Monday, May 12, 2014

Was "Catholic" a Proper Name in the Early Church?

Q. Have you ever noticed that even (some) non-Catholic groups, when reciting the Creed, will say "I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?" Doesn't it seem odd that they would confess, during their Protestant service, that they believe in the Catholic Church?

Yes, I've actually run into this myself with the United Methodist Church. At the time I did find it odd that they were confessing belief in the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" instead of in their Methodist denomination.

The answer typically given by Protestants is that "catholic" simply means "universal." This is true enough, but I'm not sure what its supposed to prove. Yes, "catholic" means universal, but it is also the proper name of one church, which is called the universal Church or the Catholic Church. 

At this point some Protestants will claim that the word "catholic" was never used as a proper name in the early Church and that they are using it in the word's original sense, one we "Roman Catholics" co-opted in the Middle Ages.

Let's see what the Early Christians themselves have to say on the matter. Our point can be made with just two Church Fathers, although we could site others as well.

First, let's look at one of the earliest references we have to the "Catholic Church," from St. Ignatius of Antioch from the year AD 110.
"Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church." (Letter to the Smyrnaeans)

We see here already the importance of the episcopacy in determining which group of Christians were a part of the Catholic Church.

Even more explicit is St. Augustine of Hippo a couple centuries later:

Chapter 4.— Proofs of the Catholic Faith

5. For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, indeed, because they are but men, still without any uncertainty (since the rest of the multitude derive their entire security not from acuteness of intellect, but from simplicity of faith,)— not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself. But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion. (Fundamental Epistle Against the Manicheans)

St Augustine
St Augustine, pray for us

From this witness, we can see that the idea of their being a specific "Catholic Church" headed by a bishop that stands out against groups of heretics and can be easily identified is one that dates back to the earliest Christians. Far from being just a word meaning "universal" (although it is also that), the Nicene Creed professes belief in a particular Church - one that existed before the Council of Nicaea, one that exists still today, and one that is called Catholic.

Whether Protestantisms continued use of the words "I believe in one... catholic... Church" is delicious irony, cause for sadness over the horrors of schism, or a sign of hope for future reunion, I'll leave up to the reader.

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