Know Jesus? Know Church

“ I'm into loving Jesus. I'm I not into theology or reli-I gion.”

The young man in his early 20s uttered these words politely but passionately. Moments earlier, Mike had explained he had now been “saved” for “two years and five months.” Mike, an evangelical Protestant, is dating Meg, who was raised Catholic. They now attend an Assemblies of God Christian Center together. Frustrated and upset, her parents asked me if I would talk to the young couple and answer their questions about the Catholic Church.

I'm not the most sensitive and tactful guy, but I knew I'd have to bite my tongue a bit and speak carefully if any good was to come of the meeting. That became even more apparent when I arrived and found that several other people had been invited, including their pastor.

Mike's comment was one that I could appreciate, even though it was as naïve as it was well inten-tioned. Words such as theology, religion and dogma aren't very popular these days. After all, isn't theology for geeks? Aren't doctrine and dogma for people who are uptight and rigid? As for ritual and tradition, isn't it obvious that such things hold people back from experiencing the fullness of the Holy Spirit? “Religion is man's attempt to reach God, while true Christianity is about God reaching out to man,” Mike explained to me.

This is more than a matter of semantics. At a deeper level, these attitudes reflect a certain tradition and way of understanding the nature of the Church. During the three-hour conversation I sought to convey that the Catholic Church isn't opposed or contrary to an intimate relationship with God but is at the heart of the Father's plan to offer his life to us through his Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul tells us, the Church is “the household of God” and the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). There is no competition between Jesus and the Church, just as a man doesn't choose to love his wife instead of his children or vice versa.

But this view of church is difficult for some (though not all) Protestants to appreciate. Many evangelicals are wary of much talk of “church,” instead focusing far more on the individual's personal response to God. The problem isn't in what is emphasized but in what is pushed aside or ignored altogether. Yes, Jesus wants to have a deep and abiding relationship with us. But how does he convey that life-giving relationship to humanity? Through his Mystical Body, the visible Church.

Mike's pastor seemed to appreciate this point. But he bristled at what he thought was the “anti-Protestant” actions of the Catholic Church in refusing holy Communion to Protestants. This was, he insisted, an indication that the Catholic Church doesn't believe he's really a Christian. Actually, it indicates that the Catholic Church doesn't believe that he is Catholic. Receiving holy Communion is a declaration that we are in true and full communion with both God and his Church.

Put another way, theology matters. St. Augustine declared that theology is “faith seeking understanding” — an activity that every Christian should pursue as best he can. Following Jesus is necessary, vital and central. And following Jesus involves adhering to all of his teachings, including the establishment of one Church, which has a specific structure of authority, sacraments and tradition. As Dominus Iesus, the 2000 Vatican declaration on the Salvific Universality of Christ, also notes, “The Lord Jesus, the only Savior, did not only establish a simple community of disciples but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery.”

Love Jesus? Then love the Church.

Carl E. Olson, editor of Envoy magazine and author of Will Catholics Be ‘Left Behind’?, writes from Eugene, Oregon.