“The Church Catholic” : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church…”
What is the nature of the catholic Church that we confess in the creeds? What constitutes a catholic tradition? Indeed, what does the very term “catholic” mean in relation to the Church?
You will note, that these questions are theological, not the pragmatic question of, “how can we get our churches to work?”. I think that often we have problems with the pragmatic issues, simply because we have not first addressed the theological issues. In our current fragmented culture, the most difficult question to answer might simply be, “What is the Church?” We must recognize in seeking to answer this question, that there is a profound relationship between recovering the true nature of the Church theologically and then applying that understanding to the pragmatic and practical issues that confront us today. It is, I believe, essential that we do this. It is essential that the “communio sanctorum” which we confess in the creeds is not viewed as the ancient equivalent of coffee and doughnuts after the Sunday morning service.
Historically, “catholic” is merely one of the “marks” of the Church confessed by Christians for almost 2000 years. We refer to the Church as being “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. These four, together, are traditionally known as the “marks” of the Church, that is, the traits or qualities that make it possible for us to recognize the Church for what it truly is in its essence. It is interesting to note that each of these marks is so linked to the others that one cannot be separated from the others. Each trait or quality is so linked with the others that together they form one coherent and interrelated idea of what Christ’s Church is meant to be. For example, the unity of the Church is more remarkable because it is to be a catholic unity, that is, a unity of faith (however basic in its outline) and hope in all places and ages. It is also an apostolic unity, one that guards the one faith first proclaimed by the apostles. Finally, it is a unity of faith which is holy, because Christ, the head of the Church, is holy and we, in imitation, seek to minister to the holiness of life in the Church. Owing to the outward expression of certain of these marks, they are sometimes spoken of as “signs” of the Church, so that the church takes on in its very being a sacramental nature – that is, a physical means of expression by which God’s grace is given through the work of the Holy Spirit among us.
Yet, seen in this light, the marks of the Church must also be seen as paradoxical. For example, the Church is holy, but it is made up of sinners. The Church is one, but it is scattered throughout the world and, indeed, includes all those who have gone before us in faith through the centuries. The Church is apostolic, but it is not culturally bound to the mores and norms of first century Palestine resulting in ecclesial gatherings today that would, for the most part, be unrecognizable to the apostles. Finally, the Church is catholic, yet most Christians today – from Roman Catholic to evangelicals – would, at best, struggle to define what the word means and, at worst, would run away from the term altogether.
The word, “catholic”, was first used by Ignatius of Antioch, one of the so called Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius was born just a year or two after the death of Christ and went to a martyr’s death in Rome in the first decade of the second century. Writing a letter to the Church in Smyrna on his journey to Rome, he wrote, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”. Catholicity has since been defined as “universal”, “orthodox”, “continual”, “universal in mission”, “ageless” and a myriad of other terms and phrases.
For myself, however, I like the early statement of Ignatius, that “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Simply stated, it’s not about us, it’s about Christ. The church that is truly catholic is one that is universal, because it has Christ who is universal. The church that is truly catholic is ageless, because it has Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. The church that is truly catholic is orthodox, because it has Christ who is the fullness of truth. As the late Reformation era Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, “It [the creed] says ‘the church catholic’ lest we take it to mean an outward government of certain nations. It is, rather, made up of men scattered throughout the world who agree on the same Gospel and have the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, and the same sacraments, whether they have the same human traditions or not.” (Art. VI:10)
We may worship differently. We may have differing polities. We may dress differently. We may speak or use different languages in our churches. We may live in a totalitarian state or in a democracy. We may be liturgical or casual. We may be politically inclined or apolitical. None of these issues define the catholicity of the Church, nor, I would suggest, should we allow them to ultimately define our identity as the Church. What does define the catholicity of the Church is the One we come to worship when we gather together. As the Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The purpose of worship is to constitute the Church, precisely to bring what is ‘private’ into the new life, to transform it into what belongs to the Church, i.e. shared with all in Christ. In addition its purpose is always to express the Church as the unity of that Body whose head is Christ”.
Simply put, our common worship of Christ is the greatest sign of our catholicity as the Church. Our insistence on our own prerogatives – in our traditions, our “distinctives”, our forms of worship, our partisan politics, and all the rest – may be the greatest hindrance to finding that catholicity.