Vatican conversion document may become news, but not yet
The Roman Catholic Church statement about evangelisation last Friday was one of those classic Vatican documents that are short on news but long on content. We covered it in a news story from Vatican City, but it was not top news that day (“Christians should spread the faith” is not exactly a new message). The document also avoided the blunt tone that sometimes comes out of the Vatican — an angle journalists were watching out for — and dealt with a sensitive issue “softly, softly,” as one theologian put it.
The impact of this document should unfold slowly in the context of the Vatican’s relations with Orthodox churches and with Muslims. It proclaims a duty to spread the Gospel without respect to geographical boundaries. That sounds like a rebuff to the Russian Orthodox argument that Rome should not seek or accept converts in traditionally Orthodox countries. It’s also a challenge to Muslim countries that forbid conversion, to the point of declaring apostasy — i.e. leaving Islam — a crime worthy of the death penalty. Since the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says it issued the text because of “a certain confusion about whether Catholics should give testimony about their faith in Christ,” this document amounts to a practical guide for dealing with these situations. That’s not news now, but it can well become news at some point ahead if this leads to tensions.
Relations with the Russian Orthodox are sensitive and difficult to read. Metropolitan Kirill, the “foreign minister” of the Russian Church, met Pope Benedict on December 7 and said the session was proof of improving ties. A quick look at the Interfax Religion service seems to hint at a more critical view in Moscow. Kirill seems to take a tougher line back home. The Moscow Patriarchate is also concerned that Opus Dei, which just opened an office in the Russian capital, might proselytise in Russia.
Another question is whether this means the Catholic Church will become more active in its missionary work. The Church is already facing competition from evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries who are winning converts in developing countries, especially in traditionally Catholic countries in Latin America. In Muslim countries like Iraq , it says assertive evangelical missionaries arriving in recent years have upset a long-standing balance the Christian minority had found with the majority population.
Do you think the Catholic Church is right to claim a right and duty to convert people everywhere? Will it become more assertive about it now?