What do we mean when we say "the Catholic Church"?

Listening to and reading people’s responses to the CDF Clarification on the use of the word “Church”, leads me to recognise that there are some inconsistencies in the way the term is used and understood.

For instance, at the most simplistic level, you hear people talking about the “local Catholic Church”, meaning the local parish. In this sense, I used to be “the pastor of a church”, meaning the local Lutheran parish.

(Following from this, “local Church” is often equated with the “local parish”, or sometimes with something called the “national Church” (as opposed to foreign churches), when in fact it has a far stricter meaning in ecclesiology of the bishop and his flock gathered around the eucharistic celebration in a particular geographical locality.)

Then there are many people understand “The Catholic Church” to refer to a “denomination”, like: The Lutheran Church, or the Anglican Church, or the Greek Orthodox Church. And sometime we Catholics use that way, but it is never defined as such or understood as such in our formal statements of belief. Following from this, there is “Catholic” as opposed to “Protestant”. This often refers to a system of belief, rather than to an ecclesial reality.

Then there is “Catholic” as opposed to “Orthodox”, in which case the East/West dichotomy is meant, and the “breathing with two lungs” analogy and an (incorrect) application of the term “sister church” comes into play.

All this becomes a problem when the Church releases a statement which says (in effect) that the Church of Christ on earth fully subsists uniquely in Catholic Church without clearly specifying the exact meaning of “Catholic Church” that is being employed.

For the record, when it is claimed that the Church of Christ on earth fully and uniquely subsists in the “Catholic Church”, the claim is that one true Church of Christ subsists fully and uniquely in that universal communion of all true, local, particular Churches–of either the Eastern or Western traditions–which are governed by those bishops who not only derive their historical succession from the first apostles, but who are in communion with the successor of apostle Peter (that is, the bishop of Rome).

We are not claiming that the “Western Church” is the true Church over against the “Eastern Church”. We are not claiming that “the Catholic Church” is the true Church over against “the Orthodox Church” or “the Protestant Church”. We are certainly not claiming that the Catholic Church is the “true denomination” or that the local Catholic parish is the more Christian than any other gathering of Christians nearby.

We are simply making a statement about the what is called “communio ecclesiology”, which, in the long run, is very similar to the statement of the World Council of Churches, namely that

Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it. Each church fulfils its catholicity when it is in communion with other churches

when “church” is taken to mean the local, particular Church, which is taken to mean the local Christian flock in eucharistic assembly around the apostolic bishop. Note that if we tried to say the same thing as the WCC said, but with the meaning “denomination = church”, or “Western Church = church” or “Eastern Church = Church”, the statement would be false. The Gospel of Christ knows no denominations, nor any division between East and West. There is simply “The One Church of Christ”. Ie. The Una Sancta. The Catholica. That is what we mean when we say “The Catholic Church”.

But the statement of the WCC is quite correct when it says “Each church fulfils its catholicity when it is in communion with other churches”, for communion is essential for the nature of the Church and even for the true “churchness” of the local, particular Church. One of the realities of the apostolic episcopate is that a bishop cannot make himself–he has to be made by other bishops. This in turn implies that the bishop must–as a matter of his essential nature–be in communion and receive communion from his brother bishops. It is in the communion of the bishops with one another that the universal communion of the Church is made visible. Therefore a local, particular church can be truly “church”, in that it has bishop, people and eucharist, but if it fails to live in communion with the other local, particular churches, then it must be said to be “wounded” or “defective” in this essential matter.

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2 Responses to What do we mean when we say "the Catholic Church"?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is the RCC “defective” or less than catholic since it isn’t in communion with the EO or Lutherans or Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.?

  2. Chris Burgwald says:

    Anon, the CDF Note does note that “because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.”

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