Who is Catholic, but not Roman?

I was a little surprised when Bill, in a comment here at Gentle Wisdom, seemed unsure of what I meant by “Catholic”, as a description of Doug Chaplin. Here is my response:

Bill, Doug is Catholic, i.e. a member of the catholic = universal church, but not Roman Catholic. Of course on that definition you and I are also Catholic. But within Anglican circles at least “Catholic” is used of Christians who put a high value on moving towards unity with Rome, and with the Eastern Orthodox. At least that is my perception – Doug may well want to clarify.

I was aware that this use of word “Catholic” is peculiarly Anglican. Now Bill, if I remember correctly, is a former Episcopalian. Is this terminology not used in The Episcopal Church? If so, it must be in even narrower use than I thought.

Probably all of us good Anglicans (at least the English speaking ones) recite regularly these lines from the creeds: from the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in … the holy catholic Church;

from the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Quite often these lines cause comment from newcomers to my church, and my vicar has to explain that we are not Roman Catholics, that “catholic” in this context means “universal”. And this is indeed one of the dictionary definitions of the word. Indeed even in the context of the church, the following definitions are given of the word with a capital “C”:

  1. Of or involving the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Of or relating to the universal Christian church.
  3. Of or relating to the ancient undivided Christian church.
  4. Of or relating to those churches that have claimed to be representatives of the ancient undivided church.

But who uses this definition d? The “holy catholic Church” which Roman Catholics believe in is only their own church, and all other Christian groups are mere “ecclesial communities”. Similarly the Eastern Orthodox believe that only their own churches are the true Church. It is as far as I know mainly we Anglicans who believe that our own church is just a part of “the holy catholic Church” along with the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox  – although there are other small groups such as the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church which appear to have similar beliefs.

We Anglicans might differ over whether we consider other Protestant denominations and independent congregations to be part of the Catholic Church. Some of us, especially those who would self-identify as Catholics, deny them this status because they don’t have the apostolic succession and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. Ironically this is the same argument which the Roman Catholics use to put Anglicans outside the Catholic Church.

But there is still something strange about the description I have used of Doug Chaplin as Catholic, or I might call him Anglo-Catholic. If he is a Catholic in the sense of “A member of a Catholic church”, then for him I as a fellow Anglican am also a Catholic.  But I would call myself not a Catholic, as I am not on that wing of the Church of England, but an evangelical.

So, if Doug is described as a Catholic and I am not, is this based on a definition of “Catholic” which needs to be added to the dictionary? Or does this indicate a basic split in Anglicanism between those who identify themselves with a visible “holy catholic Church” and those who, like me, believe that this is a spiritual entity not identical to any earthly group or set of groups?

9 thoughts on “Who is Catholic, but not Roman?

  1. Pingback: clayboy » What’s yours? The new random beliefs meme

  2. As a 13 year old confirmand, they explained that the creed meant def’n 2, not def’n 1. I never heard 3 or 4 until today. South Louisiana is 50% Catholic by def’n 1, so I don’t know if that changes the ‘flow pattern’ of outreach as compared to England, but the bigger issue is that all my Episcopalian education was over at age 18. You’d have to ask someone else if def’ns 3 or 4 were known or used in our congregation.

  3. As a former Methodist, we would recite the apostle’s creed from time to time. Some pastors would change the word “catholic” to “universal” to prevent the confusion over the c word.

    As for anglicans, do you think it’s roughly equivalent to the high-church/low-church split?

  4. Qohelet, this division is indeed “roughly equivalent to the high-church/low-church split”. It is those who consider themselves “catholic” who prefer high church ceremonies, elaborate liturgies and decoration, whereas those who stress more their heritage in the Reformation tend to reject these things.

  5. I certainly go with, and have twice preached on the basis of, understanding 2. I have not encountered 3 and 4. I have seen apostolic succession as a second, related issue. And I have taken it as being true to the teaching and life of Jesus and thwe apostles (a la Jude). Personally, while I honour our episcopal ministry, and treat it as the authoirty structure within which I, as a Reader, operate, I could never deny true apostolic faith in other structures. But then I do sit at the Evangelical end of the CoE.

    As a side note, the Baptist church where I grew up used a form of service for Baptisms which professed One Holy Apostolic church. The very term Catholic was red rag to a bull to some. Sad the term is misused.

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