The Church is Catholic

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Part 3

This is the third of five web meditations launched by Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations is available on this site here and on the European website here.


Some years ago at an International conference in London, I was with a group of black suited priests going up the escalator, when a group of Americans going the opposite way said to us, “Hey are you all Catholics?” Here was our problem. Some were Anglo Catholics, some were Nordic Catholic and one was a Roman Catholic. We all said “Yes Sir!” – but we all knew it was not the real answer to the greeting rather it was part of our shared dilemma. This word Catholic, the third mark of the Church in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed has deep roots in the life and the self understanding of the early Church. But it has become our stumbling block. The churches of the Union of Scranton have been meeting over a period of years with other catholic churches, attempting to build a renewed vision of our essential Catholicity, and to do this we have been going back to the sources in an effort to face the challenge brought about by the present crisis of faith.


Beginning with the New Testament it is possible to discern the foundations of Christian self understanding. Just as the first converts were called “followers of the Way” before they were called Christians in Antioch, so too Catholicity took time to emerge fully. For example, the Gospels have images given in Our Lord’s teaching for the people of the kingdom such as the vine and branches, the vineyard, the body and bride and the temple, but it is in the letters of the Apostles dealing with practical and pastoral matters that the seeds of Catholicity are revealed especially as they deal with the need for unity of faith and practice from one local church to another.

The first followers of Christ were simply a faith community of pilgrims living as foreigners in a strange land, but rooted in a belief that they were established by the Lord Jesus himself, led by the Holy Spirit, and guided by faithful human shepherds who were to hand on the one faith. With these leaders they came together and shared in the breaking of bread, looking for the Kingdom that the Lord had promised would come. They were taught by St. Paul that they were a new people of God yet although in many different cities they were one and the same “ekklesia” universally. St. Paul has this in mind telling the Corinthians; “I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” [1 Corinthians 4,17] He also refers to the Church or Church of God as having her identity in the Eucharist where the many become one: “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it… Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” [1 Corinthians 11,18 ff] The identity of each local church united with all the others into the one was reinforced by St. Paul whenever he sent greetings from one city to another as in Romans 16,23: “Gaius, my host and the host of the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the treasurer of the city, greets you.”


By the end of New Testament times the seed of Catholicity had taken root and the next leaders of the Ekklesia of God summed up their self understanding by using the word “Cat-holicos”. This was because very soon living in a real world of human frailty of hostility and persecution; they soon required some explicit dogmatic expression. The simple creeds and basic formulae with the marks of the church then began to emerge. One of the earliest uses of the word Catholic in Christian history was by St. Ignatius second bishop of Antioch in Syria (AD 69) who knew the apostles John, Paul and Barnabas. As a very old man he was arrested and taken on the long and dangerous journey to Rome where he was martyred in the year AD 107. During the journey he writes as the bishop to five of his churches in Asia Minor. He wishes to keep his flocks protected and united with one another and also with the Churches in other regions and holding the same faith they had all received. He wrote to them all, but particularly to the Church in Smyrna, “wherever the bishop is, there is the congregation. When Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church”. Four decades later in a long letter from Smyrna he tells movingly of the martyrdom of Bishop Polycarp with these words: “of the elect he was indeed one, this most wonderful Polycarp a man who in our times showed himself an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna… [Ch 11,16]

Sinai, Christ Pantocrator [Carulmare / CC BY Wikimedia Commons]


The increasing use of the adjective Catholic was understood in the sense that it is used by Ignatius and others like Tertullian when he taught about the rule of faith in the Catholic Church or St Cyril when warning against heretics and advising Christians to stay with the catholic church who teach the complete faith universally. [Catechetical lectures 18; ch.23] Finally it bears fruit in the Nicene/Constantinople Creed, which was confirmed by the first four Ecumenical Councils of the whole and undivided Church. The creed expresses faith in a church that is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. All four marks being adjectives are working together, and the whole concept of being Church is to be understood in the mind and practiced in the heart. One mark without the others leaves the whole incomplete. It is inconceivable that members of the Church can be one if they insist on holding their own private opinions. The members of a Church may be fundamentally Catholic by their baptism but to be of the Church they must also be orthodox in doctrine holding the same fundamental beliefs and never losing sight of the call to be lifted into the life and divinity of the Blessed Trinity so that Catholic cannot exist without Holiness or Unity. The four marks “mutually interpenetrate each other in indissoluble unity… the pillar and ground of truth”. [Road to Unity, III,1]

So it was in the third and fourth centuries, struggling to deal with the rise of heretical groups that the word Catholic begins to be applied to those who uphold orthodox doctrine rather than sectarian and non orthodox or what was then called heterodox innovations, which were then everywhere as they are today. Catholic began to mean not only the same faith in every part of the world and hence “universal” but additionally to be “complete” and “whole faith” that needed no additions. This is the meaning of the Greek, “Cat-holicos”. Because the fourth century was the age of endless heresies, the leaders of the church were forced to create the agreed creeds as safe doctrinal pasturage for their people. The creeds were never a substitute or addition to Holy Scripture but created to encapsulate the very core of Apostolic teaching that God had entered human history as a remedy for the destructive flaw that haunts us all. Creeds were not intended to be a straight jacket but rather a fence or safety net. The early Church in the context of the pagan world took very seriously their teaching work, the creed became an important part of three years of catechesis serving as a decompression chamber for converts entering a new journey.

This was the situation Clement of Alexandria [AD 150-215] faced as he compared heretical sects with the true and ancient Catholic Church, and Cyril of Jerusalem [315-387] encouraged his people to do what many have to do today, and avoid churches that could not conform to the Catholic faith, and to a large extent this clarity kept the Church united for the first 1000 years. But it did not last!


Having managed to maintain a degree of working unity, we have to face the fact that all is not well because a grievous and major fracture took place within the Church by the second millennium. The Latin Church of the West made a change in the definition of catholicity by including communion with, and obedience to, the office and supremacy of the Roman pontiff as a requirement for membership of the Church Catholic. This changed everything! Although the creedal marks had themselves not changed, a fatal flaw was opening up in that important concept of unity and wholeness as it had been understood for the earliest centuries. A Papal Catholicity had been created which is an addition or at least an innovation. This alteration also restricted the meaning of catholicos from “whole and complete” just to the idea of universal. This discipline was not accepted by the four other patriarchs of the East. Although it cannot be judged an act of heresy but of innovation and addition in dogma, it has continued to create difficulties for the mark of unity until today. So there are since the second millennium two understandings, first the ancient descriptive definition and then the later Western addition. There have been attempts to resolve these difficulties but so far without success, and still contributing to the root cause of such weakness throughout Christendom which enfeebles us all, especially now. Having witnessed the progressive hardening of the dogmas surrounding Papal Catholicism during the twentieth century, the Old Catholic Church stands with the East in believing that more and more elements have been added to the concept of Catholicity as it was first developed by the Apostles and their successors, and this is a matter that has to be resolved so that we can work and witness together.


Regrettably this most important word Catholic is probably the most problematic of all the marks because it is still applied exclusively to the Western Roman Catholic Church, becoming the focus of misunderstanding not just on London escalators, but over many centuries. So this important descriptive word “Catholic” rather than assisting the focus of unity brings about the exact opposite just as the worldwide Church faces a very difficult future.

The only possibility for progress was foreseen by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict, when he believed that we would all need to return to the beginning to become a simpler Church. This conviction runs through the whole of St. John Paul II’s “Ut unum sint” [1995] which not only recognises the seriousness of Christian division and the impediment to the work of Christ [section 98] but the two lungs of the Catholic Churches of the East and West can only come together based on the model of the first millennium [section 55]. Twenty five years have passed with very little sense of urgency. If the vision could be revived, then perhaps the canon of St. Vincent of Lérins could be preserved and used again by all Catholics having a valued place again as a focus of unity,”that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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