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The whole church

I believe in catholic church

The whole church

We are going through the four marks of the church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. In this post we are looking at the third mark: catholic.

Sometimes we use a word and it changes meaning completely. Even to being used as the complete opposite of what was originally intended.

There’s an old prayer:

Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help…

We think of “prevent” as meaning – stop us. But it originally meant help us to go. The opposite.

There is a well-known hymn that begins:

All praise to thee, my God, this night,
for all the blessings of the light;

It has the verse:

Teach me to live, that I may dread
the grave as little as my bed;
teach me to die, that so I may
rise glorious at the aweful day.

“Aweful” there means – full of awe – not as we normally use it – unpleasant.

We still do this. “Wicked” can mean really good. “Sick” can also mean really good. Both words have changed to meaning the opposite of what was originally intended.

Now we get to the word “catholic”. “Catholic” means universal. The whole of it. If you have a catholic taste in food, you like all different foods: Indian, barbeque, hamburgers, roast, Chinese, pizza. If you have a catholic taste in music, you like all different types of music: reggae, classical, rap, pop.

So originally “catholic” meant the whole church – all Christians, not part of the church, not half of the church, not just people who believe exactly what you do, homogenous Christianity. Catholic meant supporting diversity, rejoicing in variety. “Heresy”, false teaching, meant teaching against variety, teaching against complexity and difference.

But people have changed the word “catholic” to mean something else – to mean the opposite. Now you find people often using “catholic” for part of the church – the part where beliefs are the same, the part where the people follow what the pope says.

So “catholic” is bigger than that. But it is not all about bigger. There is a way that the whole is understood to be present in the small. The easiest way to explain this is with the idea of a hologram. As you know, a hologram is actually a 2-dimensional object where you see a three dimensional image – as you move your head it moves just like a three-dimensional object. You see a hologram on credit cards and so on. Well, if you cut it in half, believe it or not, the full image is still there. Cut it into as small pieces as you like – the whole image is always there. The whole is present in every part.

When on Sunday we gather for communion – the whole church is here, the catholic church is here. We say “with all who stand before you in earth and heaven, we worship you, O God, in songs of everlasting praise.” There is only one Eucharist, one altar, across space and time. And the catholic church, the whole church is gathered around it.

So what? All this can be nice-sounding, pious religious language that makes no difference to your life or mine.

Well, actually, to believe in the catholic church is precisely to believe in difference, to be committed to difference, to commit myself to allowing for difference, for variety, in fact for catholicity.

Enjoy the people who are different to you. And stand up for people who are different to you, and believe differently to what you do.

I believe in the catholic church.

This is the twenty-eighth post in a series on the Creed.

The first is Apostles’ Creed.
The second is I believe in God.
The third is a source of the Apostles’ Creed.
The fourth is I believe in the Father.
The fifth is Handing over the Creed.
The sixth is I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
The seventh is Don’t use the creed in worship
They eighth is Truly God truly human
The ninth is Conceived by the Holy Spirit
The tenth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 2)
The eleventh is Born of the Virgin Mary
The twelfth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 3)
The thirteenth is Crucified under Pontius Pilate
The fourteenth is crucified
The fifteenth is Holy Saturday
This sixteenth is He descended to the dead
The seventeenth is on the third day he rose again
The eighteenth is Seated at the right hand of the Father
The nineteenth is Judge the living and the dead
The twentieth is I believe in the Holy Spirit
The twenty-first is But Wait, There’s More!
The twenty-second is And the Son
The twenty-third is Filioque
The twenty-fourth is Two hands of God
The twenty-fifth is Don’t believe in the Church
The twenty-sixth is I believe one Church
The twenty-seventh is I believe in holy church

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28 thoughts on “I believe in catholic church”

  1. This is not a catholic view of catholic! A catholic understanding of ‘catholic’ would be a universal view, shared by all Christians. I suggest that you are offering a wishful thinking Anglican approach to catholicity!

    The Catholic church, for instance, understands the catholic church to be the universal church in all its variety with one eucharist (so far, so agreed with you) providing a unifying and clarifying factor is present, namely adherence to the Pope and providing the one eucharist is defined in terms of a shared understanding of what constitutes a valid eucharist (all in disagreement with your post as you (rightly, in my Anglican view), do not require the ‘Pope factor’ nor attempt to describe what constitutes a valid eucharist.

    So, much as I like your understanding of catholicity, I feel the need to point out that the vast majority of the universal church of God on earth do not subscribe to it!

    1. Thanks, Peter. Contrary to your first sentence, in fact my point allows for diversity and complexity in the understanding of “catholic”. You are suggesting that the catholic view would be homogeneous, univocal – and that by not being so, my suggestion that it is not, is somehow countered. If there is a serious assertion that when the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was formulated (and its Western baptismal parallel, the Apostles’ Creed) that the authors were explicitly using “catholic” in the sense you describe in your second paragraph, let’s have that evidence in this discussion. I contend such a perspective is anachronistic. Hence my starting point with words that change understanding over time. This is no attack on what you call the “pope factor” – it is just clarifying that arguing for the “pope factor” from this direction isn’t straight forward. Blessings.

  2. Hi Bosco,
    The meaning of words change over time. Sometimes we go with that, sometimes we resist that change. I appreciate (as a fellow Anglican) your argument for the ‘old’ meaning of catholic. Nevertheless, ‘catholic’ in this context is about our understanding of the church. The fact is that we live today and not when the N-C creed was formulated. What is the catholic church today? You and I (and most Anglicans) have a broad (and old) definition of ‘catholic’ but it is a minority definition. Certainly not universally subscribed to.

    While appreciating your point about ‘catholic’ including diversity as to what ‘catholic’ means, what difference does it make when the vast majority of Christians understand ‘catholic’ differently and do not welcome me at their eucharistic table? There is not a functional inclusivity in the use of the word ‘catholic’ when most Christians say the creed at Mass!

    1. I think you and I are doing different things here, Peter.

      Eastern Orthodox do not welcome Roman Catholics to the eucharistic table and would take care that “catholic” is understood as what you term the ‘old’ meaning. Anglicans following this ‘old’ meaning do, in some places, not welcome some/many/most Christians to the eucharistic table, including some places not welcoming some Anglicans. Our province held to that until relatively recently, and we still formally do not welcome all Christians.

      Just as I stand by my pointing out if people (even the majority) misunderstand a biblical text, so I continue to stand by my pointing out what the original (your ‘old’) meaning of Christian creedal terms mean.


  3. This issue would obviously be far less confusing for people if the terms ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Roman Catholicism’, were generally used to refer to the Roman Catholic denomination of the Church instead of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Catholicism’

    So what is ‘catholic’ about the Church today? I believe that by one Spirit we are baptised into one body. So even though the Church may be fragmented into different denominations, which are mostly not presently in communion with each other, we still together comprise one undivided entity, the Body of Christ.

    While there are certain doctrinal differences between the denominations of the Church, differences that keep us somewhat separated at this present time, our core, fundamental beliefs are the same. We all proclaim the Nicene Creed, albeit with some minor variations; we all believe that Jesus is God incarnate and was crucified, buried and rose again; and we all have been baptised into the one body, the Church, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    And just as the Christ’s body was broken on the cross, we continue to break His body, the Church, today when we reject our brothers and sisters in other denominations.

    1. One of those minor variations, Darryl, is that we are not agreed now on what ‘catholic’ means. Many Christians saying the creed would not understand me or Bosco, as Anglicans, to belong to the universal church. Rather we belong to ‘ecclesial communities.’

      1. I think, Peter, with respect, that you are treading on ecclesiologically very thin ice. You are moving from disagreements and misunderstandings of the word “catholic” to confusions about the non-infallible Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the Doctrine of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. In this there is the construct of ‘ecclesial communities’ (ie. “churchy” communities) as a designation for a Christian group that did not meet his criteria of being a church. Aside from suspicions that the Responses would be different from this papacy, and noting that there was no specific mention of Anglicanism (nor Old Catholicism with which Anglicans have been in full communion since 1930), your assertion that we, individually, are not members of the Church (something which I would affirm we are by virtue of our baptism) is something that I think is stretching far beyond where even Benedict’s apex of the pendulum would have been able to continue to. Blessings.

        1. Hi Bosco
          Members of the church of God are in communion with one another by virtue of being baptised into Christ.

          Nevertheless from both the Roman and Eastern Orthodox perspectives, including during the course of this papacy, you and I are not in communion with Roman and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

          Why should I conclude that nevertheless they view me and you as part of the one true church of God?

          Even under the present Pope I have been part of two recent occasions when everything was going very well in a Christian fellowship sense, until it came to the sharing of the (Anglican presided) eucharist: on each occasion the Roman priest present refused to commune.

          I suggest some realpolitik in our understanding of ‘catholic’: Catholics do not share our understanding of catholic.

          1. “Why should you conclude that they view me and you as part of the one true church of God?” – precisely because they do not believe that there are two or more churches. There is only one church. As to who may receive what where – Quakers and Salvation Army members and born-again-unbaptised-believers may not receive communion in our church; we have a bishop in our province who refuses to receive communion at the Lambeth Conference Eucharist he participates in; we have priests who offer lollies or a blessing instead of communion to baptised children. The realpolitik is in the need for our practice to catch up with our theory. Blessings.

  4. Except of course, from its earlist usage, the term “Catholic Church” does appear to have excluded heretics.

    As noted on Wikipedia:

    “The earliest recorded evidence of the use of the term “Catholic Church” is the Letter to the Smyrnaeans that Ignatius of Antioch wrote in about 107 to Christians in Smyrna.

    By Catholic Church Ignatius designated the universal church. Ignatius considered that certain heretics of his time, who disavowed that Jesus was a material being who actually suffered and died, saying instead that “he only seemed to suffer” (Smyrnaeans, 2), were not really Christians.”

    Equally as clearly from these extracts, “heresy” never meant teaching against variety, teaching against complexity and difference.

    1. Thanks Scott for introducing these ideas.

      There is much of value in Wikipedia, but please acknowledge the obvious issues with crowd-sourcing theological scholarship.

      Let’s start with the strong statement of your last paragraph. I cannot see that your passionate conclusion follows “equally as clearly from these extracts” at all. Do explain how you leap to that conclusion. I hope as you do so that you will spend time with Fr John Behr who with great scholarship presents the case that you are opposing.

      Then you say, “By Catholic Church Ignatius designated the universal church” – yes – and your point is? That is saying no more than what I say: catholic means universal. In the Smyrnaeans 2 text that you want us to read it has, “Wherever the bishop appear, there let the multitude be; even as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church.” So there is a strong association in this text between bishop and the whole church, as well as where Jesus is present – there is the whole church. Again, you appear to me to be reinforcing my post – not contradicting it.

      The heretics of your comment, your Wikipedia article underscored, in Ignatius’ understanding were not Christian.

      And we have not even discussed the authenticity of the Ignatian text that some/many scholars regard as fraudulent, dating anywhere from 250-500, and losing their status as the first to use the term “catholic church”.


      1. Bosco,

        Taking your responses in turn:

        1. The limitations of Wikipedia are well known and I happily acknowledge them. However, for blog discussions, it easy accessibility for all participants means I prefer it when it agrees with the other more reputable sources I am aware of.

        2. In terms of John Behr, I am not sure he actually supports your position. While he clearly and unobjectionably seems to note the variety in those early communities who called themselves Christian, it does not follow that variety was compatible with orthodoxy.

        Indeed, from a quick google search, his comments on the term “catholic” appear to include that “the catholicity of the local Church is dependent upon its communion with other Churches”.

        Further, in relation to bishops, he states “It is not that the bishops, instituted by the apostles (who are not thought of as the first bishops, as they would be by Cyprian), automatically preserved the tradition of the apostles — the Gospel which the apostles delivered — but that they are bishops of the Church only to the extent that they do so, for the Church is founded upon the Gospel”.

        In relation to heresy, he approving quotes a Bishop talking about the early council fathers “To prevent people from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.”

        (Quotes from OrthodoxWiki).

        3. In terms of the universal church, my point is it was always restricted, in this case arguably to those with bishops holding apostolic authority and handing on apostolic teaching. To get around this, you are playing word games, as based on his writings Ignatius would deny the title Christian to many you would include as part of the catholic church.

        4.In terms of the dating and authenticity of the letter of Ignatius, such scholarly doubts are equally applied to just about every early Christian text, and not without reason from a secular point of view. Accordingly, except for clearly fraudulent texts on which they can be an overwhelming scholarly consensuses, my preference is to defer to how texts were received by the Church closer in time to their creation.

        1. Since this is only your first time commenting as part of the community here, Scott, I am struggling to work out what point you are attempting to make. You are very welcome here, but perhaps you might introduce yourself and outline your position which you seem to be insisting is somehow significantly different to mine.

          But, as you see, I am struggling to even see why you are attempting to present quotes against what you think is my position, when in fact, I’m perfectly comfortable with every quote you have in this comment.

          Certainly, your claim above notwithstanding, I stand by John Behr holding that variety was and is compatible with orthodoxy. Please quote where he claims otherwise.

          Have you actually listened to the lecture I pointed you to from John Behr? Your “quick google search” to one of John Behr’s lectures from two decades earlier is interesting, I find it perfectly acceptable, and don’t see where what I say stands in conflict with it. You give the appearance that somehow you think my 500-word blog-post reflection is the sum (or even summary) of my ecclesiology! Please be a little more generous to me than that. I have no idea where you are getting that those “Ignatius would deny the title Christian to I would include as part of the catholic church”. Before you put words into my mouth – please ask a question. And I hope not just to play a game of “trap the blogger”. Similarly, I don’t think John Behr’s ecclesiology can be ascertained by “quick google searches”.

          This Wikipediaising of theology really has its limitations.


          1. Bosco,

            Sorry – Over long and quote heavy blog comments are difficult to make clear.

            I am certainly not trying to play games – Just trying to understand the ecclesiology you are putting forward.

            Lets narrow things down a little. In your post, you claim “catholic” meant the whole church, no exceptions.

            However, this does not seem to be how the earliest Christians use the term (refer my previous comments). Further, it does not seem to be how John Behr understands the term (he appears to limit it to those in communion with other churches).

            Therefore it seems to me your claim for how we should understand the word catholic, say in the creed, is problematic.

          2. Thanks, Scott. Your comments have not given the impression of “trying to understand the ecclesiology I am putting forward” – they read like attacks on a straw man. The best way to understand a person better is to ask questions which clarify.

            I’m not sure, Scott, why you add “no exceptions” to my ““Catholic” means universal. The whole of it.”

            My first parallel in the post is with food. But I am not suggesting, for example, that glass would make good food. Which somehow seems to be the way you read things.

            I don’t get why you see churches being in communion with other churches as somehow excluded in my post.


  5. Peter, while the meaning of ‘catholic’ is quite clear to me, I do accept that the word is now widely misunderstood, and that others might see it differently. Although, I can remember saying the creed one morning in the Presbyterian church I attended as a child, and my mother telling me afterwards that we were not saying were ‘Catholics’!

    As an aside, I identify as a ‘Catholic Anglican’, but to me this is just as a much of a personal emphasis on being part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” as it is on the fact that my theology is nearer to the Roman Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum than it is to the Protestant end

    Peace and blessings


    1. Yes, Gareth. One of my reflections in this series on the creed picked up Augustine’s, Calvin’s, Trent’s and others’ insights that the belief-in-the-church section of the creed is different to the belief-in-God parts. That wasn’t, however, my seeking to start a movement to remove the “in” from our agreed texts. It does bring up the question: what does it mean to “believe one holy catholic apostolic church”? Perhaps, focusing on the mark catholic, you have some thoughts on that. Blessings.

  6. Hi Bosco,
    Perhaps RCs do not believe there are two churches or more but their actions in excluding baptised people from communion (a different issue, by the way, than the question of (unbaptised) members of the Salvation Army receiving communion or not) imply a realpolitik in which some Christians belong to the church and some do not.

    Actions indeed speak louder than words: I suggest it is time for the Roman Catholic church to engage with what ‘catholic’ really means with some action over welcome at the eucharist rather than endless talk at ARCIC and the like with nothing changing on the eucharistic ground.

    1. I am not defending Roman Catholic eucharistic rules, but let’s at least be honest and fair. Our own province is “advanced” in the Anglican Communion in offering communion to all the baptised. It has done so only in the last 23 years. I am an enthusiastic supporter and advocate of our province’s policy on this. Let’s also be honest that this support, advocation, and application is not universally followed in our province. My point is that Roman Catholicism is not in any way unique in having rules of exclusion (which you express as “a realpolitik in which some Christians belong to the church and some do not”). When you have achieved this point of yours within the Anglican Communion, then it may be more authentic to start making Anglican demands of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Blessings.

      1. Hi Bosco
        I think there are some important differences to consider.

        In the years when, say, we Anglicans in NZ excluded Presbyterians from our communion table, as best I understand, it was a question of our rules and not whether or not Presbyterians belonged to a genuine church. Ditto, exclusion of baptised children from Anglican communion tables is a matter of difference in understanding when the baptised should be admitted to those tables. But not a question of whether those baptised belong to our church or not.

        By contrast, RCC thinking permitted Benedict to make a distinction between ‘the church’ and lesser entities, such as our own, as ‘ecclesial communities.’

        It is not so much that I want to demand things of the Roman Catholic church – rightly you point out that churches have their rules, peculiar/particular/prejudiced as they may be – as to demand things of the word ‘catholic’: if it is a tin, the label on it is not a good guide to its contents.

        1. Thanks, Peter.

          When our province decided that clergy from negotiating churches (you mention Presbyterians as one example) may be invited to preside at an Anglican altar using our Anglican rites, our province also formally declared that what would be celebrated there was different to what is celebrated when an Anglican or Old Catholic or Roman Catholic priest or bishop presides at the altar. If our tiny church makes such careful distinctions, I am not as surprised as you are that a church, something like 12,000 times our size, makes not-disimilar distinctions. Blessings.

  7. Bosco,

    I am now confused as to what point your post was trying to make? It may be a straw man, but I understood you to be making a distinction between modern and older usages of the term catholic.

    However, as I try to tease out what those differences are, your responses seem to indicate the various usages are actually very consistent.

    Any clarification would be appreciated (though just calling it a dead horse and moving on would also be OK).

    1. The post is 29th in a series reflecting our way through the creed, Scott. That the understanding of “catholic” as used in the early church is still that held by many (the Orthodox scholars we have referenced, for example) does not surprise me. Blessings.

  8. With all due respect, I think Peter Carrell is very much affected by the more protestant approach to the word ‘catholic’- which, generally, for conservative protestants, usually means Roman Catholic. (For such, the word ‘catholic’ can have a derogatory connotation).

    I do remember a story of a situation in England, where a notice was erected by the local R.C. priest, indicating the way ‘To The Catholic Church’.

    The local Anglican Church officials protested that, In England, the title ‘Catholic Church’ was that pertaining to the local Church of England. The R.C. priest was ordered to remove the sign.

    I guess the problem of not defining the ‘Roman’ branch of the Church Catholic is at the heart of the mistaken idea that the Church of Rome is the only branch of the Christian Christian Church entitled to be called ‘catholic’.

    As a child in England, and a member of the Church of England, I was always taught that the Roman Catholics belong to the ‘Roman Catholic Church’. As a member of an Anglo-Catholic parish, I understood the difference.

    Incidentally, when using the prayer offered by Bosco; instead of using the old word ‘prevent’, I use its modern cognate: ‘go before'(us, O, Lord,), which is what was really meant.

  9. Fr Bosco, I like very much your image of the hologram. I am used to the image of the piece of cake as an explanation of the catholicity. But the hologram image is even more eloquent.

    You remind me of Meyendorff.

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