168. Contested Catholicity: In What Sense Is the Church Catholic?

October 1st, 2019

This is a summary of a paper given at the Giornate teologiche (Padova, Italy, 6-7 Sept 2019), the annual theological conference of the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (www.ifeditalia.org).

The adjective “catholic” and the noun “catholicity” have a bittersweet usage in ordinary evangelical language. They seem too strictly associated with the reality of Roman Catholicism to be used in a way free from cumbersome superstructures of meaning. For this unsettled relationship with the terms, some churches, in reciting the Apostles’ Creed, prefer to profess the church as “universal” rather than “catholic”. The two words overlap, but the former is less embedded in theological controversies than the latter.

The Bible never uses the expression kath’olon (according to the whole) in the theological sense. The only explicit reference, which is used in a negative form, is in Acts 4:18. The profane use of kath’olon has a variegated range including the meaning of “general”, “total”, “complete” and “perfect”. In borrowing the term, the Church began to understand it as describing the universality of the Church (made of Jews and Gentiles), the fullness of the gospel (once and for all delivered to the saints), and the global extension of the people of God (from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth).[1]

Catholicity Always in Context
In the post-apostolic age, the word “catholic” was included in the Apostles’ Creed as a mark of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Creed defines it as the “one, holy, apostolic and catholic” church. Catholicity was affirmed not in isolation, but in the context of the other three dimensions. In this sense the catholicity of the church was signified and limited by making reference to its unity (i.e. there is one people of God), holiness (i.e. the people of God as set apart by Him and for Him), and apostolicity (i.e. the people of God follow the teachings of the apostles, namely the Bible).

Catholicity is not a standalone ecclesiological parameter but one organically linked to the other three. In this way, it is protected from becoming an omnivore capable of integrating all. If catholicity takes precedence over apostolicity (i.e. biblical teaching), it becomes universalism. If holiness is left out, catholicity becomes a box void of spiritual content. If catholicity loses its connection to unity, it explodes into a myriad of self-referential units. In the 5th century, Vincent of Lérins famously summarized the contours of catholicity with the adverbs ubique, semper, ab omnibus: catholic is something that has been believed everywhere (space), always (time) and by all (extension). Despite the usefulness of the Lérinian description, notice the downplaying of the apostolic, biblical grounding of catholicity, the only external and objective criterion for it to remain anchored to God’s truth. Space, time and extension are all important markers of catholicity only insofar as the apostolic gospel is the binding framework for the universality of the church.

The Romanization of Catholicity
Out of such a looser view, catholicity was deeply impacted by the addition of a fifth mark of the church: its centering on the church of Rome, the see of Rome, the Roman authorities. Catholicity absorbed a Roman element that became so intertwined with it that it gave rise to Roman Catholicism. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “the name ‘Roman Catholic’ conjoined the universality of the Church over the entire world, which has long been the content of the term ‘Catholic’, with the specificity of only one single see”[2], that of Rome.

As Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls have aptly demonstrated in their book, Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (2016), Roman Catholicity is a long-established union of catholic universality and Roman particularity, catholic plurality and Roman unity, catholic comprehensiveness and Roman distinctiveness, the catholic totus (whole) and the Roman locus (place), catholic fullness and Roman partiality, catholic breadth and Roman narrowness, catholic elasticity and Roman rigidity, the catholic universe and the Roman center, catholic organism and Roman organization, the catholic faith and the Roman structure.

Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority. The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims. The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism. The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians. Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis.“In short,” the authors say,“ironic though it is, the Church of Rome is not sufficiently catholic” (p. 83). The cumulative argument presented is that Rome wants to tie its romanitas (made of imperial structure, political power, hierarchical organization, extra-biblical traditions) to its status as the only church of Jesus Christ where the fullness of grace can be found. But this is exactly the point at issue. By wanting to be Roman, the Church ceased to be catholic. The Roman mark was a spurious addition that altered the nature of the catholicity of the Church.

Back to Apostolic (i.e. Biblical) Catholicity
The Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus modifying the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church. The Protestant Reformation was the attempt to recover the apostolic catholicity away from its Roman/imperial/sacramental/hierarchical tenets.

Martin Luther thought that Rome had taken the Church to a “Babylonian captivity” and there was the urgent need to rescue it. In a certain sense, the Reformation was an attempt to recover catholicity by disentangling it from the Roman world and reconnecting it to the mark of apostolicity: the formal principle of the authority of Scripture and the material principle of justification by faith alone.

Certainly, the Reformation broke away from Roman Catholicism, but it did so because it wanted to restore evangelical catholicity. The Reformation did not break away from the Church; in fact, it recovered the Church by breaking from the bondage of Romanism and by restoring the apostolicity of catholicity. This is not to say that the Reformation always and consistently appreciated the unity of the Church, but its main concern was to radically question the Romanization of catholicity that had taken precedence at the expense of its apostolicity and holiness.

The Reformation reclaimed the catholicity of the evangelical faith by showing its faithfulness to Scripture and its substantial continuity with the Church Fathers, and by rediscovering the universal priesthood of believers away from the Roman, sacramental, and hierarchical division between clergy and laity. This point has been cogently laboured and argued for in recent books such as Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) and statements like A Reforming Catholic Confession (2016) signed by dozens of evangelical scholars and leaders from around the world.

Missional Catholicity
There is another angle from which evangelicals are appreciating the catholicity of the biblical faith in the contemporary world. This emphasis can be called the missional dimension of catholicity. In the Manila Manifesto (1989), drafted as the result of the Second Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, there is a call to take “the whole Gospel by the whole Church to the whole world”. The term catholicity is not there, but the catholicity of the evangelical faith is clearly and pervasively present.

The whole gospel: not a truncated version of it, but the full biblical message of God Creator, Provider and Saviour of a sinful and lost world. The whole church: not a class of professionals, but the whole people of God engaged in mission to the ends of the earth. To the whole world: centers and peripheries, groups and nations, the world of business, media, work and ideas. Standing on the shoulders of the apostolic catholicity recovered by the Reformation, this is a promising way to reclaim and to live out the catholicity of the Church in our broken world.


[1] Cfr. A. Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) and V. Manguzzi, Cattolicità (Assisi: Cittadella, 2012).

[2] J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1963) pp. 245-246.

76. The Catholicity of Pope Francis

March 10th, 2013

One year ago (March 13th) Cardinal Bergoglio was elected as pope Francis. Different evaluations of the first year are mushrooming everywhere in the form of books and editorials. They suggest various interpretations of what the Pope has been doing, saying and implementing thus far. As his first anniversary approaches several questions seem appropriate to ask, and all of them assume that something significant has been happening. What has been the “Francis effect” on the church? The simplest answer is that he is envisaging a different kind of catholicity.

Roman Catholic Catholicity

In the Roman Catholic understanding catholicity has to do simultaneously with unity and totality. The basic premise is that multiplicity should be brought into a unity. The Church is seen as an expression, a guarantor and a promoter of true unity between God and humanity and within humanity itself. In Vatican II terms, the Church is a “sacrament of unity”. As long as the institutional structure which preserves this unity remains intact (i.e. the Roman element), everything can and must find its home somewhere within its realm (i.e. the catholic element).

The catholic mindset is characterized by an attitude of overall openness without losing touch with its Roman center. It is inherently dynamic and comprehensive, capable of holding together doctrines, ideas and practices that in other Christian traditions are thought of as being mutually exclusive. By way of its inclusive et-et (both-and) epistemology, in a catholic system two apparently contradicting elements can be reconciled into a synthesis which entail both. In principle, the system is wide enough to welcome everything and everyone. The defining term is not the Word of God written (sola Scriptura) but the Roman Church itself. From a catholic point of view then, affirming something does not necessarily mean denying something else, but simply means enlarging one’s own perspective of the whole truth. In this respect, what is perceived as being important is the integration of the part into the catholic whole by way of relating the thing newly affirmed with what is already existing.

Catholicity allows doctrinal development without a radical breach from the past and also allows different kinds of catholicity to co-exist. Each Pope has his own catholicity project. John Paul II pushed for the church to become a global player, thus expanding the geographical catholicity and its profile with the media. Benedict XVI tried to define catholicity in terms of its adherence to universal “reason”, thus trying to reconnect the chasm between faith and reason that Western Enlightenment had introduced. These catholicity projects are not mutually exclusive, but they all contribute to the overall dynamic catholicity of the Church. They were all organically related to the Roman element that safeguards the continuity of the system.

Mapping Francis’ Catholicity

After one year of his pontificate it is becoming apparent what kind of catholicity Francis has in mind. He wants to build on John Paul II’s global catholicity while shifting emphases from Wojtyła’s doctrinal rigidity to more inclusive patterns. He pays lip service to Ratzinger’s rational catholicity, but wants to move the agenda from Western ideological battles to “human” issues which find appeal across the global spectrum. If Ratzinger wanted to mark the difference between the Church and the world, Francis tries to make them overlap. In shaping the new catholicity he seems closer to the “pastoral” tone of John XXIII, who will be canonized (i.e. declared a “saint”) next April. So there is continuity and development. This is the gist of catholicity. 

Francis has little time for “non-negotiable” truths, and gives more attention to the variety of people’s conscience. He is more interested in warmth than light, more in empathy than judgment. He focuses on attitude rather than identity, and on embracing rather than teaching. He underlines the relational over the doctrinal. For him proximity is more important than integrity. Belonging together has priority over believing differently. Reaching out to people comes before calling them back. Of course all these marks are not pitted against each other, but their relationship is worked out within a new balance whereby the first one determines the overall orientation. Roman catholicity works this way: never abandoning the past, always enlarging the synthesis by repositioning the elements around the Roman center.

Francis calls this catholicity “mission”. The word is familiar and intriguing for Bible-believing Christians, yet one needs to understand what he means by it beyond what it appears to mean on the surface.