"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What Does It Mean to Be Catholic?

I consider myself to be a Catholic Christian, an identity which has grown stronger in recent years.  As an Anglican, I have a Protestant heritage which I cannot deny, but I lean considerably more to the Catholic shore of the via media.  I sincerely think of myself, and on occasion have described myself to inquirers, as Catholic, just not Roman.

So, what does this mean?  What is this catholic faith to which I lay claim?  
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity ...
So opens the Athanasian Creed.  Certainly, the catholic faith is nothing if not Trinitarian.  This is born out as well in the foundational Apostles' Creed, and the later Nicene Creed.  It is in the Nicene Creed, "the creed of the universal Church" (BCP Catechism) that we find the essence of the Christian faith, the summation of our belief.  If to be catholic is to affirm the Nicene Creed, then I believe we may say that the catholic faith is, in essence, "mere Christianity."

I'm not big on labels.  They can be useful and sometimes necessary, but they can also give rise to much misunderstanding.  I don't usually describe myself as Anglo-Catholic, simply because the title may be understood to mean a particular church "party," with members giving assent to an agreed upon platform on a whole host of issues.  For the same reason, I don't identify myself as an "Affirming Catholic."  I could adopt both these labels, for they are certainly more descriptive of my spirituality than not.  But rather than have people I only just met assume they know my mind on any given social or theological issue, I prefer to keep labels at a minimum.  I am a Christian.  Beyond this, I feel justified in claiming the name catholic as well, for two reasons.

Firstly, there are those in the Church today who claim the name of Christian (understandable), but who nevertheless do not believe in the truth of some of the most basic teachings which the Church has for centuries affirmed.  This one may not believe in the virginal conception of our Lord, this one may deny His bodily resurrection, this one may even deny the divinity of Jesus Christ (i.e. they deny one or more articles of the Creed).  I will not stand and accuse such a one, if they are baptized into the fellowship of the Church, of not being a Christian.  Certainly, such a one opens himself up to the charge, but who am I to judge the servant of another?  He may indeed, as is any Christian, be following Christ to the best of his ability, stumblingly, by grace.  The Christian life is a continual journey, and all are at different points along the road, and for each, to his own master he stands or falls.  But what I will say with confidence is that such a one is not a Catholic Christian.  That is, he does not affirm the historic, catholic faith of the Church.*  Or, put another way, it would not be surprising for an objective, outside observer to indeed question whether such a one is a Christian, since he does not assent to those basic beliefs that have fundamentally defined the Christian faith since its earliest times.  He may find Jesus an inspiring figure, the exemplary human, etc., but the catholic faith has always asserted that He was much more than that.  All of which is to demonstrate that the catholic faith may, I believe, be defined as "mere Christianity", or what the overwhelming majority of Christians, not only the majorities of bishops in councils, but individual Christians, the well-educated and the simple, in their private homes and in their hearts, have believed about the essentials of their faith for most of the history of the Church.**  It is this faith, in its essentials, to which I hold.        

The second reason is perhaps less important, but certainly not insignificant.  The word Catholic is generally associated with a way of being Christian which is recognizably different from the Protestant way.  Any reasonably educated person, whether or not religious, can identify this.  Put very simply, the Catholic way has more ritual, more reverence for the ancient ways.  Such things as the centrality of the Eucharist, and believing the same to be an actual sharing in the Body and Blood of our Lord; a high regard for the Church visible as a true instrument of God's grace through the Sacraments; the belief that the faith of the Apostles has been handed down to us not only in the Holy Scriptures, but also in the teaching and counsel of the Church; the keeping of prescribed devotions, understanding them within the context of the greater communion of saints; all these and more are marks that may be called recognizably Catholic.  All these and more I embrace.  

*  If I am not mistaken, the word catholic was used by the ancient Fathers precisely to differentiate the apostolic, Trinitarian faith from Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and all the rest of the heretical doctrines vying for influence in the early Church.

**  I realize this statement sounds something like the Vincentian Canon (the catholic faith is that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all).  I haven't studied the canon and its application in detail, but I'll confess that I don't find it all that helpful.  It seems to me to be more the expression of an ideal, not a foolproof formula for easily assessing whether or not one's stance on a given doctrinal issue is catholic (which is how it I've seen it employed on more than one occasion in online forums).


  1. Great post.

    I share a lot of your thoughts here. As an Anglican Catholic, I often find myself returning to the words of Thomas Ken, "I die in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith, professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West. More particularly I die in the Communion of the Church of England as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan innovations."

    And based upon your first point above, a lot of Roman Catholics are really Protestant. As such, I think it's helpful to think of Protestantism in genealogical terms.

    Thanks again!


    1. Thanks for sharing, Robb.

      Forgive me if I sound dense, but could you explain what you mean by saying that "a lot of Roman Catholics are Protestant", based upon my fist point? Do you mean to say that many RCs deny (or at least don't really believe in) the affirmations of the Creed? If so, I must say that, in my limited experience, I have not found that to be true, either among RC clergy or laity. Perhaps this says something about the circles in which I move. Also, I'm afraid I don't understand the connection with "think(ing) of Protestantism in genealogical terms".