A Larger Sense of Church

Lay Catholics, I think, are way ahead of the hierarchy in embracing an ecumenical vision of the church. For the hierarchy, the ecumenical movement is necessarily concerned with concordats and theological treaty making.

Bishops meet non-Catholic leaders mainly in conference rooms and public ceremonies. Lay people live and talk with other Christians every day at the water cooler. They talk with them on the commute to work, sharing their views on this world and the next. Catholics have, as a result, come to think differently both about their friends and themselves. They have a larger sense of what church is.

It wasn’t that way when I was a boy in a tiny northern Wisconsin village in the 1940s and ’50s. Competition among Catholics, Lutherans, and Congregationalists was intense. Although we were in the minority, our Catholic confidence was mighty. We had not heard the word triumphalism but we knew how to practice it. There was no salvation outside the church; only Catholics were the true church, so only Catholics got saved. The Orthodox-inasmuch as we had even heard of them-had only themselves to blame for living in schism.

Protestants, in turn, were just plain heretics. Because they didn’t have all the truth, it’s as if they had no truth. The dislike and distrust went both ways, to be sure, but we never bothered answering their ignorant smears, because that’s all that could be expected from heretics. Plus, we consistently won in the marital and parental politics of “mixed marriages,” a very serious business, indeed. Conversion or the promise to raise the kids Catholic meant a local victory in the global wars of religion.

Critics like to complain that the ecumenical movement is little more than the survival tactic of failing denominations, or a sign of postmodern relativism, or even a weary indifference (a theological vice, remember). Most ordinary Catholics prefer to think of it as the work of the Holy Spirit. They are glad that Vatican II made real strides toward recognizing the validity of all faiths, and think that language like “separated brethren” is both clumsy and inaccurate.

As they participate in life’s ordinary activities ever more often with people who are not Catholic, sitting side by side at school plays or at board meetings or even in prayer circles, Catholics do not see them as “separated” so much as brothers and sisters in the same faith. If anything, they become aware less of their own superiority than of what they can learn from their Protestant friends and spouses. They become aware of their own lack of scriptural knowledge; they wonder why Jesus has never been as personally important to them as he seems to be to Protestants, and they are especially in awe of their friends’ ability to pray spontaneously, giving fluent expression to their faith without the assistance of a text. When Catholics have Orthodox friends, they admire their glorious worship and traditions of spirituality.

We are also aware of the ways in which our friends admire and sometimes even envy gifts that Catholics themselves sometimes take for granted: a long history and broad culture, a rich liturgy, a love for Mary, a sense of communion with all the saints, a heritage of mysticism, and (sometimes a surprise to hear) a strong appreciation of tradition and authoritative teaching that enables us to be fairly sure of who we are in the world.

For lay Catholics, ecumenism is less a matter of reaching precise theological accord or full organizational coordination than of seeing that the diversity of ways of being Christian is not cause for separation and competition, but an opportunity for a mutual exchange of gifts.

What some bemoan as “Christian disunity” appears, in this perspective, as God’s paradoxical way of leading believers to a larger sense of church, in which unity is understood not in terms of uniformity but in terms of a complex yet harmonious diversity, the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:4-31). The now centuries-old styles of piety, organization, and spirituality developed within distinct Christian families enable a deeper apprehension of the truth that Christ alone is the head of the body, and that all the members have gifts to share with others, so that “all of us come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). Catholics chatting with their Protestant friends about their shared and mutual faith on the way to work may not be able to express this larger sense of church, but they feel it. And they act on it.

Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. His many books include Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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