In December 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a Doctrinal Note On Some Aspects of Evangelization '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.'
The Doctrinal Note, which was approved by Benedict XVI, was signed by Cardinal William Levada, the Prefect of the Congregation.
The document's introduction provides reminders of Our Lord's command in the New Testament to spread the Faith, e.g., 'Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptised will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned' (Mk 16:15-16).
The Doctrinal Note also points out that 'in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, there are constant exhortations to fulfil the mission entrusted by Christ to his disciples.'
Evangelisation is therefore 'a duty of all Christians' which 'means not only teaching a doctrine', but proclaiming 'Jesus Christ by one's words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world.'
However, this duty has been hindered by 'a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective'. Some assert that 'any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom' believing 'it is enough 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.'
The Doctrinal Note sees this 'vision of human freedom, separated from its integral reference to truth' as reflective of the prevailing agnosticism and relativism that encourages 'an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the assumption that all positions are equally valid' with the claim that 'truth reveals itself equally in different doctrines, even if they contradict one another'.
As a result of such errors, the Note continues, '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.'
While an exaggerated ecumenism since Vatican II has contributed to this situation the Note endorses the continuance of a balanced ecumenism. Catholics, it says, 'avoiding every form of indifferentism or confusion, as well as senseless rivalry, through a common profession of faith in God and in Jesus Christ before all peoples - insofar as this is possible - may collaborate with their separated brethren in social, cultural, technical and religious matters in accordance with the Decree on Ecumenism'.
Nevertheless, '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.'
Needless to say any undue pressure to convert is unacceptable: 'In spreading religious faith and introducing religious practices, everyone should refrain at all times from any kind of action which might seem to suggest coercion or dishonest or improper persuasion, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people'.
At the same time, since truth 'does not impose itself except by the strength of the truth itself', it is not 'an inappropriate encroachment ... to lead a person's intelligence and freedom in honesty to the encounter with Christ and his Gospel'.
Indeed, everyone is entitled to this opportunity: 'The revelation of the fundamental truths about God, about the human person and the world, is a great good for 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.'
Much depends on good example. 'Above all', the Note reminds us, 'the witness of holiness is necessary, if the light of truth is to reach all human beings. If the word is contradicted by behaviour, its acceptance will be difficult'.
Centrality of Church
The Note rejects claims that the Kingdom of God is merely 'a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, to which they tend as a universal and indistinct communion of all those who seek God' since 'before all else' this Kingdom connects with 'a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God.'
In this regard, the centrality of the Catholic Church is insisted upon: 'Therefore, every free movement of the human heart towards God and towards his kingdom cannot but by its very nature lead to Christ and be oriented towards entrance into his Church, the efficacious sign of that Kingdom. The Church, therefore, is the bearer of the presence of God and thus the instrument of the true humanization of man and the world. The growth of the Church in history, which results from missionary activity, is at the service of the presence of God through his Kingdom: one cannot in fact 'detach the Kingdom from the Church'.'
The Doctrinal Note concludes: 'The relativism and irenicism prevalent today in the area of religion are not valid reasons for failing to respond to the difficult, but awe-inspiring commitment which belongs to the nature of the Church herself and is indeed the Church's 'primary task'' - namely to seek converts.