In the Fourth Nocturn

One catholic Church

This post is of limited concern to Anglicans, but I’ve been reflecting on this lately for various reasons and thought I should get it down.

Some Protestant churches, especially outside of the English-speaking world, in their translations of the creeds use an alternative word to replace ‘catholic’ in the final sections, usually either ‘Christian’ or ‘universal’. Neither of these can be regarded as acceptable translations.

The main reason is that the word ‘catholic’ as it is understood by Christians is a great deal more meaningful than any replacement which has yet been proposed, or (I would hazard) which can ever be proposed.

The word ‘catholic’ is a poetic gestalt, built of two thousand years’ worth of accrued meaning and symbolism. From its original, pre-Christian Greek meaning of ‘all-embracing’ it has had joined onto it by Christians the very nature of the gospel message itself; further, the traditions of the church developed by the apostles and early councils; further, by its conjunction with ‘one holy’, the idea that though the Church visible is divided by schism, there is one Church invisible in which all are included.

Indeed, it is so meaningful that the bishops of the Council of Constantinople who translated the creed from Greek into Latin apparently felt that the Latin language lacked a word expressing the fulness of Christian catholicity, and (following the Apostles’ creed) simply continued to borrow the Greek katholikḕn to Latin catholicam. Why are we so bold as to think that our languages are any more suited than Latin to natively rendering this description of one of the four marks of the Church?

Indeed, nothing could more appropriately demonstrate the failure of these attempts than the utter wrongness of using ‘Christian’ at this point in the creed. Apart from having almost nothing to do with the original sense of ‘catholic’ (‘all-embracing’), to confess ‘one holy Christian and apostolic Church’ is to imply that Christianity is but a single one of the marks of the Church. The Christian Church is the Church that possesses all four marks: the teaching of following Christ (presumably what is intended by the choice) is an important aspect of catholicity, but misses the most important part of it; the Church (ekklēsía, ‘those who have been called’) is by its very name the community of those who have been led to follow Christ.

‘Universal’, too, fails to completely capture the sense of ‘catholic’. In a sense it has the opposite problem: it comes closer (though not exactly) to the original ‘all-embracing’ sense, but misses the gospel entirely. The Church catholic preaches all of what has always been preached, and will always be preached, to all people for all time. ‘Universal’ implies that the church includes all of something at present, but not necessarily that it actively seeks people to proclaim the gospel to and welcomes them in at all times in future.1

The conflation of ‘catholic’ with ‘Roman Catholic’ is the product of unfortunate misapprehension. The misapprehension ought to be fought with better catechesis, and not by seeking to replace one of the Christian mission’s most important words with something deeply inferior. I personally encourage all Christians to recite the creed using the word ‘catholic’ in its proper place, in hope that one day, the silly prejudices against such words will be forgotten and we may be one step closer to rebuilding an undivided community, the body of Christ, upon earth.

  1. The same applies to the German allgemein which was one of the things that moved me to write this article.