I would like to refer you to my first article that provides the context in which this article is written. What I’d like readers to keep in mind is that my articles are apologetic treatises, not critiques of other denominations, religions or systems of unbelief. I aspire only to correct misconceptions, misstatements or, in some cases, provide alternative interpretations to a set of facts. The objective reader is left to make his/her own conclusions, as free moral agents should.
This article is a response to the common claim that Catholics aren’t Christians. It is therefore written with the assumption that God exists, that Jesus is His Son and that the Bible is the inspired word of God. If you do not hold any of the above to be true, you will agree with little else. You are, as always, more than welcome to comment and ask questions, but objections to the existence of God or the inspired nature of Scripture, although deserving a response, are not relevant to this post.
It is a lengthy article and I imagine many will not read it all the way through. Please refrain from commenting unless you’ve read the entire piece. It is only fair, I think.
There are three approaches to establishing whether the Catholic Church is a Christian Church. These are:
In a way these approaches are inseparable. The semantic approach is the least convincing, yet is bound to both the historical and theological approaches. The meanings of words change over time and carry different connotations in different settings, so it is important to understand the original, historical definition of a word. The historical-critical method of biblical scholarship is acutely concerned with historical context for this very reason.
It is relatively easy to show from history that Catholicism is a form of Christianity. But historical evidence will likely not satisfy the kind of people who accuse Catholics of being non-Christians. They will more likely, if at all, be swayed by theological and/or biblical arguments.
What’s in a name?
I almost never refer to myself as a Roman Catholic. Few of my Catholic friends do. The term is technically correct, but unnecessary. When someone enquires about my religious beliefs, I call myself a Christian. At times, if the conversation demands it, I might add Catholic to Christian. The intention is not to hide the Catholicity of my faith, but rather to highlight the centrality of Christ in my life.
The “Roman” descriptor is even more redundant. The Catholic Church or Universal Church (and I apologize for getting technical here) consists of various particular churches, usually called dioceses. Each particular church is headed by a bishop, an office that is the spiritual successor of the twelve of Apostles. These churches all share the exact same beliefs. If a diocese is particularly large or influential (such as those found in the capitals of countries), the bishop is usually called an archbishop and the diocese an archdiocese. Some particular churches have additional titles for their bishops. Pope is a title used by the bishop of Rome. Latin Patriarch is the title used by the bishop of Jerusalem.
In addition to particular churches, there are different rites in Catholicism. Again, these rites do not differ at all in doctrine. They differ only in how they celebrate the liturgy (a technical term for Christian worship) and certain disciplinary laws.
In liturgical terms, the Catholic Church is broadly divided into Western and Eastern Catholicism. Eastern Catholicism has five prominent rites, with various subdivisions. Western Catholicism has three: the Ambrosian rite, typically celebrated in Milan, Italy; the Mozarabic rite, celebrated in certain parts of Spain; and the Roman (or Latin) rite, by far the largest rite within the Catholic Church. A “Roman” Catholic is simply a Catholic who was confirmed and attends Mass at a parish that celebrates the Latin rite.
Incidentally, priests in Eastern Catholicism are allowed to get married before being ordained to the priesthood. The discipline of priestly celibacy is particular to Western Catholicism, and is not Church doctrine, but simply a discipline. It can and likely will change in the future.
There is an historical precedent of using the term “Roman Catholic” pejoratively, since certain other Christian communities also refer to themselves as Catholic; most notably the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists. Most historical texts written in predominantly Protestant and especially formerly British countries such as South Africa explicitly or implicitly follow this use of the term.
The last sense in which the term “Roman Catholic” is used, is to distinguish the Catholic Church from the Orthodox Churches. The Roman Catholic Church is the universal church in communion with the bishop of Rome. A church is “Roman” if it agrees, doctrinally, with the church at Rome and its bishop.
We consider Eastern Orthodox Churches Catholic in almost every way, except that they reject the primacy of the bishop of Rome.
In everyday use it is therefore unnecessary to call oneself Roman Catholic. It is even unnecessary to call oneself Catholic. We add the term when it will help others understand our doctrinal positions. But first and foremost I am a Christian.
The followers of Christ
The first use of the word “Christian” (Ancient Greek “Christianoi”) is recorded in the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles. The first followers of Christ who were referred to as Christians were those gathered in the ancient city of Antioch, one of the earliest dioceses and founded by St. Peter before he went on to become the bishop of Rome. Of the three instances of its use in the Bible, twice it was used by non-Christians. It was a term referring to those Jews and Gentiles who followed the teachings of a man known chiefly by the title “Christ” or the “Anointed One”. It made no judgment over the state of an individual follower’s soul. It didn’t distinguish between those who lived out the Christian faith authentically or those who were only pretending. If you belonged to this new Jewish sect you were a Christian. If you failed to adhere to its rules or practices, you might be a bad Christian, but you were a Christian nonetheless. It was due to St. Peter’s use of the term in his epistles that it became accepted throughout the universal church, replacing the term “Nazarene”.
The first use of the word “Catholic” is also found in the New Testament, but here it was chiefly used as a descriptive term. It is derived from the Ancient Greek word “katholikos”, which means “universal” or “according to the whole”. St. Paul often addresses his epistles to the universal Church, i.e. all Christians everywhere. The word that is translated into English as “universal” is the same word that translates to “Catholic”. For this reason, many Christian communities such as those I mentioned earlier continue to refer to themselves as catholic, though the common usage is the lowercase “c”.
In the Nicene Creed, common to all Christianity, we refer to the Church as “one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. Again, some denominations use a lowercase “c”; others prefer to replace it with “universal”, but the Greek word from which all of them derive remains “katholikos”.
The first extra-biblical use of the term “Catholic” which survives to this day is one by St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John and therefore one of the apostolic fathers. The Apostolic fathers were five bishops who lived during the lifetimes of at least one of the apostles and most likely had contact with them. Even though the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are not included in the New Testament, they are considered generally authoritative (though not infallible) by almost all Christians, including Protestants.
In a letter to the Christians at Smyrna around AD 110, St. Ignatius wrote: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Although the meaning of the word “Catholic” was still descriptive here, it was beginning to develop a titular meaning as well.
Other early Church Fathers continued to use the term, which became increasingly more titular as well as descriptive. Clement of Alexandria writes around the turn of the second century: “We say that both in substance and in seeming, both in origin and in development, the primitive and Catholic Church is the only one, agreeing as it does in the unity of one faith.”
The Nicene Creed
The First Council of Nicaea was held in AD 325. It was meant to settle certain doctrinal issues, such as the nature of the divinity of Christ and His relationship to God the Father. As with all Church councils, it was convened to address certain heresies. This council was responding to those Christians, especially Arians, who were spreading the heresy that Christ and God the Father were separate beings, that Christ was a created being and less divine than God the Father, etc. The council clearly and definitively denounced the Arian heresy and reiterated true Christian doctrine. In other words, it didn’t invent Christian doctrine, but emphasised and codified existing Christian doctrine. It was during this council that the Nicene Creed which I alluded to before was formulated. This creed is accepted by almost all of Christianity. It contains the four marks of the Church.
These four marks were meant to be the criteria by which the Church of Christ could be identified. It had to be:
1. ONE, completely united it its faith in Christ and His teachings, and also united in love,
2. HOLY in its sacraments, its works of charity and in its purity of doctrine,
3. CATHOLIC, by holding to the faith universally believed everywhere, always and by all,
4. APOSTOLIC. Its bishops had to be able to trace their offices all the way back to the original twelve apostles.
The first use (that we know of) that unequivocally corresponds to the modern use was by St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in AD 347.
By this time there were many Christians who believed in the heretical teachings of the Marcionists and the Manicheans, among others. These teachings ranged from the belief that the god of the Old Testament was different from the god of the New, that Jesus did not have a physical Body, that He did not really die on the cross, that marriage and procreation was forbidden, etc.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem warns Christians: “…if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God.”
However, the decisive moment in which the term Catholic became used in the way we understand it today was when the heretical sect Donatism set itself up as the “one, true Church of Christ.”
Donatists did not differ with the Christian Church on any major doctrines. The major heresy within Donatism was its rigorism. During the centuries of persecution by the Roman authorities, many Christians, in order to save their lives, denied their Christian faith. Christians denying Christ was a very serious matter, as it remains today. But some Christians, when the persecutions subsided and the empire became more tolerant of Christianity, repented and wished to become part of the Church again. Donatists refused to forgive such Christians. They considered the Christians who denied their faith forever damned and did not permit them access to the sacraments.
The Catholic Church, however, taught that no sin was too great to forgive, even denying one’s faith, provided the penitent was sincere in their repentance. Obviously it’s impossible to determine with absolute sincerity whether a penitent is sincere, so the Church has always chosen to err on the side of mercy.
In any case, it was this heresy which triggered the Christian Church to officially adopt the title “Catholic” in order to distinguish itself from the heretical Donatist Church.
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), a theologian respected by both Catholics and Protestants and author of the famous “Confessions”, wrote extensively on the nature of grace. This was partly in response to the Donatist heresy, which tried to prevent believers from accessing God’s freely given grace, merited by Christ.
Although St. Augustine’s works are full of references to the Catholic Church, his deference to its legitimate authority is aptly summarized in the following quote: “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”
Few Protestants will deny that St. Augustine was a devout Christian. His dissertations on original sin and grace is required reading for seminarians of almost every Christian tradition.
Finally, in AD 434, St. Vincent of Lerins explains what exactly is meant by the term Catholic, as then understood by Christians. “In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense 'catholic’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.”
It had become clear that “Catholic” had evolved from a descriptive term meaning “universal” to a titular term that referred to the true Christian Church.
The anti-Catholic charge is that, around the time of Emperor Constantine I and the Edict of Milan in AD 313, or when Emperor Theodosius I made Catholic Christianity the official religion of the empire in AD 380, the Catholic Church broke off all its ties with original Christianity and became an apostate religion. This is why an argument from semantics is practically useless.
The most effective way of determining whether the Catholic Church remained Christian throughout its history is to compare Catholic doctrine before and after this so-called departure from true Christianity. Fortunately we have many writings from early Christians, Christians who lived long before the Catholic Church is said to have fallen into apostasy. It will be easy to compare the doctrines of this early Christian Church with the doctrines of the Catholic Church after the Edict of Milan or the establishment of Christianity.
Since this post is already way too long, the reader will have to wait for the next instalment. Until then, I leave you with a quote that beautifully illustrates the relationship between the terms Catholic and Christian:
“Christian is my name, but Catholic my surname. The former gives me a name, the latter distinguishes me. By the one I am approved; by the other I am but marked.” St. Pacian, bishop of Barcelona, AD 310 – 391.
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