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...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).