Last week, U.S. Catholic bishops, agreed to join Christian Churches Together in the USA, a loose organization of churches and Christian organizations comprised of groups from five Christian traditions, evangelical/Pentecostal, historic Protestant, Orthodox, racial/ethnic, and Roman Catholic. We talked to Richard John Neuhaus about the bishops' decision and what it might mean for evangelicals and Catholics. Neuhaus is editor-in-chief of First Things and president of Religion and Public Life. He also works with Charles Colson and Timothy George on Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

There was some hesitation by the bishops about joining Christian Churches Together, so why did they eventually decide to join?

I think the decision is contingent upon the understanding that CCT is a very modest enterprise, and it's very different from the discussions of 20 and more years ago about the Catholic church joining the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches. CCT is at this point really not much more than an annual meeting of religious leaders to get to know one another and get ideas and share experiences, which is a pretty obvious thing to do. There were a lot of bishops who were very worried that it would become something like the old National Council of Churches, and therefore there was a very substantial vote against the proposal. But reassurances have been given that there are many checks and limits and built-in occasions for making sure CCT remains the modest enterprise that it presents itself as being now.

Could it have much impact if it is such a modest proposal?

I don't think we should underestimate the ways in which people who get to know one another and develop relationships of personal trust can then take steps toward forms of cooperation. It's not really just Christian churches, it's also national organizations in the social welfare and world development areas, and while they have their own institutions and patterns of interacting, this perhaps could strengthen that. You'd have to judge on a case by case basis as to whether a form of cooperation confuses or compromises the integrity of any particular church or organization, but on the face of it, I think it's very hard to argue in principle against what CCT aims to do at this point.

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Jesus' prayer in John 17 to be one so that the world would believe is stated as a reason for forming CCT. Could you give me an understanding of the Catholic perspective on the importance of working out Jesus prayer in John 17?

The Catholic commitment to Christian unity is irrevocable. There is the Second Vatican Council, and the subsequent popes—and especially this pope—have said it again and again. But by Christian unity, Catholics mean something far beyond what is envisioned for CCT. And that is full communion, which means that one would be united in faith and life and that unity would be expressed in the Eucharist. So that's the Catholic understanding of the goal of Christian unity. But on the way to that goal, if God-willing it is ever to be achieved short of our Lord's return, there are other things that Christians can do together. I think CCT is a very modest proposal to confer and cooperate and to see this within the larger context of the goal of Christian unity, but certainly not to mistake it as a major step toward that goal.

What does the Catholic Church bring to CTT?

First of all there are over 64 million Catholics in the United States, so they're overwhelmingly the largest single body of Christians in the country. Obviously they bring to the table the whole of the Catholic tradition on doctrine, social teaching, vitalities of innumerable social institutions, and educational institutions.

Does CCT have any bearing on Evangelicals and Catholics Together?

No ECT is a different thing. ECT is much more directed to serious theological engagement, and aimed at bringing Catholics and evangelicals into a more unified effort on behalf of enormous cultural issues such as the culture of life versus the culture of death. It's unlikely that CCT would be addressing some of these major moral cultural challenges, not least because there is very little agreement within some of the churches and institutions that are part of CCT.

Related Elsewhere:

Also available is our original coverage of Christian Churches Together.

Other recent Christianity Today articles on Catholicism include:

Liberties 'Violated' | California Catholic Charities ordered to pay for contraceptives. (Nov. 02, 2004)
Will the Next Pope Be an African? | Sixty-four years ago, the Roman Catholic Church consecrated its first black African bishop. Is it time now for the next step? (Oct. 17, 2003)
The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery | The problem wasn't that the leadership was silent. It was that almost nobody listened. (July 18, 2003)

Other recent Christianity Today articles on ecumenism include:

Darkness at Jesus' Tomb | A fight breaks out on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Sept. 12, 2002)
Whither Christian Unity? | The WCC and the WEA represent very different paths. One of them has real promise. (Aug. 09, 2002)
The Not-So-New Ecumenism | A recent initiative is structured to exclude evangelicals in the mainline. (Aug. 09, 2002)