Who Is A Catholic?

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

About forty years ago I had the opportunity to visit the ordinary of the Orthodox (Russian) Diocese of Chicago, Archbishop John of blessed memory, a very saintly prelate whose sanctity was well known among his people. Although he was a bishop of the Byzantine tradition, he was extremely warm towards the Malankarese Church which is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, despite the historic division between both of them since Chalcedon. He was a keen observer of the Aarhus (Denmark) consultation (1964) between these churches and maintained that there is no dogmatic division between these churches and that both are equally orthodox.

During our conversation the Archbishop asked me where I was studying.

“At Loyola, a Catholic University”, I replied.

“No, don’t say that; we are the Catholic Church; that’s why they are qualifying themselves as ‘Roman Catholics’. . . . We are the Catholic Church”, Archbishop John said.

In almost all Roman Catholic official documents, such as dogmatic pronouncements and encyclicals, prior to Vatican II, the Roman Church itself regularly used “Roman Catholic” (Ecclesia Romana Catholica) to signify its name. It was after Vatican II, due to the insistence of the Uniates, the Roman Church began to use “Roman Catholic” to denote its Latin rite wing. Thus the uniates began to emphasize that they are not ‘Roman’, but Greek, or Syrian, in order to win acceptance among the Orthodox that they are THE local Church, not Roman. But in international media and religious circles the Latins and Uniates are generally called Roman Catholics, because they are all under Rome, and they profess the Roman faith.

Unfortunately, the Malankarese Church shows a very unhealthy allergy when it comes to the point of accepting that they are “Catholics”. The Byzantine Orthodox Churches, when they were being established in America as ethnic orthodox churches, called themselves the “Greek Orthodox Catholic, or Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic, or Antiochian Orthodox Catholic Church or Archdiocese”. It is a shame that the Malankarese Orthodox do not identify themselves as “Catholic” when they also profess, “We believe in the One, Holy, CATHOLIC, and Apostolic Church”. In the Service Book of the Holy Qurbana (1970) translated and published by Metropolitan Mathews Mar Athanasios, later Catholicos, the creed is translated with the word “Orthodox” in parenthesis after the word “Catholic”! I wonder if the framers of the Niceo-Constantinopolitan Symbol, were so ignorant that they missed “Orthodox” after “Catholic”! It is high time for us to teach our generation what the terms “Orthodox and Catholic” mean.

With this prefatory note let me get to the historical and theological significance of these terms.

In the beginning of the fourth century, the church was divided on theological pronouncements made by a priest-monk called Arius. Arius began to teach that the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, was not consubstantial with the Father. He insisted that Jesus was begotten by the Father, but was not co-eternal with the Father. In other words, Jesus’ Godhead was inferior to the Father, and His Godhead was not complete as the Father. To make it simpler, Jesus was not completely God, but a creation of God (Mar Thoma Dionysius, Aarhus Statement 1964). It was to resolve this major heresy that the Council of Nicea (325) was convened by Emperor Constantine, and it was finally settled.

The Council empathically concluded that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, was consubstantial with the Father in essence and existence, and every divine attributes; whatever attributes the Father possesses in His Godhead, the Son possesses equally, no less, no more, except the Fatherhood. The majority of Christianity accepted this symbol of  faith.

During this period the Eastern part of the Church called themselves “Orthodox” to distinguish themselves from the minority that followed the Arian teachings. The word “Orthodox” does not mean “true or genuine faith” as many have understood. “Orthos” in Greek means ‘true or genuine’ but “doxa” in Greek does not mean faith, it means ‘praise or glory’ or worship. According to the Creed accepted at Nicea, the adoration or praise given to the Godhead is never true or genuine if it is not also directed to the second person of the Holy Trinity as true God. The Father and Son (and the Holy Spirit) are different persons in the Trinity, but are one and the same God. It is this Triune God the people of God, redeemed by the second person of the Trinity, adore in the Church on earth, in the Eucharist and in their regular worship. If the Son was not worshipped equal to the Father, such a worship was not true or genuine. In order to emphasize that they were the true worshippers, the majority that followed Nicea called themselves “Orthodox” (worshippers of the Triune God with three distinct persons but in ONE substance of the Godhead).

In the western part of the Church, which was the Church under Rome, the term “Catholic” became more popular during this period. Of course they did not undermine the significance of the word, “Orthodox”. “Catholic” was a term more commonly used by the western and eastern fathers even before Nicea and it meant “universal applicability”. It was accepted at Nicea as one of the notes, or distin-guishing marks, of the Church, to signify that the Church was for all the creations of the universe. During this period, the western Church was comparatively smaller than the Eastern church; Christianity had not reached beyond the Alps (except Spain). Italy was the only predominantly Christian region in Europe (Greece belonged to the Eastern Church). Actually it was the churches of the East which were under several patriarchates that rendered meaning to the word “Catholic”, because of the vastness of the eastern churches within the Eastern portion of the Church. Therefore, the West accepted the term “Catholic” in order to emphasize the fact that they were part of the universal faith of the larger Church that worshipped the true Godhead of Jesus. So, the words, “Catholic” and “Orthodox” meant the same as far the faith and practice of the post-Arian period was concerned, although etymologically both terms had different significances. Parenthetically, the East also used the word “Catholic” commonly before and after Nicea to signify the true genuine Church, because one of the purposes of the Church was the universalization of Christ’s Gospel.

The Roman Church began to identify itself as “Catholic” with the emphasis that it was the Church “universally” accepted as a global denomination of Christendom, or that it was the Church that reached all corners of the universe and that it was everywhere in the world. The Roman Catholic Church also taught that it was the meaning of the word “Catholic”, mentioned as one of the notes of the Church in the Nicene Creed. The codifiers of the Creed did not dream that meaning at all. In fact, the word “Catholic” simply signifies that the Church is meant for all peoples of the earth, regardless of color, or ethnicity. The Roman Catholic Church became a global Church only after Spanish and Portuguese colonization in Asian and South American countries during the colonial period. It was the Spanish and Portuguese colonial missionaries who took the Roman faith to these countries, including our own State of Keralam.

During the Constantinian period, the Western Church did not have a practice of using the phrase “Roman Catholic” in order to designate its church, because catholicity was never the note of one particular local church, although each church was and is part of the global universal/ catholic church; and in that sense every church is catholic. However, this trend changed in the West after the Great Schism between Rome and Byzantium (10th century). Rome began to assert that it was the true claimant and heir of catholicity, and that Rome was the seat and center of the true Church, and that the Church of Rome was the true successor of the Church established by Christ on the foundation of the apostles, particularly of Peter. Thereafter, the West began to use “Roman”, in order to claim that the note of catholicity was its sole possession, which the East never accepted. The West also continued to teach that no other Church but Rome was Catholic and that if a Church was not in communion with the Roman Pope it was not Catholic. The East always believed that it was Catholic despite Rome’s claim. Actually the East taught that Rome had separated itself from the true Catholic Church, and does not, in strict sense, possess the notes of Christ’s Church!

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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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