are "damned" until they have become truly "born again" and baptized; and that their salvation can be found only in a "believer's church."
Such claims fail to recognize the rich sacramental life of the Church, which offers the fullness of union with Christ and initiation into the Christian community in three stages: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.
Confused by such claims and distressed by the anti-Catholic spirit behind them, many Hispanic individuals, families, and communities have experienced painful divisions, isolation, and alienation.
Divisions within the Church are the result of sin (1 Cor. 11:18-19; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 John 2:18-19); they are a scandal to the world and they detract from the effective preaching of the gospel to all nations (Unitatis Redintegratio, 1).
It is a duty of all disciples of Christ to strive for the re-establishment of full Christian unity, according to the desire of Jesus himself (John 10:11-16, 17:21).
If we are to solve the grave ecclesial problem created by proselytism, we feel it is necessary to make some changes. Some new modalities of the Church will bring about a better balance between clergy and laity and between worship and preaching; they will also effect a restructuring of parish life.
We wish to call our own Catholic clergy, religious, and lay leaders who are working with Hispanic people to a renewed sense of the origin, nature, mission, and destiny of the Church so articulately described in the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) as the People of God.
We realize that to achieve these goals it may be necessary to divide parishes into smaller zones and sectors (districts, "barrios," smaller communities, etc.) which can be taken care of by a permanent deacon or lay minister.
Rather than dealing with great masses of people, so frequent in our pastoral system, we consider it necessary to initiate the formation of small Christian communities. Filled with missionary spirit, they will become a leaven for the masses and be attentive to the real needs of the poorest and most alienated of our brothers and sisters.
In confronting the problem of non-Catholic proselytism, we find useful the following practical initatives.
--As the people of God, we must work together to bring about pastoral renewal, ministerial action, and effective apologetical teaching, which are needed if we are to respond more effectively to the needs of all who live in our communities. We especially encourage in the United States the implementation of the National and Regional Pastoral Plans for Hispanic Ministry (approved by the bishops in 1987 and 1988 respectively).
--Foster knowledge of the sects and new religious groups, as well as their pastoral plans, by means of congresses and meetings at various levels, wherever practical and possible.
--Make better use of existing materials in order to reply to the aggressiveness of the sects: books, pamphlets, cassettes, videos, posters, decals, etc.
--Promote door-to-door home visits by well-prepared and zealous Catholics.
--Increase the Church's pastoral activity in rural areas, in outlying sections of large cities, and among immigrants as a concrete expression of our preferential option for the poor, who are the most vulnerable to proselytism. Promote awareness and education concerning sectarian proselytism both at the grass-roots level and among those involved in evangelization.
--Take advantage of popular missions, pre-sacramental catechesis, and Sunday homilies to clarify issues related to sectarian proselytism.
--Promote public and private prayer for the unity of all Christians.
To those who have left the active practice of the Catholic faith:
The growing Hispanic presence in the United States is truly a blessing from God, enriching the Church by leading all of its members to a broader vision of what it means to be the People of God. Respecting the diversity of culture and utilizing the variety of gifts which are ours, the Catholic Church is called to be a sacrament: a sign of God's saving presence in the world.
We wish to address our Hispanic brothers and sisters who have left the active practice of their faith and those who have been invited to do so by leaders and members of other religious groups. We urge them to look again at their reasons for doing so.
Some have left the Catholic Church because they have been confused by well-intentioned proselytizers who were themselves misinformed about Catholic beliefs and practices. Nothing about Catholic teaching and practices is wrong or contrary to the Scriptures, but when improperly explained or misunderstood, it might seem to be so. This is why we have directed so much effort in recent years to providing and improving religious education programs for all of our Catholic people. This is why we have urged all Catholics to read the Bible and learn more about the history of the Church.
We earnestly invite you, our brothers and sisters who have left the Catholic Church, to make an effort to discover the great richness present in the Church which you have left without knowing her sufficiently. Indeed, it is in the Catholic Church that we find the uninterrupted Christian tradition leading back to our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Catholic Church is the continuation of the earliest and original Christian community, which was later called Catholic and which existed even before the New Testament, as a book, was written. It is in the Catholic Church that we find the fullness of divine wisdom and the means of salvation, which finds in the sacraments its most complete expression.
At the same time, the Catholic Church possesses an immense wealth of popular religiosity which has been formed through the centuries and which represents a valuable means of reaching God. In the Church, the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, invoked by the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, occupies a prominent place. Then come the saints, authentic followers of Christ, who now enjoy the glory of heaven and continue to help us through their intercession and example.
To the members of proselytizing sects: We urge the proselytizing groups to allow and encourage baptized Catholics to become better informed in their own faith rather than confuse them with alien, controversial ideas.
Be sincere with yourselves. Acknowledge the enormous spiritual richness that so many Catholics carry in their hearts, even if, after being baptized as children, they have not been well educated in their faith.
Consider the fact that many times your aggressive attitude seriously damages the name and the cause of the gospel. Be open to ecumenical dialogue, which is producing so much fruit in the form of love and understanding among those who are Christ's disciples.
In accord with the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), we recognize that you, as members of these other religious groups, have a right to profess your own faith and to live according to your own conscience. Our attitude toward you and all sincere believers must be one of openness and understanding, not condemnation.
Part of our response to you, then, should be an invitation to mutual respect and to dialogue in the spirit of Christian ecumenism. This is certainly a sign of our times. We believe that the restoration of Christian unity, which must be a goal for all followers of Jesus Christ, is best served by a true commitment to the work of ecumenism, not by a return to the polemics and proselytism of the past.
As shepherds of the people of God, we are aware of the unnecessary and detrimental divisions which exist within the Christian community. We do not wish to aggravate the situation by competing with other religious groups for membership nor by publicly criticizing or speaking ill of their leaders.
Rather, we take this opportunity to restate our own intentions as leaders of the Catholic community to teach and to live the gospel of Jesus Christ with authenticity and apostolic zeal. We likewise renew our commitment to the work of ecumenism, while pledging to intensify our own Church's efforts to respond even more effectively to the ministerial needs of all our people.
Doing so, we wish to give priority to the evangelization of those who have not yet heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and encourage the new religious groups to do the same. We wish to promote the ongoing education and formation in the faith for Hispanic as well as all other members of the Catholic Church.
May the Most Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Star of Evangelization, be with us and bless us all, moving us each day to be more authentic disciples of Christ, for the glory of God the Father.
That concludes the bishops' pastoral. Next is a statement by Keith J. Atkinson, California public communications director for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church).
His statement was issued shortly after the bishops' pastoral was released, and its quick issuance tends to underscore the importance the Mormon Church places on the Catholic Church's attitude toward its efforts to convert Catholics:
We view this letter as an internal document written by good men sincerely concerned for members of their own faith.
As for the missionary activity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are having a high degree of success all over the world. It is not unusual that in a country like Mexico, which is largely Catholic, some of those being baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should come from the ranks of other faiths.
We feel confident, however, that this pastoral letter will not interfere with interfaith cooperation on matters of mutual concern. We have great respect for the Catholic faith and the good work that it does all over the world.
Out of this respect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons as we are sometimes known, has donated millions of dollars to the Catholic Relief Organization for the assistance of those suffering from the famine in Ethiopia. (It may be noted that while there are many Catholics in Ethiopia, there are no members of our faith.)
Closer to home we have been proud to join with the Catholics and other religious groups on a variety of social issues of mutual concern, be it feeding the homeless or supporting what we consider to be important moral issues such as the recently-passed Assembly Bill 2233, which prohibits the possession of child pornography in the State of California.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints join in supporting such issues because we know that they assist in improving the quality of life for all of God's children--Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and members of all other faiths and denominations. We sincerely hope that such cooperation will continue.
The Catholic ordinary of Salt Lake City is Bishop William Weigand. Naturally he has a particular interest in the proselytizing of the Mormons, residing, as he does, just a few blocks from the Mormon headquarters. Bishop Weigand issued the following statement in response to the pastoral on proselytism by the Alta and Baja California bishops:
The February 28 statement on proselytism issued by Catholic bishops of Alta and Baja California expressed concern about proselytism, defined as "the use of unfair and coercive practices and methods" in convincing individuals to convert from one religious affiliation to another.
As a diocese we too reject such practices on the part of any religious group (including Catholic) because they are deeply hurtful to people. However, the Diocese of Salt Lake City was not a party to the February 28 statement, nor was it consulted.
While the issue has a certain relevance not only in Alta/Baja California but elsewhere, we in Utah would analyze it somewhat differently and probably would want to express some different emphasis.
If a number of Catholics are joining other churches, I see this as a challenge to our own pastoral effectiveness. We simply need to do a better job in ministering to our own people, including the large number of Hispanics. However, we should not underestimate the good work already long under way.
We should also remember that in the United States alone the Catholic Church grew nearly 1.5 million last year to a total of 54,920,000. In Utah too the Catholic population steadily climbs.
I do not want the California statement to affect the good relations presently existing between the leadership of the Latter-day Saints Church and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. We deal with each other on a variety of projects on a regular basis. I am thankful that the difficult relations that may exist between religious denominations elsewhere are not generally replicated in Utah.
So there you have it: the original pastoral statement, the response from the Mormons, and the response from the Catholic bishop whose see is in the heart of Mormondom. We have our own opinions, of course, and here is what the Catholic Answers staff thinks:
First of all, we're pleased the California bishops--both American and Mexican--have said something publicly about the issue. Sometimes folks in the pews think their bishops have no idea what's going on, that they don't realize the inroads made by the sects. It may be that some bishops don't realize this, but surely most do, and here's the proof.
The bishops correctly identify the groups most effective in converting Catholics. Note how quickly the Mormons responded even though their church was named but once in the pastoral. Others were quick to respond also.
L. Stephen Gifford, president of the Seventh-Day Adventists' Southeastern California Conference, lost no time in saying he was unaware of any Adventist coercion against members of other faiths. "At a time when all churches, including Seventh-Day Adventists, are concerned about the brotherhood of mankind, such a sweeping statement of this kind by the bishops is most unfortunate and will arouse much ill will."
And here we get to a key issue: The pastoral is written against "coercive practices and methods" used by the sects, and the sects say they don't use such practices. Who's right?
In this case, we think, it's the sects.
It may be a matter of semantics. When we read about coercion, we think about strong-arm tactics: "Convert or we'll steal your children!" "If you want to continue working here, join up!" "You've got a nice house. Wouldn't it be a shame if it burned down?"
Of course, the bishops don't seem to have such things in mind when they refer to coercion, and that's good, because we're unaware of any such tactics being used. We've talked with countless people who have been proselytized--hey, we've had these missionaries come to our doors too, you know--and we have yet to find anyone who's been put to the third degree.
What the bishops seem to be complaining about is not so much true coercion, but the way the sects catch Catholics unaware: "We urge the proselytizing groups to allow and encourage baptized Catholics to become better informed in their own faith rather than confuse them with alien, controversial ideas."
Let's face it, this isn't much of a plea. Why should non-Catholic groups withhold their evangelization efforts (and it is evangelization they're involved in) until uninformed Catholics become informed Catholics? Why should they wait until the resistance to their message is greater?
Look at it this way. Let's say it's A.D. 200 and we Catholics are going to evangelize pagans. Would we pay much heed to a pagan's plea that we hold off preaching the Good News until Joe Average Pagan becomes well versed in paganism? Of course not. We want to get people out of paganism because paganism is bad for them, and we want to get them into Christianity because Christianity is good for them (particularly for their souls).
The sects mentioned in the pastoral, from their point of view, must be thinking similarly: "Why should be accede to the bishops' request that we wait until their flocks become solid Catholics? We don't want them to be Catholics, solid or otherwise. We want them to be Mormons (or Witnesses, or Adventists, or Pentecostals)."
This, we think, is the most serious drawback of an otherwise encouraging pastoral. Bishop Weigand put his disagreement gently, but the very fact that he issued a statement shows that he too thinks the pastoral has flaws.
Notice how he distances himself from it: "I see this as a challenge to our own pastoral effectiveness"--the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Let's not point the finger at the sects and accuse them of stealing sheep.
The truth is that our people could take care of themselves if they were trained adequately. "We simply need to be a better job in ministering to our own people," says Bishop Weigand, and he's right.
Of course, if the pastoral seems to have missed the mark, the same can be said of the Mormons' statement, which itself is perhaps more diplomatic than one might have expected. After all, the Mormons could have scored points had they said, "Show us cases of coercion, and we'll put a stop to them"--a nice way of saying, "Put up or shut up."
What we have here, in fact--and this on both sides--is a cautious dance. The Catholic bishops don't want to antagonize the sects, but they don't want to look like patsies either. The Mormons, Adventists, and, no doubt, the other sectarians want to say, "Who, us?" They want to look like reasonable people.
We wish lines had been drawn more distinctly. We wish the pastoral had said, "Look, these guys are simply wrong theologically. We acknowledge their right to propagate their religions, but we have a right to oppose their efforts. We've been losing the battles so far--we see more Catholics leaving for the sects than sectarians entering the Church--but that's going to change.
"We're going to train our people not just in their own beliefs, but in the beliefs of the sectarians as well. We want them to speak intelligently with missionaries at their doors. We want them to give not just a good defense, but to go on the offensive too. Minimizing losses isn't enough. We want to regain for the Church those who left it, and we want to bring into the Church those who never were in it.
"We're putting sectarians on notice that we'll cooperate with them on social welfare and political issues, but we're not going to let that cooperation hinder us from preaching the full truth--the truth which has been entrusted to us as the authentic successors to the apostles.
"This truth doesn't come from ourselves. It comes from Christ through his Church. We're merely the caretakers. And we're going to take good care of it, no matter what."
One of the problems is that the pastoral reads as though composed by a committee. This is fatal for any document. The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address are memorable because they were one-man efforts. No one has ever bothered to memorize Congressional legislation, because all legislation is the result of committee compromises.
We were hoping to see a pastoral that would be more than a pastoral, one that would be as inspiring as a presidential speech composed by a top speech writer. But such speeches are crisp and short; the pastoral is wordy and long, which means almost no one will read it. It should have been pulpit-length, so it could be read during Mass, and it should have been inspiring, but too much of it is pedantic, even soporific.
The suggestions given toward the end of the pastoral are mainly good, but they remain undeveloped.
"Promote door-to-door home visits by well-prepared and zealous Catholics." Excellent! But how are these Catholics to be prepared, and what are they zealous for? There are different kinds of zeal, and some are a waste of time--some are even counterproductive.
"Foster knowledge of the sects and new religious groups, as well as their pastoral plans, by means of congresses and meetings at various levels, wherever practical and possible." Again, very fine, but one sentence isn't enough. What constitutes "knowledge of the sects and new religious groups"? Do we merely list them and say a few words about their history, or do we give Catholics step-by-step instructions in how to answer the sects' charges?
Another problem: loose generalizations.
The "historical churches" are lumped together, unjustifiably: They are said to be "ecumenical," they "look for truth at every level," and they "appreciate spiritual and temporal values." (Which values? Most of them are strongly pro-abortion.)
The sects "do not appreciate temporal values" (though they tend to be anti-abortion) and, it is true, they certainly can't be called "ecumenical," which is understandable since their theology is generally far removed from traditional Christianity.
We could go on, but even this should be enough to show that, as good as the pastoral is in many respects, it could have been better. It isn't as good as the efforts some of its signers, such as Archbishop Roger Mahony, have taken on their own. But it is a start, and we hope tighter and more energized statements will follow so all Catholics in America will know just what to do.