Evangelization and Coercion
Writing in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Paul Kokoski worries that the Church has lost sight of its mandate “to convert non-Catholics to the one true faith,” believing that it suffers from a “desire to gloss over, and obfuscate, contradictions” in its Vatican II and post-conciliar statements and documents. Kokoski’s argument is extraordinarily weak, due not in the least to his failure to make rudimentary distinctions. His opening paragraph is a doozy:
Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae states that every person has a “right” to religious freedom. They are not to be “coerced,” in any way, to act contrary to their own beliefs. In seemingly contradictory fashion, the same document exhorts Catholics to use the coercive power of truth in their missionary mandate to “make disciples of all nations”: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Dignitatis Humanae thus invites Catholics to be both non-coercive, and coercive, in their dealings with non-Catholics. “Non-coercion” is understood in a negative sense to mean “non-missionary.” “Coercion” is understood in a positive sense to mean “missionary.” Vatican II, then, is inviting Catholics to be both a non-missionary, and a missionary, people. It is asserting, in effect, that two contradictory views of reality are merely different perceptions of the same thing. One can see in this confusion the promotion of a lethal system of religious indifferentism.
Kokoski sees contradictions where none reside. A contradiction arises when you have a logical incompatibility between propositions. Something cannot logically be said to be and not be in the same way and at the same time. Dignitatis Humanae declares that the human person has religious freedom, that all persons “are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” Here the meaning of the propositions is literal. When the document says that “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power,” its meaning is clearly metaphorical: propositional truth has no agency. The statement is not about using the truth to coerce the will, but rather about how truth calls and compels the mind to it. Because truth discloses itself to the mind, coercion isn’t necessary. Persuasion is instead the proper path forward. So, no, Dignitatis Humanae does not invite Catholics to be both coercive and non-coercive; it here gives two reasons why coercion is out of line: religious freedom and the persuasive power of truth. The missionary work of the new evangelization can and should respect both of these.