One of the principal confessions we make when we recite the Apostles’ Creed is that we believe in “the holy Catholic Church.” But what is “Catholic?” Depending upon our theological underpinnings, we can either be far more stringent (such as with the Society of Pope Pius X) or far less stringent (such as with Creedal Baptists) in our interpretations of this word. In either case, and in every representative position between them, the word and theology of “Catholic” must be understood. Let me explain, extrapolate and apply this.
Those who are limp-wristed and light-in-the-loafer will entirely wimp-out on the “Catholic” question by insisting upon changing the word to “Christian.” They will say that “Catholic” means “universal” and, therefore, because of this, we believe in the “Christian” Church. In fact, however, they are not the same and, if we actually believe our Lord’s call to unity, catholicity cannot be so easily dispensed with. Changing the word “Catholic” to “Christian” simply means that we have a very inadequate understanding of Church. One need not be a ROMAN Catholic to be Catholic, but being Catholic is as necessary as being Christian. We are Catholic Christians or we are not Christians at all.
So what is the OBJECTIVE catholicity to which we all must subscribe? Must we insist upon Apostolic Succession (in one form or another), the Episcopacy and clear heretically-inhibiting diocesan boundaries or, more broadly, can we simply assert that the “Catholic” Church is an entirely mystical body consisting (as in the United States) of vagrant souls seeking satisfying (but essentially stultifying) “spiritual” factories dispensing liturgical and sacramental goodies?
When the Creed was composed, referencing all three Catholic Creeds as well, it was intended to (1) Defend doctrine, (2) Define the Faith and (3) Determine the limits of the community. How community was to be defined was of critical import. Everyone was not “in” (as Unitarians and some Episcopalians think), and everyone was not “out” (as some snooty high-churchmen say), but, given some measure of freedom within limits, clear boundaries could be set and secured. A Christian could not say that they were “in” without subscribing to community boundaries. Similarly, a Christian could not say (as many are prone to do today) they are “out” of the Church but worship and celebrate Christ and his redeeming work. IF you are a Christian, a Catholic, you must BELIEVE certain things to be in community with God and others. IF you are a Christian, a Catholic, you must BEHAVE in a community manner. That is, in other words, Christ, Creed and Community and Church work together — or not at all.
This, of necessity, impacts the “Scripture Alone” adherents. There are many well-meaning and devout believers who insist upon this priority. And, of course, they are not entirely wrong. EVERY Christian understands and appreciates the need for God’s written revelation, God’s written Word. It is indispensable! Every Catholic Christian, however, recognizes that an oral tradition preceded the written text. God spoke and God acted before the text was written. The community communicated the message, such as with the four Gospels, long before the texts were standardized and canonized in writing. It was the CHURCH, the CATHOLIC CHURCH (better the CHURCH CATHOLIC), who determined the canon of Holy Scripture. Look at your Bible’s Table of Contents. Who determined what “Scriptures” were canonical and which were not? Someone, somewhere and somehow had to decide. As much as we must turn to Holy Writ, as much as it stands as our indispensable standard, it cannot be our “alone” standard. Scripture alone means that we are standing alone — without reference to the Catholic community to whom the text was spoken, entrusted and written. We have another “Catholic” standard with which to contend. Catholic must be consulted.
To be the CHURCH CATHOLIC we must believe in the Holy Spirit. In some way it must be understood that the Church is a pneumatic entity. Church is not a building. Church is not what we do. Church, a word that Karl Barth discouraged us from using, is the community of believers who are united to Christ by Spirit, Scripture and Sacrament. If we do not have the Spirit, according to St. Paul, we DO NOT belong to Christ (or each other). If we have no Scripture, we CANNOT KNOW Christ (or each other). If we have no Sacraments, principally Baptism and Communion, we ARE NOT alive in Christ! The Church Catholic is the community to whom Spirit is given, Scripture is entrusted and Sacraments are faithfully administrated. We must be a Church CATHOLIC simply because these are not gifts given for our own personal, subjective and denominational machinations and manipulations. Catholicity is our Christian calling. No “Catholic” means no “Christian.”
To be the CHURCH CATHOLIC we must be holy. If we do not have the HOLY Spirit, or, more precisely, if the HOLY Spirit does not have us, we cannot be holy. We must have Spiritu in order to know Sancti. This is a gift and a grace that must not be overlooked. However, one does not know the crisis or the process of sanctification without knowing the Church Catholic. God is not in the business of simply sanctifying ME. God sanctifies US…as St. Paul states quite emphatically. “Me” Religion must submit to “We” Religion. “Christian” must in some way submit to “Catholic.” Unity and Unction go hand-in-hand. The Totus Christus flatly rejects, renounces and repudiates any religion that is not entirely “Catholic.”
To be the CHURCH CATHOLIC we must be a communion. What is a communion? A brief and broad examination of Holy Communion will provide us with some insight. When St. Paul outlined his expectations regarding Holy Communion, in a church marked and marred by division, he demanded (1) Unity or Catholicity (cf. 1 Cor. 3 and 1 Cor. 11: 17 – 21), (2) Community (cf. 1 Cor. 3 and 1 Cor. 11: 22), and (3) Covenant (1 Cor. 11: 23 – 25). Whoever does not share in these things is guilty of blasphemy (1 Cor. 11: 27). This requires “body”-scrutiny (1 Cor. 11; 28 – 31). We are not to be camp-Christians, each ascribing to some exclusive (and often biblically elusive) denominational fidelity. I am of Augustine…Aquinas…Bellarmine…Luther…Calvin…Cranmer…Munster…. is not much different than the “camps” of Paul or Apollos. Paul DEMANDS catholicity! Paul DEMANDS unity! This is not, simply, intra-Church unity, it also is inter-Church unity. We are a community of believers who are united by the covenant of Christ’s finished work as exemplified through the sacramental activities and graces that we all share. Communion means communion. Communion requires communion. We are “one bread” and not separate and separated loaves. To have Holy Sacraments (or Ordinances) we must have a whole Church. “Bits & Pieces” is a somewhat modern song, not an ancient and essential Sacrament.
To be the CHURCH CATHOLIC we must practice radical forgiveness. Between the Christian’s hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5: 6) and its realization of purity of heart (Matthew 5: 8) stands the frightening expectation of the exercise of mercy (Matthew 5: 7). To move from the intention of righteousness to the realization of purity, we must EXERCISE mercy. Shakespeare tells us that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” But, in practice, it is. It is a pain. It is a strain. It is annoying.
Mercy is a very Catholic practice. It is not, philosophically, a Christian practice that is nebulously expressed to ghostly people. Mercy is easy if we have absolutely no one to whom we are existentially and eternally committed. Rather it is an intently and intensely practical discipline to be exercised among real people with whom we are really connected. Jesus spoke these Beatitudes by coming down from the mountain and speaking to his disciples. That is THEM. That is ME. That is US. That is WE. We need a Catholic community to be a Christian community. In order to do this we must step down from our denominational superiorities, possibly our denominations entirely, and find and function within a God-intended and God-ordered catholicity of Spirit-power, sacramental and sacrificial-practices and scriptural and social priorities.
To be the CHURCH CATHOLIC we must be the CHURCH CATHOLIC. We must be a CHURCH, not simply or only an ecclesial community. We must strive to embrace, and be embraced by, what Church is and means. Not my church. Not your church. Not even OUR church. HIS CHURCH, GOD’S CHURCH, IS CATHOLIC. And HIS Church is a universal Church that is Christian in its catholicity and Catholic in its Christianity. To be Holy Catholic we must be Wholly Catholic.
Almighty and Most Merciful Father
You have given us Your
Saints to help us
on our earthly pilgrimage.
by and in the same,
know Your Word
walk with Your Son
live by the Spirit and
worship with Your Saints
to our Heavenly Destination.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.