I would hope not to court much controversy by saying that all of us should live in accordance with the truth. Call it a notion of natural law that I can get behind. That each of us conceives and understands the truth differently complicates the imperative, but it doesn’t do away with it. More controversially, I believe that religion–well, my religion anyway–provides a uniquely and especially true way of being in the world. I’m Catholic, not for my comfort, but because I believe this religious faith at its core embodies, if imperfectly, the right communal response to a sacred and inexplicable event–a Revelation of a community of persons at the heart of the universe. If I desire that everyone should live according to the truth, believe that truth includes the content of Revelation, and believe further that Catholicism is the true religious faith, then it would seem to follow that I should desire that you all convert to my religion. If I don’t wish all of you to be Catholic, then I don’t really believe Catholicism is true.
Not a handful of my coreligionists would say so, stopping at this syllogism’s end without considering any complications or nuances. For example, Michael Voris of the fittingly-named Church Militant TV, chides the leaders in his church who do not manifestly desire everyone in the world to be Catholic. For Voris, whose manner of evangelism could be likened to the broad swing of a heavy blunt instrument, if you’re not in or at least headed for the church, then you’re literally moving in the direction of Hell. If I don’t desire you all to begin the process of conversion, then I in effect desire your eternal torment in everlasting hellfire.
Except, no, I don’t desire for anyone the conditions that would mean a one-way road trip to Hell. I’m not allergic to any notion of an afterlife, even one of chosen misery, but I know next to nothing of what an afterlife means. I have only the signs and symbols of the here and now to imagine the hereafter, and, speaking of the here and now, the line of reasoning outlined above has a big problem: it treats religion and the people within it as abstractions divorced from the real world.
First of all, my religious faith is not a Platonic Form or some abstract ideal to which we’re all supposed to accord our lives. It’s an institution situated in the messiness of history, and its own history is often morally repellant. Second, as a community with traditions of myth, ritual, and interpretation by which its members live their lives and understand themselves, Catholicism contributes to the identities of those situated within it. I cannot encourage conversion without also encouraging a change to who someone is.
Because sin affects people in the church, clergy and laity alike, conversion in some circumstances may not be a blessing. Let’s say I know an atheist living in a small rural area where there’s only one religious community, and that one community happens to be a Catholic Church. My atheist friend has told me over Facebook that he’s interested in learning more about my faith and that he plans to visit the parish where he resides as its the only one he can feasibly attend. Awesome, I think, but then he messages me after his visit and describes the peculiar practices of this particular Catholic community. Listening to him, I become quickly aware that much of what he’s describing sounds cultish and authoritarian–more so than is usual for Catholicism–practices I judge to be spiritually and psychologically unhealthy. In this scenario, I would not suggest he return.
It would be easy to say that this particular parish did not practice authentic Catholicism, meaning that I was not really advising my hypothetical friend against returning to the only Catholic community where he could feasibly start on the official road to conversion. Too easy, really. There is no pure, authentic Catholicism practiced anywhere in the world. Every community has its moral strengths and weaknesses, its blessings and dangers to solidarity and spiritual health. People too are complicated. Where one thrives another may suffer. I’m all for evangelization provided it respects our “situatedness.” Consequently, I wouldn’t recommend that everyone, without care to where they are or who they may become, stop what they’re doing and take steps toward my religion. The results would not be dandy, even assuming the ultimate truth of Catholicism, which, of course, you should.