Who Is A Catholic?

Written By: on Sep 15th, 2009 and filed under Editorial.

Now we turn to the theological consideration of the word, “Catholic”. “Catholic” means ‘universal’, ‘according to the totality’, or ‘in keeping with the whole’. The Church is catholic in more than one sense.

The Church is catholic because Christ is present in her, and Christ is a CATHOLIC ENTITY. St. Ignatius of Antioch says: “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church” (Ad Smyrn. 8, 2). Christ is the head of the Church, and this body has Christ’s total presence. This implies that she receives the fullness of salvation (Eph. 1, 22-23) from him. Christ’s presence is carried primarily through the valid apostolic succession of the priesthood that comes from Christ Himself and from the sacraments administered by this priesthood. Neither any Roman Catholic theologians nor the Roman Church has ever questioned the validity of Orthodox priesthood or sacraments. In this sense, Christ is totally present in the Orthodox Church and she is CATHOLIC. The Orthodox Church was endowed with this note since the Pentecost, and it will continue to be catholic until the last judgment.

The Church is catholic because she was sent out by Christ on a mission to the entire human race all over the world (see the observation above). All men, all races all over the world (see the observation above). All men, all races are called to belong to the ONE People of God, to the Catholic unity of Christ’s people. All men were given only one human nature, and God intends to gather them as one, as one redeemed race. This universal mission for the whole human race is carried out by the Church. The Church embraces all humanity, and she is intended for all human beings, past, present and future.

All local churches are also catholic when they participate in this universal mission, and when they share the faith of the apostolic church and the valid apostolic succession of the priesthood to administer the sacraments and preach the gospel of Christ for the salvation of their people and when their people are joined together under the ecclesiastical government run by a valid episcopate. In order to maintain the Catholic character, the local/ national churches are to be in communion with other churches that are Catholic. This communion is between the baptized people of the other churches who profess the same faith in its entirety and maintain the same priesthood and sacraments. In other words, it is not a communion between two patriarchs, it is between the people of God in different regions of the world. The Roman Catholic Church also asserts the Catholic character of the Orthodox Churches based on this communion: “With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 242) Pope Paul VI, talking about this communion as a prerequisite for a local church’s catholicity, emphasizes that the Orthodox Churches “lack little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist” (Paul VI, Discourse, December 14, 1975). Although the Orthodox Churches do not require an approval from a Pope for their Catholic character, it is interesting to note that Rome does not hesitate to recognize their catholicity.

Often a bigger church, or a church, claiming direct apostolicity might deny the catholic character of a local church on the issue of legitimacy or canonicity. For example, Rome might demand its approval for the local church to be legimimately organized in order to emphasize its so called prerogative of legitimizing any church on the ground of its pre-eminent place in the old Roman Empire or of Peter’s primacy or universal jurisdiction which is attributed to the Pope. If the local churches do not accept its ground for such a prerogative, such claims do not bind them. Eastern theology does not entertain such claims of another local church, whether it is bigger or pre-eminent, or of direct apostolic origin. Such claims may render them a more honorable place among the churches, not a jurisdictional authority or canonical oversight.

It is the People of God of a national church that ultimately justify its regional status or legitimacy of canonicity. However, it has to abide by the apostolic faith of the fathers of the Church, and possess, without any doubt, a valid apostolic succession of the priesthood in order to proclaim Christ’s Gospel and to administer the sacraments for the salvation of its people. It is in these local churches, and in the global church formed out of them that the Catholic Church exists.

The Malankarese Church has been in struggle for about a century to establish its legitimacy or canonicity. The people of Malankara decided its fate as a national autocephalous Church, and their desire was blessed by the restoration of the Catholicate of the East for the people of India in 1912. Although there were questions about her canonicity, the will of her people established her position as a canonical “catholic” church, and it was unquestionably ratified by the high courts of the country, and thus her catholicity is also recognized sine dubio everywhere in the orthodox world. When there was a concern about giving a reception for her Catholicos in the West as the legitimate head of a national Church, Pope Shenouda of the Alexandrian See emphatically declared her canonicity and catholicity, and observed that the questions pertaining to the administration of a church never comes within the perimeters of its canonical and “catholic” character, as it is the orthodox faith and a valid apostolic priestly succession that ultimately determines such notes. Yes, the Church of Malankara is part of the global “Catholic” Church, and she is a CATHOLIC Church.

To conclude: When someone asks you if you are a Catholic, do not hesitate, tell him proudly: “I am a Catholic, but not a Roman Catholic. I am an Orthodox Catholic, truly worshipping Jesus, the Son of God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity, and ethnically I am from Malankara”.

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5 Responses for “Who Is A Catholic?”

  1. A very fine article and precise definition of terms. However, the accuracy of the historical information conceerning the existence of Churches north of the Alps prior to the 1st Ecumenical Council is a little questionable. There were Churches established (with Synods) before the reign of Constantine, certainly throughout Gaul (Vienne, Lyon, Narbonne, Arles, Nime, etc.).

  2. Rachel says:

    The pope is Catholic, get over it. Learn instead to get along.

  3. Michael says:

    Corepiscopo Achen said that the Russians called themselves “Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic”, actually the original Russian Orthodox Church was based in Alaska and eventually San Francisco and beyond, it was called the “Metropolia”, later when Fr. Alexis Toth joined the Russian Orthodox Church from the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, this later became the OCA. Another wave of Greek Catholics became Orthodox after Pope Pius in 1929 forbade married Eastern Catholic priests from functioning in America after complaints from Latin rite Bishops. This new diocese under the Ecumenical Patriarchate was titled the “American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Diocese of the USA) ACROD, which is neither Russian nor Greek Catholic.

    Adding another title to the alphabet soup of denominations in the US will only cause further confusion. For example, the Antiochian Orthodox Catholic Church is a vagante sect, not in union with anyone and not to be confused with canonical Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese (AOCA).

    Adding more lengthy names will just add to the confusion of an already minority group of Orthodox in the US. I recommend avoiding it.

  4. This is a beautiful article. It really gives a new light to the word Catholic. I really hope this reaches our entire community.

  5. k c thomas says:

    An interesting article – I never knew exactly what the term “catholic” meant – although perhaps a bit too technical for lay people like myself

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