What does it mean to be “catholic”? Pause and consider the way(s) you hear this term used. Your first thought is probably something like this, “Those in submission to the Pope”, i.e., Roman Catholics. But you might be surprised to learn that the historic branches of Protestantism use the term, as well. They consider themselves to be catholic! They even declare this publicly whenever they take the Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian Creeds upon their lips, often a weekly occurrence. These certainly aren’t in submission to the Pope, so what do they mean by “catholic”?
The word “catholic” simply means universal. Theologians, therefore, have used it to refer to the universal Church, Christians in all places and at all times. If you believe that you must be in submission to the Pope to be a Christian, you will use “catholic” to refer to the Roman Catholic Church. According to this view, Roman Catholicism constitutes true Christianity, and apart from communion with the Pope there is no salvation.
But how do Protestants understand it, those who have been “protesting” the claim that the Pope is the infallible head of the Church. Is the term useless to them? Absolutely not. In fact, “catholic” describes something that is very biblical. Below is the 54th question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, a summary of the Bible’s teaching, which is used at WRC.
Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.
Rather than use “catholic” to refer to an outward, external communion, we believe it best applies to all persons that are truly regenerate. In any external communion hypocrites are sure to exist, those that consent to its doctrine and rituals but lack spiritual understanding. These will fall away when trials come and/or fail to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Christ will say to them at the Judgment, “I never knew you.” But one that the Spirit has internally called, one chosen from eternity, one with a true, saving faith, this one is a member of the Church Catholic, regardless of time, place, ethnicity, or denomination.
What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?