Saturday, June 27, 2009

How Catholic is "catholic?"

What a transformation we have undergone. The change has been both at a break-neck pace, but also understandable - particularly in light of our developing ecclesiology and love of the Church. The resulting effect has been one of viewing the Church with more of a "catholic" mentality than a "Protestant" one. These two terms have gone through a number of different definitions throughout history, picking up new baggage with each change, but never discarding any. As a result, the terms, by themselves, say little unless clarified by either common understanding among conversation participants or copious qualifiers to accompany their usage.

For example, the Baptists may find ties to the Anabaptists of Switzerland in the 16th Century, who "protested" the Roman Catholic church at the time through what would be called "the Radical Reformation," but what exactly do they "protest" now? In addition, Protestantism is so diverse in its various denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc.), that the term is useful only in identifying something as non-Catholic, but offers little more clarity than that.

On the other hand, "catholic" also suffers the need for clarity as well. For much of life I have mistakenly assumed it had one meaning, that of referring to the Roman Catholic church. However, "catholic" can have a slightly more broad use than merely referencing the Christian tradition headquartered in the Vatican. At its root "catholic" is derived from the two Greek terms kata ("according to") and holos ("whole"). Therefore, "catholic" does not merely refer to the Roman church, nor can it ethereally be merely translated as "universal." It, quite literally, has to do with things agreed upon "according to the whole." Therefore, in some sense, Rome has been rather presumptuous to wear this label for itself, seeing that it does not constitute the "whole"of the Christian Church. Nevertheless, to seek the Church to be "whole," or to desire it to be "whole" again after so many years of schism and division is to view the Church through a somewhat "catholic" lens. In addition, to remain faithful to the ancient creeds is also "catholic" because these summaries of Christian doctrine were agreed upon "according to the whole." All Christian's believe the Nicene Creed (whether they realize it or not), and none are Christian who deny the truth expressed in the Nicene Creed. Therefore, the Nicene Creed is a "catholic" expression of Christian faith.

One of the ramifications of such a "lens" is to gaze longingly upon that period of the Church's history before division and schisms ripped it asunder. In this way, one can speak of the "catholic" era of the Church, before the great east/west schism of A.D. 1054. Such an ecclesiology can see in this a healthier period than is presently on display because at least there existed a unified mechanism for addressing innovations to Christian doctrine that ran contrary to the faith inherited from the apostolic era. Not to be naively nostalgic, but the assumption of sickness is to suggest a normalcy prior to becoming symptomatic. If the last millennium has been marked by schisms of Rome with the East, theological inventions of Rome through medieval scholasticism, Swiss anarchic reactions to Rome during the Radical Reformation, Protestant splintering of the Church through denominationalism and American reinventing of "church" through marketplace consumerism, then the first millennium can be viewed as healthier than the second.

Therefore, longing for the Church to return to a healthier state is, at least to some extent, a "catholic" desire. This appetite for a more "whole" Church can lead one to be more open to instruction from the ancient Church before it was as splintered apart as we find today. In addition, this mentality lends itself to finding greater value in the "whole" than in individual appetites regarding church practice. Someone may ask, "Do you like how they do 'church' at your new place?" This question is far less relevant now than it used to be, for in this way the "catholic" mentality is contrasted with the "protestant" ethos. It is more of a "protestant" mentality to evaluate churches based upon personal taste and "felt needs." Such Christian consumerism understands that if the present church experience does not meet those "needs," I can always try another...and another...and another.

The net effect is that I must admit to developing a more "catholic" view of the Church than I ever have had before. It's actually somewhat disorienting. To change one's mind is unsettling, realizing one's own immaturity in a new frontier. Much of what I thought I knew must be re-learned. It's not intellectual suicide to abandon intellectual autonomy, but it's an odd sensation nonetheless. To progress in this vein is to increasingly think more "catholic" than "protestant." This has the uncomfortable effect of placing Rome, Italy in closer proximity to my position than Alpharetta, Georgia (headquarters to the Southern Baptist Convention). After all, Benedict is at least talking to Bartholomew, which is to be celebrated. In addition, the Orthodox Church in America is extending the embrace of good will to the Anglican Church in North America. These things appear to be pleasing fulfillments of Jesus' prayer for our unity in John 17.

This change of mind was driven home to me Sunday during the singing of one of the hymns. I grew up singing the old hymn "The Church's One Foundation." Imagine my surprise when the hymnal at Church of the Holy Communion seemed to add a verse in the middle:

Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distressed;
Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

I have two hymnals at home. This verse is in the 1976 hymnal I boosted from a Baptist church (not really, they gave me one), but is omitted from the 1986 hymnal I got from another Baptist church. Why the later omission? Is it not appropriate to long for the Church to be healed from her many schisms and divisions? Regardless of whether it be a “catholic” sentiment, I too cry “How long?” when lamenting the fracturing of Christ’s church. For this reason, the Reformation was positive for correcting some of Rome’s errors, but also takes on a tragic flavor for splintering the Church further. Some may accuse me of sounding increasingly “catholic” (meaning, I want the Church to be whole), but I’ll not let that deter me from thinking the Church as greater than myself, and with a "catholic" desire for unity, crying out:

“How long?”

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