It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God. Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy. Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders. As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says. There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.
Will the real Church please stand up? Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering. Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed! How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?
One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors. This is the argument from similarity. I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning. It was not the first time. I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity. I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present. I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)
My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful. This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.
Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is. We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit. Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people? Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners? Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee? Or none of the above? There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.
Do these ideas matter? In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief. Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.” Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.” The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection. Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.
But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”
Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics. And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.
But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”
Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity. Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad. In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations. A number of examples will clarify the case.
John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century. At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity. According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy. By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone. (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.) His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation. But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing. What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.
In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass. The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage. A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers. Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted. His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead. Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics? Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed. Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”? Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points. (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)
A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century. His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches. These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves. He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals. These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics. If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation. (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.) But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.
Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations. Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world. (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.) Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition. Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments. In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute. May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.
Most people assume that they know what the word “Catholic” means, but in fact, it means several different things. Some of the more common meanings are:
1. “Not Protestant.” The Anglophone world has been dominated by Protestant varieties of Christianity for almost half a millennium, and for much of that time “Catholic” has been used as a denominational label, on a par with “Lutheran” and “Baptist.” Of course, there are many Christians who are neither Protestant nor Catholic (I’m not thinking of Anglican proponents of a via media here, but rather thinking of Greek and Russian Orthodox, as well as Arab, Syrian, Coptic, and Assyrian branches of Christianity).
2. “Christians who like sacraments, candles, high liturgy with colorful vestments, incense, praying to saints, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and medieval theologians.” The advantage of this definition is that it is at least positive instead of simply a rejection of Protestantism. This is the meaning of “Catholic” in the phrase “Anglo-Catholic,” which refers to Anglicans with a fondness for “smells & bells.” But again, many of these elements (with a different selection of medieval theologians) would characterize varieties of Eastern Christianity.
3. “Part of the Christian denomination presided over by the Roman Pope.” This excludes both Anglo-Catholics and sede vacantists, the latter being traditionalist Roman Catholics who feel that the recent popes have deviated from traditional Catholic teaching and therefore are not valid popes. (The name comes from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “while the [papal] throne is vacant.”) Although a narrower definition than the preceding two, it is not necessarily that much more precise, as there are a variety of ways to define membership in the Roman Catholic Church. The church hierarchy itself reports membership numbers which include all those baptized into the denomination, regardless of whether they still attend mass or profess to believe any aspect of doctrine, although some rigorists would exclude such nominal Catholics from their definition.
4. “The true Christian Church founded by Christ, present wherever true Christians are.” This sense of “Catholic” opposes it to “schismatic,” people in a particular locale or region who break away from all Christians elsewhere. This is the sense in which Augustine used the term in his writings in the 4th and 5th centuries (he certainly didn’t use the term to mean “non-Protestant”!), and is the sense in which Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics recite the Nicene Creed’s confession of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” It would be strange indeed for non-Roman Catholics to recite a creed saying, “I believe there is one true Church over there, and I am not part of it.”
5. In the phrases “Catholic truth” or “Catholic teaching,” it refers to teaching that is universally held among Christians, as opposed to distinctive beliefs of Christians in one area or one group. Vincent of Lérins offered what has become the most widely accepted definition of “Catholic” in this sense: “What is believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Of course, universals always require a scope, which Vincent does not make explicit, but “everywhere” and “always” should of course be taken to mean wherever and whenever there were Christians. “By all” is trickier, because Vincent would presumably not have included heretics such as gnostics or schismatics such as Novatianists in his category of “all,” but if one narrows the category too much then “by all” becomes tautological: any belief is believed by all who believe it.
The contentious question, then, is what these different senses of the term “Catholic” refer to. Basically everyone agrees that senses #1 and #2 are larger than #3 (this is empirically verifiable). Between the Council of Trent (the Roman papacy’s answer to the Protestant Reformation) and the First Vatican Council (1868-1870), the Roman Catholic party line was that senses #3-5 simply refer to the same group of people. They interpreted the patristic doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus (“outside of the Church no one is saved”) as referring to the Roman Catholic Church specifically, in keeping with the teaching of Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) in his bull Unam Sanctam that submission to the Pope was absolutely necessary for salvation. On this view, all true Christians were within the Roman Catholic Church (although the converse did not hold: those within the Roman Catholic Church were not necessarily true Christians), and “Catholic truth” was that body of doctrine taught by “all” the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the magisterium. Protestants were ipso facto condemned.
Meanwhile Protestants took a few different lines. Protestant theologians all (or almost all) asserted that they were part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which required explaining “catholic” differently than loyalty to the pope. Since the papacy rejected almost all of the reforms proposed by Protestants, many Protestants viewed senses #3 and #4 above as mutually exclusive, although some followed Luther in allowing for a little overlap. The lack of a unified anti-papal organization distinguished the notion of a “Catholic Church” in this sense from an institutional unity, so that shared doctrine as indicated in sense #5 became more important as a definition of Christian unity and the key to recognizing good Christians who belong to other denominations.
Eastern Orthodox (and Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East) had long earlier concluded that submission to the Roman pope was not the defining character of the Church of Christ, and they too continue to confess into their creed that they are part of the Catholic Church. There are different self-governing ecclesiastical hierarchies among both the Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rum Orthodox, Georgian, etc.) and Oriental Orthodox (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopic), so they too concluded that one or another hierarchy was not as important as orthodox doctrine and sacramental unity (shared communion), although they do emphasize the visible unity of the church and the apostolic succession of the bishops to a greater degree than Protestants. It is obvious to anyone who knows Greek that the term “catholic” comes from καθ’ ὅλην ἐκκλήσιαν (“according to the whole church”) or ἡ καθ’ ὅλην γῆν ἐκκλήσια (“the church in all the land”), and makes no mention of the pope or hierarchy; “catholic doctrine” in sense #5 was understood to refer to “ecumenical councils,” that is, councils which (at least notionally) involved the entirety of the Church and whose decisions were accepted by the Church.
With the modern ecumenical movement, many Protestants dropped the requirement of shared doctrine from their definition of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, and have recognized other Christians with whom they have larger theological disagreements. On this model, sense #3 of “Catholic” describes a part of the group indicated by sense #4. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II adopted as dogma the negation of Pope Boniface VIII’s requirement: it is not absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pontiff. (This has caused conservative Catholic sources I have looked at to resolve the tension by arguing one of the following: (1) Unam Sanctam does not in fact fulfill the requirements of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, (2) Unam Sanctam does not mean that it is absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pope, or (3) Vatican II and subsequent popes are apostates and not true Catholics). Instead, Christians and even non-Christians of good will can be saved. The doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus has been reinterpreted to mean that all who are saved are in some sense (without knowing it) spiritually connected to and dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church, even if they reject and repudiate the Roman Catholic Church they know (although perhaps they can’t be virtuous enough for salvation if they reject it too vociferously). On this view, the Roman Catholic Church (sense #3 of “Catholic”) is still the one and only universal Church (sense #4 of “Catholic”), but now both definitions have significant footnotes: the Roman Catholic Church is held to have this non-visible wing of people who are evidently outside of it but mystically inside of it, and some of them are probably Christians of other denominations (which are not therefore, as denominations, other churches or other parts of the sense #4 “Catholic” Church). Sense #5 is still understood to be the teaching of the Roman Magisterium, although it is progressively more difficult to interpret all the various teachings throughout the ages consistently, and so some, such as Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam, get quietly neglected.
“Ecumenical” is still a dirty word among many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, although their participation in the World Council of Churches has helped them see commonalities across Christological divisions.
Is the Roman Catholic Church the Catholic Church? Is the Pope Catholic? Depending upon whom you ask, the answers will vary. But in light of varying meanings of the term “Catholic,” it is important in our ecumenical discussions not to equivocate, but to distinguish the different senses of the term, even for those of us who believe there is a common referent.