Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | December 30, 2012

Other Catholics

Church_YardAs this blog’s header proclaims, James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake that “Catholic means here comes everybody.” There was a time when I would probably have scoffed at that assertion. Then I read a book entitled The Catholicity of the Reformation edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. It reminded me of the important truths I learned in my seminary days about the Protestant reformers. Clear-cut dividing lines between what’s “Catholic” and “Protestant” or between what’s considered “conservative” and “liberal” might make us feel better, but finding the truth often requires us to go beyond such labels.

If we take history seriously, along with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), it seems true that there must be other types of Catholics than just Roman Catholics.  “Catholic” comes from a Greek adjective meaning “universal” and “together for the good of all.”  Early Christians applied it to the church; our earliest written example comes from Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, in the first decade of the 2nd century.

Identifying Catholics who are not Roman, there are arguably at least three usages:  Christians in union with the Holy See (the pope) whose rituals are not of Roman origin, Christians of Orthodox Churches, and Reformation Christians who profess the Nicene Creed.

Because the Latin (Roman) Rite is most widespread in Catholicism, many are unaware that there are thousands of Catholics in union with Rome whose liturgical ritual is derived from other locales.  The Eastern Catholic Churches to which they belong are autonomous, or self-governing, and they have their own canon (church) laws.  Their worship traces its historic development to Egypt, Syria, Armenia, or Constantinople rather than Rome.  Latin-Rite Catholics may be surprised by the differences in liturgy, but are welcome to partake in communion because of the ecclesial and sacramental unity we share through the Chair of Peter, the papacy.

What this means is that while we’re all Catholics in union with Rome, we have some definite differences in how we worship. There are often other important differences with far-reaching cultural significance, such as whether or not priests can marry and whether leavened or unleavened bread is used in the eucharistic sacrifice. It’s a vital reminder that union doesn’t rest upon uniformity. It suggests that ecumenical unity could be fostered and advanced even in the midst of some profound differences.

One can also validly describe as “catholic” the Christians of the Orthodox Churches.  Though not in union with Rome, their sacraments and apostolic succession are considered valid by the Holy See.  As with the original use of “catholic,” the word “orthodox” first served as an adjective that marked a quality of the church itself.  The church was catholic by its universality and orthodox because of its true doctrine.  The one Church of Christ, in east and west, was therefore catholic and orthodox.  One of the greatest hopes of Pope John Paul II was to recover the unity of eastern and western Christianity, the “two lungs by which the church breathes.” Perhaps he should be the patron saint of this cause today.

Although it may prove controversial to some, those Reformation communities who honor the Nicene Creed also profess themselves to be catholic.  This includes Anglicans and Lutherans, among others.  Our various doctrines may cause us to argue about the characteristics and sacraments of the Church of Christ, but we agree in professing this church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”  Among the reformers it was often an appreciation of the church’s catholicity that caused them to differ with Rome.

To these three categories perhaps we should add another group of Catholics, those particular churches that have broken with Rome due to unfortunate historical misunderstandings but who continue to profess essentially the same faith as Roman Catholics. In this category we can place the Polish National Catholic Church (headquartered in Scranton, Pennsylvania) and the Old Catholic Churches of Europe. Their sacraments and orders are considered valid by Rome, though the practice of ordaining women among Old Catholics is not recognized by the Holy See.

Catholicity is a cosmic reality.  The universality making us catholic is applied not only to the church but the entire created order.  As the bishops at Vatican II stated, we who are in union with the pope understand the Church of Christ to subsist (endure, continue on) within the Catholic Church, but we have no monopoly on divine grace.  “Many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside” the visible confines of the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8b–also known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).  Insofar as any human community enjoys the blessings of these elements of sanctification and truth, it can be considered catholic, at least to a degree.

A similar and shorter version of this article in the August 2012 edition of US Catholic magazine.  To view it, simply click HERE. If you enjoy this blog, please recommend it to friends.

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden/ 

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