In the first-ever papal sermon, St. Peter ended his exhortation by urging his Jewish audience to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). It was the first of countless invitations made by popes over the past 2,000 years to non-Catholics to convert and become part of the Catholic Church.
And yet in recent decades, those papal invitations to conversion have disappeared.
In research for my most recent book, Deadly Indifference, I read hundreds and hundreds of modern papal addresses to interreligious groups—particularly from Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. As I read through these addresses, I noticed something peculiar. Not once did the pope invite his non-Catholic listeners to become Catholic. Although each pope at times noted the value of Catholicism (usually in how it shared a particular value with the religion his listeners adhered to), never did I find a time when a recent pope directly asked non-Catholics to convert to the One Truth Faith of Catholicism. And of course, Pope Francis seems to have an allergic reaction to conversions. Unlike the first pope, modern popes are reticent to seek conversions.
Now, I know what many people are thinking: an interreligious gathering isn’t the proper place to seek conversions. The purpose of such meetings is to focus on the values and beliefs we share, not to tell people to convert. To do so would be both improper and rude.
But isn’t that precisely the problem? Such considerations—common among us today—put human respect above eternal salvation. They worry more about what people will think about us than what God thinks about their souls.
This isn’t just a papal problem—it impacts all Catholics. Through most of Church history, Catholics from the pope down to the parish pewsitter understood that we have been given a priceless gift, but we’ve also been given an obligation to share that gift with others. To withhold that gift because it might be offensive to some is an abuse of what the Lord has bestowed upon us. While recent popes have led the trend, very few Catholics are comfortable today with sharing the treasure they have.
So why don’t Catholics ask non-Catholics to convert anymore? Clearly there are a host of reasons, some cultural, and some religious. It’s considered impolite to talk about religion publicly. We live in a “tolerant” society, which means we are supposed to accept every other religious belief and practice as legitimate. We deny there is an absolute truth, speaking in terms of “my truth” and “your truth.”
All these attitudes and more are factors. But I would argue that religious indifference is the key reason: too many Catholics simply don’t believe that it ultimately matters if someone is Catholic. It’s not something life-changing, but more a personal preference like your favorite ice cream.
Yet if one is a believing Catholic, he should believe that it is through the Catholic Church—and the Catholic Church alone—that one is saved. This isn’t a personal preference, but the only path to eternal bliss. Further, not being Catholic puts one at risk for a terrible fate: eternal damnation. So why wouldn’t we want to invite non-Catholics to become Catholic? Don’t we think it matters?
The answer is found in the qualifier “believing” Catholic. Most of us don’t really believe, or are ignorant of, what the Church teaches when it comes to salvation. It’s a common belief among Catholics that other religions can bring salvation. In addition many Catholics can’t bring themselves to believe that God would condemn anyone at all (other than perhaps Hitler and a few others) to eternal hellfire.
This religious indifference is based on a faulty conception of God. We picture Him as a Santa Claus figure—old and jolly and always giving gifts. But the Biblical picture of God is far different. Unless we embrace the 2nd century heretic Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament, we have to reconcile its conception of God with our own. More precisely, we need to conform our conception with the Bible’s—the whole Bible’s.
God desires all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim 2:4), but He does not force anyone to salvation. While beige ecclesiastics might argue that we should hope that all men be saved, Pope Pius IX condemned the following error more than a century ago: “Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ” (Syllabus of Errors , 17). We have to realize that men and women do go to Hell, and it’s possible most of them do. After all, we all deserve Hell due to our sins, which are a rejection of life with God. But in God’s mercy, He makes salvation available to us—if we become His disciples.
It’s hard to imagine that most Church leaders—or most Catholics—actually believe this. If they did, they would see the conversion of non-Catholics as their primary mission in life. Like St. Peter, they would urge them to repent and be baptized, even if such an invitation led to social rejection or even persecution. In fact, it is the height of selfishness to have a great treasure and keep it to yourself. While Church leaders like to focus on our obligations to the materially poor, they ignore the spiritually poor.
We must shake off our indifference about salvation and begin again to invite non-Catholic friends and family to become Catholic. It’s the fundamental mission of the Church (cf. Mt. 28:19-20), and if our Church leaders won’t fulfill it, it’s up to us to do so.
[Image: St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem by Charles Poërson]