Underlying this series of articles seems to have been the premiss that 'catholic' means 'universal', and that 'catholicism' pertains to the traditional-style Christianity of the Roman Church, thought before the Reformation to have been universal, and shared to some extent nowadays by Anglicanism.
But of what does this universality consist? A mere geographical unity: the Church in all places? A unity of continuity: the Church the same throughout history? Or is there a depth to the word which has been missed?
'Catholic' in its truest sense also has an all-embracing quality beyond the limits of time and space. It is a wholeness, the all-inclusive condition of a God-given perfection of faith and worship, and its embodiment in the Church: nothing less than the Body of Christ, the gathered People of God in communion with Him and with each other in the fullness of truth and in love.
This union in truth and love - and the two cannot be separated - encompasses not just present-day Christians but the whole Church, from Christ its Head through the apostles and the early Church down to today and beyond to future generations, as a living organism incapable of being divided.
Such an understanding of catholicism is a long way from the popular view of a certain style of worship and thinking epitomised by the Church of Rome and found to some degree in conservative Reformed churches. This popular view presupposes that the Roman Church has set a standard, to which other churches may measure up or be opposed. And it is this which merits the word 'universal' - 'catholic'.
So the extent to which other churches share the ideas and practices of Rome is seen to constitute their catholicity. A certain attitude, a certain atmosphere have come to dominate the stage. In this a continuity with the past seen from a purely technical standpoint - the Apostolic Succession reduced to a human chain with little regard for whether this chain is handing on the fullness of truth - has taken precedence over a sense of communion of the whole People of God in the eternal and unchanging faith of the Church. Human and local traditions have become confused with tradition, the real handing on of the fullness of truth in the Apostolic Succession, so that the very understanding of catholicity as a perfect wholeness of the faith has been blotted out. Instead of implying all-embracing, the expression of Christianity in its entirety, 'universal', has been divided into notions of time and place, faith has been hived off to a separate department and the Body of Christ carved up according to hierarchical structures.
Even on its own terms, this degraded definition of catholic falls down. The Roman Catholic Church by itself has never been geographically universal. It is a common fallacy to imagine that the pre-Reformation Roman Church, extending only over Western Europe, was the catholic church in its entirety. That ignores the existence of the undivided Catholic Church up till the 11th century which included all Christendom, and the fact of the Great Schism, when the Patriarchate of Rome and the Eastern Patriarchates severed communion. The Western Church after that appropriated to itself the word catholic, but it was no longer geographically universal; and that situation has never been reversed.
That was the beginning of a shrinking of the understanding of the term 'catholic' in the West. It became more and more associated with hierarchical forms and less and less to do with the wholeness of faith. The monarchical structure of the papacy as expressed by Rome had not been a part of the pre-schism undivided catholic church, where the Pope was seen as first among equals by his fellow patriarchs; an elder brother rather than a sovereign. The universal church was in essence collegial, a brotherhood of bishops all with an equal share of doctrinal authority, of the grace of the Holy Spirit, of the conciliar voice. The model was the apostolic council at Jerusalem, where St Peter's position was not authoritarian; its decisions were couched in the terms 'it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us'.
That was to become the recognised essence of catholic church government, to which the great Ecumenical Councils of the first eight centuries of Christianity bear witness.
The only head of the Church remains Christ himself. A monarchical papacy has no part in the catholic tradition, but is merely a local aberration. In understanding that the reformers were not seeking innovations but a return to the pre-schism norm. That they did so by creating even more divisions was a further sorry development in church history and another step away from the church's collegial nature and the right understanding of catholicity.
That might seem like so much dead history, were not the Eastern Church still alive and well. Indeed, it is flourishing in its release from Soviet domination and is likely to play an increasingly important role on the Christian stage both throughout the world and in Britain, where it is one of the few churches in a state of growth.
The Western churches, led by Rome, do not have a monopoly on the Nicene Creed. The word 'catholic' is not of Latin origin but Greek, and Eastern Orthodoxy has not lost the vision of the fullness of Christian truth which is at the heart of the word. In reciting the Creed it still acknowledges the pristine meaning of all-embracing in the fullness of truth as well as in time and place, and still commits itself to the Christian faith and life in its entirety, without any diminishment.
The Eastern Church, catholic because it has never lost the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith, looks back beyond the medieval church in Britain which was already part of a divided church; back towards a time when the faith and the hearts of Christians were one, expressed in the bond of one communion.
It also looks forward, to a distant day when the various churches may allow the Holy Spirit to reunite them as the one Holy Catholic Church in the fullness of truth and love, the visibly undivided Body of Christ. But that will never come about by the propagation of a debased and false understanding of catholicism, and the usurping of all authority, by the Church of Rome.Reuse content