The word proselytize means, etymologically, "to come toward." It is a term used in the Greek Septuagint and in the New Testament to refer to gentiles that were God-fearing and had entered Judaism (e.g. προσήλυτος is used in Matthew 23:15.) It was also used in the early Church to refer to new converts. So when did it become a bad word? We see even the pope himself saying we must not proselytize. (cf Here and in his earlier interview with Scalfari)
The OED, Webster and every secular dictionary defines it as to convert someone from one religion to another. A secondary definition is to advocate or promote an idea. Are we to refrain from these things? God forbid it. That must not be what is meant. Aquinas seems to use the term only in the scriptural context, the conversion of a gentile to Judaism. Obviously Christians should not be doing that! But that is clearly not what is meant in rejecting the term.
While confessing my ignorance what distinction is intended by many that distinguish evangelization from proselytism, some claim the distinction is between bringing non-Christians to Christ (evangelization) as opposed to converting a Christian to another denomination (proselytism). We are to "dialogue with", not proselytize fellow Christians. The Catholic Church is God's instrument of salvation and is the mystical body of Christ (Orientalium Ecclesiarum para 2.) It is not a denomination or sect. In fact, sectarianism is considered a sin. Those who hold public heresy or schism are separated, then, from the body of Christ itself, even if, in the case of merely material heresy or schism they may remain spiritually united in some way. In either case, whether at fault or not, for a member of our "separated brethren" to enter the Church, to "come toward" the fullness of truth is something we should want. Ignorance may be inculpable, but takes the character of a punishment and hindrance (according to St. Thomas an act done due to inculpable ignorance is only involuntary, it doesn't become morally good because of good intent). And if it is not inculpable ignorance separating them, then even worse, it is mortal sin.
Francis' recent comments links proselytization with persuasion. We need to dialogue, not persuade. Leaving aside the context of his statements, or what he really holds or would say in a more formal context, this too is problematic.
Apart from extraordinary actions by God, someone is brought to the faith through some involvement of human agency. Quomodo credent ei quem non audierunt? (Rom. 14) Preaching is necessary, not only that the articles of faith may be proposed for belief, but that certain evidenter credibilia, which precede the act of faith, may be held. Whereas the articles of faith can only properly be held through the virtue of faith- by which reason is commanded by the will to assent and thus it gives infallible truth to reason- other credibilia are properly held by the persuasion of reason. And the missionary's job is to convince those to be converted of these truths. One may present such things in an attractive way, and that is all fine and good. Aquinas calls the inclination of reason to a proposition through some attraction, through say a certain beauty, as "estimation." It is the weakest form of assent, and doesn't even involve, necessarily, any real assent- in fact one may hold an opinion contrary to it. "It sounds wonderful, but it isn't true."
Rhetoric, at least, inclines reason to affirm at least that one side of a contradiction is more probable. While rhetoric is not the same thing as persuasion (for even sophists persuade), it does involve persuasion. Aquinas calls the result "suspicion." In true rhetoric, the argument is true in that it doesn't use fallacious reasoning, falsehoods, etc, but doesn't go beyond suspicion because incomplete.The work of the preacher goes beyond even this. Opinion or (human) faith requires even greater persuasion than what rhetoric affords. It requires conviction. While some chance of the other side of a contradiction is true still remains, reason is totally declined to one side of the contradiction. As Aquinas says in his preface to his commentary on the Posterior Analytics some judgment must be formed on the matter being investigated, before certitude can be had.
Why did Christ perform miracles? He did so to give a sign of the authenticity of His doctrine, that He was from God. (cf. S. Th. III q. 43). But the miracles He performed, who today believes in even this sign? Some major prelates even doubt their historicity. But He performed miracles, in part, to lead people to faith. Should not the preacher, in presenting this as evidence, work to persuade potential converts that this evidence is, in fact, credible? Should he not try and persuade them of the credibility of the faith? And indeed work to incline them toward it? In doing so, he performs a role analogous to dialectics, in leading to a judgment on the credibility of the "first truth" and in what he preaches as being from that first truth. God has certainly, in the past, willed such persuasion through human agency, why not now? Are we supposed to just witness by being good Catholics and "live and let live" and figure God will do all the work?
If proselytism is to seek to persuade, in order to convert, then we should have no issue with it. That is what we are supposed to do!
Some have claimed the word carries the connotation of coercion. Fr. Longenecker claimed it was not real conversion, but the use of emotional blackmail or manipulation and so on. (cf. His article here) Leaving aside that the conversion of Rome did, in fact, rely largely on state influence and the laughably fictitious pseudo-history he lifts from Zmirak (Christianity was still a small minority when Constantine became emperor), we can agree with Longenecker that deception, blackmail, coercions like those are wrong. He quotes Benedict XVI. He could have quoted John Paul II too, for that matter. In those contexts, frankly, I think they are waging a war of words. Proselytism has become a dirty word among many, especially ecumenical Christians, so while maintaining the essence of proselytism, as the word actually denotes, lets call what we do evangelization and associate coercion or bad methods or what have you with proselytism.
Benedict juxtaposed proselytism with "attraction." So obviously I am being too hard on Francis?
But Francis juxtaposed persuasion with attraction. We cannot glide over that as if that changes nothing of what is taken from what he says. It is bad enough that many modernists take the censuring of proselytism in John Paul II, e.g., to mean we shouldn't try and convert anyone. There, at least, you could go to the context and see that John Paul II very clearly proclaimed the need to preach the Gospel to all nations, and condemned the attitude that says we should "live and let live" with regard to other beliefs, because they, too, have a right to hear the Gospel. (Redemptoris missio)
But Francis says we should live and let live. He says we shouldn't persuade. He says we should respect their beliefs. The context essentially supports the modernist taking this as support.
Now I am not Francis, I cannot speak for him or what he really means. The way he has said everything is at best male sonans. In the tradition of Aquinas, then, I propose a reverential understanding of Francis's words.
Persuasion is not always a good word. The very error of the sophists is to believe that rhetoric is about persuasion, period, regardless of true or false, regardless of the propriety of methods. I was reminded of this while reading that great Newtonian-Sophistical Stoic, Adam Smith. The word rhetoric has since him taken on a negative connotation at times, and at best neutral one. If persuasion is seen as the art of what the sophist calls rhetoric, then we should not aim at persuasion. But if we mean by persuasion merely convincing or encouraging someone, then we should aim at it, when directed toward the truth. Indeed, Webster gives coercion and convincement, encouragement and cajolery as synonyms of persuasion. It seems evident that no one uses all those words to mean the same thing, except perhaps those that thing any attempt at influencing someone is coercion.
As far as respecting belief/opinions? There we have one of the worse cliches ever invented. I take him to be using it, as it were, idiomatically. In a certain sense to mean, despite disagreement, still loving the other person, still respecting them qua person. The belief itself, by the fact I reject it, I necessarily do not respect it.
Why make a fuss if a reasonably orthodox meaning can be understood in his words? Because it is completely reasonable, albeit wrong, to read Francis as the modernists would read him. To argue against them we cite previous popes, etymologies and nuances of logic. We construct arguments about interpretation that, to both the unbeliever and to the modernist influenced Catholic, sound like grasping at straws. They are certainly not the prima facie meaning. Nor can we blame this on quoting out of context. We all understand that while one should be as clear as possible, it will always be the case that words and phrases can be taken out of context to various ends from even the best authors. But there is no such context in Francis's words. After the controversy with the first interview with Scalfari, he did another one. All the explanations about Scalfari misreporting what was said, about the need for Catholic tradition, about the pope speaking off the cuff etc. as true as they may all be, don't suddenly transform him into a great communicator. He has gained a lot of adulation from the world. Precisely because they understand him to be affirming their message, not Christ's.
But I am not the papal advisor, heck it is clear even many of his advisors are uncomfortable with certain things and he does them anyways. What, in the end, am I trying to persuade the reader of? Simply this. Yes, you can do the intellectual exercise of "providing context" and constructing interpretations. You can do that till you are blue in the face. But recognize that there is an issue with the words themselves. Explain them according to the faith by all means; then never speak that way again. Don't try to spin unclear phrases into the new language for the Church. It fails. This post, ultimately, is only meant as an illustration of the problems with sloppy words and male sonans propositions. Ultimately any real dialogue is predicated on both understanding and being understood by the other, and that will only be done with a return to more precise and, frankly, traditional vocabulary. After all, if I said you should not persuade anyone of something, would you understand that to mean you shouldn't coerce them or would you understand it as saying I should let them believe what they want and not try and change their mind? Be honest.