Why is the Church Called “Catholic”?
Rector’s Letter to the Congregation (Week of February 10, 2019)
A believer being a “catholic” has absolutely nothing to do with being a “Roman Catholic.” The book To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism explains it this way:
The term ‘catholic’ means ‘according to the whole.’
The Church is called ‘catholic’ because it holds
the whole faith once for all delivered to the saints,
and maintains continuity with the apostolic
Church throughout time and space (2013: 56–57).
To be catholic is to hold to the apostolic teaching and presentation of the message of Christ. If a fellowship or church group introduces doctrines alien to the apostles, or ones that the apostles would condemn, that church ceases to be catholic. In that vein, an Anglican can be more catholic than a Roman Catholic if the Roman Catholic came to believe stuff that is foreign to apostolic teaching.
The Anglican Church accepts three historical creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Those three creeds spell out what the apostles believed about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, the Church, baptism, the resurrection of the body, and life in the next world. What the apostles believed and taught is what a catholic person must believe and teach.
The Church is not a free-for-all organization, looking around for and open to adopting any well-reasoned ideas going the rounds in society and incorporating them into official teaching. That would mean changing, revising, or updating core Church doctrine or teaching to follow popular notions trending in different ages of history. The Gospel of Christ is a specific deposit that was handed down by the apostles. Every generation is mandated to propagate that deposit as received, to live by it, and to diligently hand it over, unadulterated, untampered with, to the next generation. And every believer is charged with the responsibility to guard that deposit even to the point of accepting to lose life itself rather than waver from it. It is that serious.
Note that in this day and era, even rebels against the Lord Jesus can claim to be Christians and even acquire leadership positions in the Church of God. The Church must always be on guard against any clever twists in the message that masquerades as the message or part of the message of Christ.
The tragedy today is that many believers are unwary and can be easily misled away from Christ by clever, smooth-talking false teachers who deny the Supremacy of Christ and equate Him with all founders of the many religions of the world. The apostles would warn the Church against such teachers. Such teachers are not catholic anymore. The apostles had no kind words for teachers who tried to introduce teachings contrary to what they themselves had put forward for the Church to believe and live by. We are apostolic therefore we remain true to what the apostles handed down to us. That’s what makes us catholic. So, whenever we declare our faith in worship using any of the three creeds, when we get to “We believe in the holy Catholic Church,” from now on declare those words with all the vigor you can muster. Your faith is in line with what the apostles taught.
Reading for this week:
The City of God, by St. Augustine, 2014:9
This quote is taken from Book I in which the Saint, among other aims, “censures the pagans, who attributed the calamities of the world, and especially the recent sack of Rome by the Goths, to the Christian religion, and its prohibition of the worship of the gods….”
“They, then, who lost their worldly all in the sack of Rome, if they owned their possessions as they had been taught by the apostle, who himself was poor without, but rich within,–that is to say, if they used the world as not using it, –could say in the words of Job, heavily tried, but not overcome:
Like a good servant, Job counted the will of his Lord his great possession, by obedience to which his soul was enriched; nor did it grieve him to lose, while yet living, those goods which he must shortly leave at his death. But as to those feebler spirits who, though they cannot be said to prefer earthly possessions to Christ, do yet cleave to them with a somewhat immoderate attachment, they have discovered by the pain of losing these things how much they were sinning in loving them. For their grief is of their own making; in the words of the apostle quoted above, ‘they have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.’ For it was well that they who had so long despised these verbal admonitions should receive the teaching of experience. For when the apostle says, ‘They that will be rich fall into temptation,’ and so on, what he blames in riches is not the possession of them, but the desire of them. For elsewhere he says,
They who are making such a use of their property have been consoled for light losses by great gains, and have had more pleasure in those possessions which they have securely laid past, by freely giving them away, than grief in those which they entirely lost by an anxious and selfish hoarding of them. For nothing could perish on earth save what they would be ashamed to carry away from earth. Our Lord’s injunction runs,
And they who have listened to this injunction have proved in the time of tribulation how well they were advised in not despising this most trustworthy teacher, and most faithful and mighty guardian of their treasure. For if many were glad that their treasure was stored in places which the enemy chanced not to light upon, how much better founded was the joy of those who, by the counsel of their God, had fled with their treasure to a citadel which no enemy can possibly reach.”[All this is one paragraph and counting].