What Does “Catholic” Mean?

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Every week, in churches all over the world, Christians confess belief in “the catholic church.” Some Christians do so by reciting the Apostles’ Creed which confesses belief in “the holy catholic church,” and others use the Nicene Creed which uses the phrase “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” So for many, if not most, Christians, faith in a “catholic” church is a central part of their beliefs.

But what does the term “catholic” church mean? This surprisingly simple question has a surprisingly complicated answer. This is mostly due to the fact that there is a difference in how the word “catholic” is applied and what it means. There is certainly a difference between how it is used today by most Christians and how it was used when the term was first coined in the early second century. To put it another way: there is a difference between what the term “Catholic Church” means and what it has come to mean – and to complicate matters even more, what it has come to mean differs among various Christian traditions. The simple truth for most Christians is that the “Catholic Church” they confess each week probably does not mean what they think it means.

Protestant Christians understand that the word “catholic” simply means “universal.” When they confess faith in the catholic church, they are confessing that there is one Church in many forms and expressions, and that they are a part of that one church. This is a fairly recent development in the use of the word. For much of Protestantism, there was an understanding in which each tradition taught that it was the only valid Church. Toward the end of the twentieth century, Protestantism shifted from this historical exclusive use of the word “catholic” (as in “We are the true Church and other expressions of Christianity are false.”) to a more inclusive use (as in “We are part of the universal church along with other expressions of Christianity.”)

Roman Catholics use the word “catholic” as designating those churches that are fully united with the Bishop of Rome. When they confess faith in the catholic church, it is explicitly faith in “The Catholic Church,” meaning “The Roman Catholic Church.” The Catholic Church, then, is an organizational structure, as well as dogma and practices that flow from that structure. The CEO of this structure is the Bishop of Rome (commonly referred to as “The Pope”), who is also the ruler of a nation called The Vatican. Roman Catholics have been so successful in redefining the term that for the most part, at least in Western Christianity, the term “Catholic” has become synonymous with “Roman Catholic.” This, of course, usually creates confusion when Other Catholics state they are Catholic, but not Roman Catholic.

Structure appears to be the essence of what both Roman Catholics and Protestants mean when they use the word “catholic.” Roman Catholics are more explicit about this in that the very definition of who is Catholic and who is not is essentially identical with who is a member of a church united with the Bishop of Rome and who is not. Yet, the very idea of the “universal” church that Protestants confess is also implicitly structural. There is an entity called “The Church” and Protestant churches claim to be a part of that universal entity. Therefore, in Western Christianity, for the most part, The Church is an institution, a structure, an organization, that is either defined from the top down (Pope to pew), or from the bottom up (congregation of believers).

The word “catholic,” however originally did not refer to structure, or polity, or organization, but to faith. It was neither a structure flowing from the Pope, nor was it a congregation of believers, but it was a community of faith. It is the faith that is Catholic. The structure, or institution, or polity, is Catholic because it shares and is founded upon The Catholic Faith.

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The word “catholic” is a compound word from two Greek words: kata (according to) and holos (whole). Catholic means “according to the whole,” and The Catholic Church means “according to the whole Church.” The phrase first arose in the face of heresy.

One of the first heresies to develop (alluded to in the Epistles of John) was the idea that Jesus Christ was not really a human being, but merely appeared to be human. This was the view became known as Docetism (from the Greek dokein “to appear”). In this view Jesus was, in reality, a spiritual being who took human appearance, but who was in no way really human. Some extreme forms of this teaching asserted that Jesus’ feet did not even touch the ground, but that he floated above the earth as he walked. The consequences of this teaching was that the spiritual being in human disguise known as Jesus could not experience pain because pain is tied to the physical world. Therefore, there can be no crucifixion or Passion or birth for that matter. The Catholic Church became the way to combat such heresies. The practical application was simple: “You say that Jesus was a spiritual being who was not human, but the Church everywhere else says Jesus was born of a woman, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”; or, “According to your church, Jesus was not a physical being, but according to the whole Church, Jesus was so physical that he was born, experienced pain, and died.”

So the term “catholic” is not simply “universal,” but it is a particular kind of universal. It is not the universal church, but the universal faith of the Church. The definition of “Catholic” is (as stated by St. Vincent of Lerins in 434): “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”[1] St. Vincent of Lerins goes on to say: “We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole church throughout the world confesses.”[2]

Therefore, when Christians confess faith in the catholic church, they may be contradicting what the “Catholic Church” means. Faith in a structure united with the Bishop of Rome may not be in keeping with what the Church has always taught in all places. Faith in a universal church that is made up from a collection of very different churches that believe different things may not be in keeping with what the Church has always taught in all places. This becomes even more complex when contemporary churches and traditions revise historical doctrines and teaching to match contemporary understandings. Of course, this is exacerbated when a church or tradition asserts that it is THE True Church or THE Catholic Church to the exclusion of others.

So how do we know what the Catholic faith is that was always taught and believed in all places? Old Catholics, Independent Catholics, and many (if not all) of those Other Catholics suggest that the Catholic faith is the faith expressed by the Church through Holy Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the teachings of the Church Fathers, and the rulings of Ecumenical Councils (of the whole Church).

The Catholicism of Old Catholics is a Community of Faith. It is not a gathering of people who identify as Christian, or a particular kind of Christian. It is not a gathering of those who share a particular kind of structure or polity. It is not a congregation of those who are believers. It is a community that gathers around the faith taught in the Bible, explained through the Apostles, bishops, and teachers of the early Church, and which has been clarified by the seven gatherings of the whole Church which met before the Church split in 1054.

Therefore, the Old Catholic expression of faith is a Catholic faith. Old Catholic churches and Independent Catholic churches are not THE Catholic Church, but A Catholic Church. They are not THE True Catholic Church, but simply churches which strive to be truly Catholic in the truest sense of the original meaning of the term.

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[1] Vincent of Lerins. A Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies. Section 6, Chapter II. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf211.iii.iii.html on September 3, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

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