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!
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”.