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Roman Catholic?

You have heard the question. “Why do you people not call yourselves Roman Catholics? There are Catholics apart from members of the Roman Church. There are different traditions in the Church of Christ. You have no right to a monopoly of the word ‘Catholic.'” 

That is how a favorite objection is often stated. More official, perhaps, is the statement in Hook’s Church Dictionary: “Let the member of the Church of England assert his right to the name of Catholic, since he is the only person in England who has a right to that name. The English Romanist is a Roman Schismatic and not a Catholic.” One finds the same charge more bluntly stated in Blunt’s Dictionary of Sects and Heresies: “Roman Catholics are a sect organized by the Jesuits out of the relics of the Marian party in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.” 

There are those, too, especially some Anglicans and Modernists, who use the word “Catholic” in the sense of comprehensiveness. The Church is Catholic, they maintain, because it must welcome and assimilate all opinions, however contradictory they may be, so long as they are sincerely held.

The answer to these contentions rests on the true meaning and history of the word “Catholic.” It is derived from a Greek word, and it means universal.

When Jesus Christ, our Lord, established a Church among us, he said it was for all men. It was to be universal or catholic. Here are his words: “Going, teach ye all nations, go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:15.) 

Less than a century after Christ’s death Ignatius, the great martyr-bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter to the people of Smyrna in which the combination “the Catholic Church” occurs for the first time. His words are: “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the Catholic Church.” By the beginning of the third century the meaning of the term “Catholic” as applied to the Church had become clearly established. It was used technically to imply sound doctrine as opposed to schism.

Thus Clement of Alexandria wrote, “We say that both in substance and in seeming, both in origin and in development, the primitive and Catholic Church is the only one, agreeing as it does in the unity of one faith.” From quotations like this it is easy to see how “Catholic” became the proper name of the true Church founded by Christ.

There are two significant passages in the Catechetical Discourses of Cyril of Jerusalem, composed about the year 347. In the first he gives some advice to travelers: “If ever thou art staying in any city, ask not simply where the Lord’s house is — for the sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord — not merely where the church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the special name of the holy body the mother of us all.” Writing of the Creed he tells us, “Now it [the Church] is called Catholic because it is throughout the world, from one end of the earth to the other.” 

Augustine uses the word “Catholic” as a synonym for the Church 240 times. The occasion was mainly the Donatist heresy. Against its errors the mark of universality was particularly emphasized. Note what Augustine wrote: “Whether they wish or no, heretics have to call the Catholic Church Catholic.” 

In another place he put down something which is applicable today. “Although all heretics wish to be styled Catholic, yet, if anyone ask where is the Catholic place of worship, none of them would venture to point out his own conventicle.” Ask a London policeman for the Catholic Church, and he will direct you to Westminster Cathedral, not to St. Paul’s.

The word “Catholic” is, therefore, the proper name of that one, visible, organized Church founded by J esus Christ. It is the Church we r ead about in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is described as having its head, its bishops, its priests, its deacons, its sacraments, its doctrines, its authority, its unity, and its disciples. That same Catholic Church was persecuted by the Roman emperors. It emerged triumphant and saved civilization in Europe. It is the Church of all the Fathers, Doctors, and saints of East and West. It was the glory of Europe. It was the pride of England.

This same Catholic Church came to England first in Roman times. When it had almost died out Augustine brought it back again from the Bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great. They knew it as the Catholic Church. As such it was known by the ordinary men and women of England until the so-called Reformation. For them Christ’s Church was simply the Catholic Church.

This same Catholic Church built our splendid Cathedrals – Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Durham, and the rest. It gave us the fine churches which still decorate our land. It founded the great universities and many schools and hospitals. For fifteen hundred years all the great apostles and missionaries belonged to it.

The saints, whose names many of us bear, like Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Canterbury, Wilfrid of York, Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry the Emperor, Louis of France, Edward the Confessor, Margaret of Scotland, Hilda of Whitby, and hosts of others, were members of it. One and all, they knew it as the Catholic Church.

In 1529 the Diet of Spires took place. When the Catholic princes proposed certain moderate conditions for the settling of religious difficulties, the Lutherans solemnly protested against them, and the word “Protestant” was born of the denial of freedom and conscience. Although that historical fact is now generally forgotten, “Protestant” still remains an official name of the Established Church of England. The sovereign designates it by that name in the coronation oath.

It would have been obvious to any of the saints we have mentioned that a church different from theirs could not rightly be called the Catholic Church. But how could a church be different from the Catholic Church?

The difference would have to be in essentials. For example, if a church professed doctrines different from those of the Catholic Church, it could not be the Catholic Church. If a church’s essential acts of worship were different from those of the Catholic Church, it could not be the Catholic Church. If the authority acknowledged by a church were not the same as the authority of the Catholic Church, that church could not be the Catholic Church.

Over time bodies broke off from the Catholic Church because they did not agree with its beliefs, or did not worship as it did, or would not recognize its authority. They became new and different churches. They ceased to be the Catholic Church.

At different times men started new churches from scratch. They were not the same as the Church Jesus Christ had founded. They were in opposition to it. His Church was, as we have seen, the Catholic Church; those new, man-made churches were not the Catholic Church.

It is particularly obvious that the new churches which came into being as a result of the Reformation are different from the Catholic Church. They were founded as protests against the belief and the worship and the authority of the existing Church, which was the Catholic Church. They are, then, non-Catholic churches. They are protesting or Protestant churches. If any pre-Reformation saint were to come back today, he would recognize the old Church, the Church he knew and loved, the Catholic Church. The new churches would be strange to him, different in essentials from his Church. He would know them as non-Catholic churches.

Roman Catholics are the only real Catholics. There are no Catholics apart from them. The word “Roman” only describes “Catholic” more fully. The universal Church founded by Christ has its center in Rome. By their very nature or their constitution all other churches are local, racial, or national. Words like “Roman,” “Romish,” “Romanist,” “Papist,” “Papistical,” “Papisher” were originally used of the old Church by Protestants to signify their hatred of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Nowadays “Roman” is applied to the one Catholic Church to indicate that there are other Catholics as well, who are not in union with Rome. This is a return to the trick of the fourth-century heretics who were so thoroughly castigated by Augustine.

The center of unity at Rome is the greatest source of strength in Christ’s Church. We are proud to be called Roman Catholics in that sense. But when those who do not acknowledge the authority of the Pope claim that they are Catholics as opposed to us who are Roman Catholics, we register the strongest possible objection.

Christ’s Church is Catholic, because it encircles the whole world. It is Roman because its center is in Rome, where the Bishop of that city is the successor of Peter, whom Christ made head of his Church. On the other hand, the term” AngloCatholic” is self-contradictory. “Catholic” means universal, international; “Anglo” means not universal, but national. “It is not against the nature of a circle, however large, to have a center,” wrote the late John Arendzen, “but it is decidedly against the nature of a circle to be square. To speak of Anglo-Catholics is like speaking of square circles, and to speak of Roman Catholics is like speaking of a circle with a center.” 

As for the use of the term “Catholic” to indicate comprehensiveness, it is thoroughly dishonest to give the impression that this is the sense in which it was used by Ignatius of Antioch, Cyril of Jerusalem, or Augustine of Hippo. These and other Fathers of the Church taught that the Catholic Church is most decisively cut off from all that lies outside it. It must oppose with all its strength anything that threatens its vital principle of unity and stability.

It is not to our purpose here to show how this principle of comprehensiveness offends not only against the teaching of Christ, which, being absolute truth could not embrace contradictions, but against right reason as well. There is no need to call the Pope’s Church the “Roman Catholic Church.” “Catholic” alone is sufficient. “Roman” is often used with an insulting or unacceptable meaning. There is only one Catholic Church. It is that which Jesus Christ founded, which has been on earth since his day, and to which he said, “I will be with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”

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