Pastoral Perspectives

I Believe in… the Holy Catholic Church

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church.” This is what we recite weekly in the Apostle’s Creed. However, most of us would notice the addition of the word “universal” in parenthesis after “catholic” on the slide. We do not read the word out since it is in parenthesis, but it is there to qualify the word “catholic.” Apart from this singular word, it seems that no other term in the Creed demand any kind of supplementary information. What is so special about the word “catholic” that necessitates this? This oddity is not peculiar to our church. Other Protestant churches that recite the Creed in their liturgy have the same addition in their slides as well.

This parenthesis is an attempt by us Protestants to dissociate the “church” mentioned in the Creed from the entity that is the Roman Catholic Church. It informs the congregation that the “catholic church” in the Creed is not a reference to the Roman Catholic Church but the “universal church.” Now, we need to ask ourselves, what exactly is this “universal church?” Is it a reference to all the groups in the world that call themselves a Christian church? Or is it simply a reference to the collective sum of Christians in the world? To understand what the term “catholic” refers to, we need to find out how the early church used it.

The word “catholic” is derived from the Latin catholicus, which is in turn derived from the Greek katholikos. It literally means something like “according to all” or “according to the whole.” You will not find this word in the New Testament, but it is used by the church fathers and other early Christian writers as a description for the church. In the early 2nd century, St Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church in Smyrna, “Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” Here, St Ignatius makes a parallel between the appointed bishop’s (or overseer) authority over the local congregation and our Lord’s authority over the total or whole church. He uses the term “catholic” to refer to the church as one singular body of believers scattered throughout the world. What qualifies believers to be part of this unified church is their unity under the authority of their bishops: “Shun division as the beginning of evil. You must all follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father.”

Later, the idea of catholicity became bound up with the church’s struggles with heresies. In the 3rd century, Tertullian railed against heretics like Marcion who “at first were believers in the doctrine of the catholic church” until they were led astray by their “ever restless curiosity.” In the 4th century, St Cyril of Jerusalem would write concerning the church, “It is called catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge.” To have the right doctrine and therefore be part of the catholic church requires believers to submit to bishops who have been recognised and approved by other bishops for their orthodoxy. Following heretics and adhering to their heresies would put one outside the ambit of the catholic church.

Hence, catholicity suggests both a visible communion and a uniformity of doctrine for the church. This in turn necessitates a singular unity: there can be only one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church—those who did not confess the right doctrine will find themselves outside of the church, and outside of the church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). This unity remained more or less intact for a thousand years until the Great Schism rent the catholic church into two in 1054. There were increasing political tensions between the Greek-speaking Eastern faction and the Latin-speaking Western faction of the church. This worsened the already difficult relations between the two factions due to festering theological disputes. A series of unfortunate events led to mutual formal excommunications between a Roman papal legate to Constantinople and the Patriarch Michael Cerularius in 1054 and the eventual breaking of communion. This produced the Orthodox Church (a union of different patriarchates) and the Roman Catholic Church, with each claiming to be the true catholic and apostolic church.

We thank God that the mutual excommunications were lifted in 1965 at the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. Together they declared that they “regret and remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication which followed these events, the memory of which has influenced actions up to our day and has hindered closer relations in charity; and they commit these excommunications to oblivion.” Even though full communion has yet to be restored, the joint declaration has spurred considerable dialogue and cooperation between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians.

While not all are aware of the great 1054 schism, we should be familiar with the next major schism as we are the heirs of it. That is, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. This came about as a result of doctrinal disputes raised by Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers within the Roman Catholic Church. The ensuing political and ecclesial struggles eventually ripped the Western church apart. However, what is interesting for us is that the early Reformers did not want schism but sought to identify themselves as catholic. Since there can only be one catholic church and there is no salvation outside of it, they knew those who split from it would only find themselves under condemnation (that is why the excommunications between the Eastern and the Western factions are especially grievous). Hence, the Reformers could only see themselves as faithful catholic Christians who were preserving the catholic church by purging it of its errors. Unlike us, they had no qualms claiming to be catholic. Like the early church, they understood that to cede and shun the idea of catholicity is to condemn oneself as a schismatic and heretic. Instead, the Reformers saw themselves as Reformed Catholics in continuity with the early church.

Therefore, to confess “I believe in… the holy catholic church” is no mere lip service to an abstract theological notion. It is a matter of whether one is part of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ or not—there is only one body of Christ, not many bodies. If we take catholicity seriously, along with the Reformers and the church leaders of history past, then we have to question if our faith and practice can truly be considered “catholic.” Are they guided by the great tradition of the catholic church: the ecumenical councils, the creeds, the doctrine, the confessions, and the collective wisdom of the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit throughout history across the earth? Or are they largely a product of creative novelty, worldly culture, or pride and prejudice? Do we have the humility to see that despite the schisms and fragmentations, the catholic church is bigger than our local congregation or the Presbyterian Church, but stretches to all congregations across space and time who are in union with Christ through faith and baptism? Do we desire the visible unity of the catholic church, not just among the Protestant churches but also with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church? After all, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4.4-6). May our confession be true!

Preacher Png Eng Keat

February 12, 2023