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Reclaiming The Word Catholic

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The word "catholic" has vexed Lutherans for a very long time. It is an emotional trigger that reminds us of the many Roman Catholic (RC) errors that faithful pastors taught us to abhor.

Though the theological wars of the 16th century are over the disputes have never been settled. And because institutional memory is long the criticisms that the two church bodies lobbed at one another are still alive in the minds of more than a few today. Generally among those born before 1970.

But since then things have settled down. The turning point was the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-1965). In its wake the old hostilities began to fade and now, more than a half century later, the emotions have been put to rest. The theological disagreements still remain unresolved but neither Lutherans nor Roman Catholics see any benefit by continuing the rancor.

So where do things stand today?

There are militant RC's who see it as their duty to serve as a resistance. And there are enough Lutherans about who still bristle at the word catholic. Every Trinity Sunday when we confess the Athanasian Creed there are always a few nervous souls who wonder why we say, "Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith." But this is an opportunity for Lutheran pastors to explain the difference between "catholic" and "Roman Catholic." An explanation that needs to be made because the two are not the same. 

My solution is that when speaking of the Christian denomination headquartered in Rome I use the appellation "Roman Catholic" (RC) or simply "Rome". But whenever I am talking about the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" of the ages I say "catholic" (small "c", no adjective). Or alternately I will use the term "the church catholic."

It's not the perfect solution since Rome appropriates the word catholic strictly to itself; but the term is too wonderful to give up. Catholic means "universal." Thus a catholic Christian confesses the one, holy, catholic, apostolic faith of the ages. The polar opposite of catholic is sectarian, and sectarianism is a sin. See Galatians 5:20 in this connection where Paul speaks in the strongest possible terms against sectarianism.

Who are the sectarians? Those who have rejected catholic faith and practice. Though they sport many errors they are chiefly known by their rejection of the Eucharist as the very body and blood of Christ; and as definitional of Christian worship and life. This takes in nearly all Protestants today, Lutherans only being excepted.

If we can succeed in reframing the term catholic then we will have no fear of the Athanasian Creed's exhortation: "Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this ... "

More importantly we will be able to restore the word catholic to the Nicene Creed which we confess every Sunday! The translation "one, holy, Christian and apostolic" is a case of revised history. Fake news. The original Creed, adopted by the church catholic in 371 AD at the Council of Constantinople, says, "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." You will see a foot note to that effect in the Lutheran Service Book, (which we will be studying in the pastor's class beginning some time in October).

There is more to say, but we'll leave it for another day. Your questions and comments are always welcome.

1 Comment

I might add that Rome considers Lutherans to be among the sectarians, but that is not the case. Lutherans profess the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith in its truth and purity, without the errors of Rome. Yet even for all her errors, I still consider Rome's Eucharist and Baptism to be valid and true. I can't say the same for the sects. As stated in the article above the rancor is gone, but if you press a RC theologian to the wall he will say that our Eucharist is not valid, because our ministers are not part of the apostolic succession. I guess that's why there are denominations.

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