Is “evangelization” different from “evangelism”?


Roman Catholics have a curious word for evangelism — “evangelization,” as in the “new evangelization” advocated by Papa Benny and now by Francis. You see, Catholics have started to realize that the old state-supported, culturally-driven option for a viable Catholicism is no longer a viable option. The “new evangelization” is the Vatican’s attempt to get Catholics off their arses and tell people about Jesus, though it is purportedly more subtle and sophisticated than that. Francis is not very fond of proselytism, for example, which is one reason (among many) why conservative Catholics are less-than enamored by the current pontiff. Of course, Francis doesn’t define what he means by proselytism, since his goal is to be the most ambiguous pope in papal history.

For most of us, the only noun form of “to evangelize” is “evangelism.” A cursory glance at a Google search would indicate that evangelization is a Catholic term. The first search result for “evangelization” is the USCCB, and nearly all of the subsequent results are Catholic websites. However, the OED tells us that “evangelization” occurs as early as Hobbe’s Leviathan in 1651. But for all intents and purposes, it appears to be a new usage, if not coinage, by Roman Catholics in recent years.

I do not know if there is any difference between “evangelization” and “evangelism.” It seems to just be Catholic-speak for the same thing. However, their usage does appear to be different, given the different theologies and histories behind the two terms. For Catholic “evangelization,” the renewal of the culture is a big ingredient and, indeed, the telos of the whole initiative. For Protestant “evangelism,” the conversion of individuals is the primary connotation, whereas this appears to be secondary in Catholic discourse. Even among Protestants who embrace the “worldview” mentality of “every square inch,” the term “evangelism” is still mostly reserved for the act of witnessing to the gospel in its proclamation to the lost.

The term, “evangelization,” has become so widespread in Catholic circles that it has become a sure-fire way to identify a Catholic. They don’t say, “evangelism,” but “evangelization.”




  1. As I recall, the RC term “evangelization” goes back to the 70s (i.e., the wake of Vatican II), and then, if I’m not mistaken, took off during the late 80s and 90s. Its deployment mirrors the recent Protestant emphasis on missio Dei and missio being part of the esse of the church.

    …since his [Francis’] goal is to be the most ambiguous pope in papal history.
    Ha! Yes, it’s all a bit fuzzy, isn’t it? Perhaps not least because, when papa dicit, one must ask: who is the audience?

    • Ah, thanks for the historical tidbit. I recall reading somewhere about “evangelization” being an emphasis of the latter end of JP2’s and then B16’s papacies, tied to the success of the World Youth Days, but an earlier usage in the wake of V2 makes sense. I’ll have to track down a missiologist who may know why “evangelization,” not “evangelism,” was the preferred term.

      As for Francis, the point about “who is the audience” is right. Paul Molnar told me that Francis was just being a clever Jesuit! (Apologies to Professor Molnar if he wanted me to keep that between us.)

  2. It does appear that Pope Francis wants to be “all things to all men,” but the question is: In doing this, is he following Paul’s advice on how to do “evangelization,” or the example of Herman Melville’s Confidence Man (And if Melville’s unnamed anti-hero is not a type of “very clever Jesuit,” then what is he?) [I say all this as a former Roman Catholic, who still has fond thoughts and feeling for that communion.]?

    • While Paul’s injunction is too broad to know its precise applications, I highly doubt that Francis’ shoot-from-the-hip musings are what Paul had in mind. But maybe I should give Francis more credit. After all, I should hardly be complaining about a pope with some evangelical impulses, but it appears that many of his impulses are simply apologetic, in the worst sense of the term: catering the faith to the questions that men are asking instead of letting the faith pose the questions that men are not asking. That’s what leaves me unimpressed and sympathetic with his detractors.

  3. I’m liking this because you didn’t say “for all intensive purposes.” Hehe, no but in all seriousness, being a Catholic, I believe because of the seemingly large divide between clergy and laity, over the course of centuries the laity took for granted that evangelization seemed to be the duty of missionaries and clergy. They got a little too cozy into thinking the hierarchy had it handled. Also, I think that the modern era of relativism has infected even Catholic circles, insofar as we think we ought to leave everyone alone in their beliefs lest we somehow offend and repel all our friends and colleagues. The New Evangelization, as I understand it, is a call to have Catholics be more engaged with their neighbors whom they’re supposed to be loving and to reawaken those Catholics who have become nothing but nominally so. In other words, many Catholics call themselves such because it is their heritage, not necessarily out of any practices or beliefs they assent to. It is a call to reinvigorate the faithful to actually be just that, faithful. And I know Evangelist was most often used in reference to St. John. I am not familiar with the specific etymology of the word, but I think that isn’t quite what you were getting at anyway. Anywho, that’s just my two cents.

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