Mission, Dialogue, and Difficulties
How religious freedom went from the freedom to practice and explain the Faith to permission to merely do what the State allows
By James V. Schall, S.J.
Danish translation: Mission, dialog og vanskeligheder
Source: Catholic World Report, February 18, 2014
Published on myIslam.dk: July 6, 2017

Pope Francis leads a meeting with religious leaders at the Vatican March 20. 2013. The pope met with the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Jain delegations that had come to the Vatican for his inauguration. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

“In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples. All baptized, whatever their position is in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization….” — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #120.
“The Church is thus obligated to do everything possible to carry out her mission to the world and to reach all peoples. And she has the right to do this, a right given her by God for the accomplishment of his plan. Religious freedom, which is still at times limited or restricted, remains the premise and guarantee of all the freedoms that ensure the common good of individuals and peoples.” — Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #39.


A tension exists between the Church’s recent and urgent commitment to mission and its parallel emphasis on dialogue as a practical way to deal with differences in religions and philosophies. The purpose of mission is ultimately conversion to the truth contained in revelation, to the person of Christ. The purpose of dialogue was, originally, to resolve arguments on a rational basis. Dialogue more recently came to mean simply the honest and accurate presenting and understanding on both sides of what is held by a religion or philosophy. By prior agreement, no attempt is made or allowed to “convert” anyone to anything. The missionary mode seeks to convert; the dialogue mode does not. The one mode instructs all believers to go out to convert everyone else. The dialogue mode means that nobody can resolve any controversy. All anyone can do is to state the issues clearly.

Popes—from Paul VI’s Evangelii Nunciandi, to John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio, to Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium—have sought to place the whole Church in a missionary mode. The “Good News” must be preached and brought to others. It was not intended to remain in a small group, even if that is where it began. This missionary urgency is the pressing conclusion drawn, even today, from Christ’s charge to the Apostles to “go forth and teach all nations.” Pope Francis insists that everyone is a “missionary” to those who have not heard or who have heard but have fallen away. Priests and bishops are to get out of the bureaucratic mode, to get out of their rectories and go where the people are. However, Christ did warn that if His followers did these missionary things they would be often hated and persecuted. Nothing in the contemporary situation would lead us to doubt that these dire consequences will not happen if we follow the “go forth” admonition.

Yet, the Church has insistently held that religious freedom is the first “right” for everyone, not just Catholics. We really do not want a world in which everyone at every turn is constantly badgering his neighbor about some sort of conversion. Part of religious freedom means we leave our neighbors in peace with their own religion. The public and civil freedom of religion until recently was taken as a given in what were said to be free and democratic states. This freedom included the ability to practice one’s faith with no civil impediments. It could exist in the public order. Believers had the capacity to form their own institutions; they were free to make what they held known, free to present their case.

As the secular state has taken over more and more of the health, educational, and charitable functions once pioneered by Christianity, however, it has increasingly restricted “freedom of religion.” It now protects only what goes on inside churches. Nearly everything outside churches is under control of the ideology and power of the state. Religion and its adherents must conform to the mandates of the state, whatever one’s conscience dictates to the contrary, at the price of civil disenfranchisement, if not positive persecution and imprisonment.

The enormous varieties of religion, however, made it necessary to ask about limits on religious proselytism. Not all religions held the same things by any means. Many were frankly at odds with, if not at war with, other religions or the state. The civil notion that all religions were equally insignificant was the result of the proposals of Hobbes. Religion was seen as a cause of civil war and domestic strife. Civic peace, as we learned from Marsilius fra Padua, could only be maintained if all religions fell under state power in all their external actions. Religion was exclusively a thing of the spirit; it had nothing to do with the body. Such a view effectively made incarnational Christianity impossible.

The distinction between natural and supernatural religions was not recognized. Philosophy and politics controlled all things called in any way “religious”. We even find proposals for a world parliament of religion under the control of the United Nations and its ideology. All conflicts between religion and politics are resolved in favor of the state, and the state in effect becomes itself a substitute religion or metaphysics. The state decides what religion can hold; it has no transcendent check on itself.

In the Catholic tradition, all religions, including itself, were held to be subject to what was known as natural law. Natural religion indicated the way man responded to God using only his own understanding and powers. Supernatural religion indicated what God was said to have revealed to men over and above what they could and should figure out by themselves. Natural law was held to be the rule of reason, valid for all times and places. Its very existence was a denial of cultural and historical relativism. This law was what had to be presupposed if various religions were to come together on common grounds. Many religions, and increasingly modern philosophy and state policies, deny any such common “law of reason”. No “reason” can be found in man or in the cosmos. Nothing common is presupposed to all religions on the basis of which men could form initial and binding agreements.

Catholicism in particular is committed to the existence and logical force of the natural law
as a rule of reason open to everyone, even to those who deny it. Religions or religious tenets that deny a position of natural law are considered to be evidence of the falsity of a religion or one of its views. Reason and revelation do not contradict each other for they have a common origin.

The phenomenon known as “multi-culturalism,” however, meant that deciding among the variety of different claims or finding what they could agree on was not possible. Behind individual cultures no natural law or reason existed. Everything was relative to the culture or the period in which it was formulated. Religious freedom thus came to be based not on reason but on a skepticism with regard both to natural law and to any claim to a revelation addressed to it. No commonly shared truth was possible. Only a desperate “article of peace” existed that forbad disturbing the public order, whatever the reason. The coercive and judicial powers of the modern state were charged with preventing any religion from getting out of hand. Religious freedom meant not freedom to practice and explain what the religion held, but permission to do what the state allowed.


Dialogue originally meant a conversation between two people that sought to resolve the truth of this or that claim. Dialogue later was associated with academia. Again, within the halls of the university, arguments in dialogue form could take place on any topic. Arguments in favor of “error” were allowed. No truth could be known unless its opposite were also known and related to it. Force was present only to prevent fights and coercive procedures. Not everyone could or would understand the need for such a space in which truth and falsity of positions could be hammered out. This fact is why the academy was set aside as a place where even unsavory views could be presented. Dialogue itself was said to respect the opinions of every side by accurately stating whatever was held. We wanted to know what was held, but also we wanted to resolve the differences in an orderly, mutually acceptable manner. Dialogue often came to be understood as a substitute for war, which was said to impose terms on the issue without every side seeing the logic of the solution.

But the fact is that some positions are irreconcilable in practice. Dialogue cannot always prevent the desire for war to impose ones views or the need of a war to protect the very possibility of freedom and truth. It is no accident that the ecumenical movement was proposed as a “dialogue.”

What is striking about the Church’s recent turn to missionary or evangelical approaches to faith is not so much that this need has not been present in the Church all along, but that there are few places in the world that will allow even the minimum of missionary presence. If we look frankly at the civil and customary restrictions present in Islamic states, in China, even in India and countries of the Buddhist tradition, we will quickly find that any sudden increase in missionary efforts is met with rejection. Indeed, Islamic states seem bent on expelling the last vestiges of Christian faith within their borders. While Christian documents frequently suggest that Islam and Christianity worship the same God, the fact is that the God who is Trinity and Incarnate in Jesus is specifically denied in the Koran. Just what God they have in common is most difficult to ascertain (see my essay, “Whose God Is God?”).

Pope Francis recently, after pointing to the widespread persecution many Christians now experience in Muslim lands, suggested that Muslims are free in western states to practice their religion, so why do they not influence their countries of origin to allow such freedom of religion to non-Muslims. Part of the problem, however, is that the Muslims, who do settle in states with some freedom of religion, as soon as they can, form their own enclaves in which they seek to make the practice of Muslim law necessary. There really is not much of a conversion to the western notion of freedom of religion. What we find is the use of western freedom to set up the religious system that prevails in Muslim states. Given the population increase of Muslim people within these lands, they have a real hope of being able to set up Muslim cities or countries in these formerly unconquered lands.

Even though many conversions to Christianity are said to occur underground in China, any widespread conversion is seen as a threat to the state which remains officially atheist. If we add to this situation the shift in western states themselves to a version of religious freedom that is in fact statist, we have to grant that the possibilities of doing much missionary work on a global basis is very slim. That said, I am not unaware of what I would call the intellectual fragility of both Muslim and other religions and ideologies, as well as the dubious structure of the present atheist and relativist positions that underpin opposition to the truth of Christianity in western societies. Things can thus change very rapidly, though it is by no means clear they will change for the better and not for the worse.

The lesson I draw from these reflections is that any missionary effort must take more seriously the duty of truth. We have been used to minimizing our relationships so that what we see and grant is what we have in common. We leave out what makes us distinct. But what is distinct is what we are charged to make known. In the case of Islam, it is not sufficient to try to say that we all have the same God in common when all the evidence, as Rémi Brague has noted, is that the Gods depicted in Scripture and in the Koran are very different. We know from Benedict’s experience at Regensburg that stating the truth about Islam, even in academia, can cause Christians to be killed in retaliation. When this happens, it is often the one who brought up the truth who is blamed, not the killers.

It is time, it strikes me, to insist that contradictory and false positions about what Catholicism is and holds be confronted. The dialogue mode too often seemed to elevate differences into an intellectual nether world where nothing real was at stake. At present we seem to want everyone to be missionary with no place where they can go to exercise this zeal which is implicit to the faith. Without neglecting what we may have in common with other philosophies or religions, we need to be much more forthright in making sure that what we do not have in common is in the forefront of why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe, of why we understand what we understand. Too often we give a pass to those who state what we hold unfairly.

We need not become obnoxious or imprudent. But we do need to confront the lies and misstatements of what we are to be missionary about, of what we are to dialogue about. Catholicism is an intellectual religion; that is, we cannot set out to be missionaries unless we first insist on the truth of what we hold and the untruth of what we reject. We do not think that it is impossible for others to understand these truths even if they do not believe them. We read in 1 John, to conclude: “My reason for having written to you is not that you do not know the truth, but that you do, and that no lie has anything in common with the truth” (2:21). This strikes me as a good place to begin.

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.