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Why catholic?

January 20, 2010

I’m just beginning to read Jaroslav Pelikan’s “The Riddle of Roman Catholicism” and I came across a great explanation for why we say that the Christian Church is “catholic” (universal), and the implications inherent in that word.  The explanation comes from a Russian theologian, Aleksiei Khomiakov, and is quoted on page 22 of Pelikan’s book:

The church is called one, holy, universal (or catholic), and apostolic: because she is one and holy; because she belongs to the whole world, and not to one particular locality; because through her all humanity and all the earth are hallowed, not one particular nation or one particular country; because her being consists in the agreement and unity of spirit and life of all her members on the whole earth, who acknowledge her; because, finally, the whole of her faith, her hope, and her love is contained in the writings and teachings of the apostles.

We talked a great deal at the Model Theological Conference on Worship about the balance between catholicity and context, but not much discussion of why catholicity is important, or why we call the church “catholic.”  This quote helps give scope to the Gospel, to help us realize that it is more than just our congregation or the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but it is for all people, of all times and places.  We are in the great catholic tradition, which is not to be despised or thrown out flippantly, but cherished and upheld as an example for us in our Synod and individual congregations.

From → Theology

  1. You might be interested in the main article in the most recent newsletter from the WELS Commission on Worship on ‘catholicity.’ Link here:

    • That is a well-written article. It touched on many points that have been in the forefront of my mind lately, especially the tension that exists between being catholic and having our own identity. And I really liked the quote at the end, “We believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church – a Church that is here and now, even as it spans time and space.”

      Thanks for the link!

  2. My parish used LBW prior to getting Lutheran Service Book. LBW uses the term “catholic” in all its creeds. It is the best word to describe the Church of all times and all places. The church where saints on earth and in heaven sing cry aloud with angels, archangels, apostles and martyrs, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

    “Universal” seems to still have a temporal aspect, something like “worldwide,” where it could be interpreted as the Christian Church here on earth. The terms that capture the entirety of the Church on earth and in heaven are “one holy catholic and apostolic.”

    That being said, it is hard to warm up to that word. If Roman Catholics visit your church, and recite the Creed using the same word “catholic” it would be hard for them to distinguish between “LARGE C Catholic” and “small c catholic.”

    Similarly, if a Lutheran attends a Catholic wedding or baptism, it can be hard for him or her to recite the creed when it definitely reads “LARGE C Catholic” in the missal.

    Good catechesis is needed whether the creed you use is “catholic” or “Christian*” in it. LOTS of catechesis. If we are going to reclaim the best word that describes the entire Church, it is going to take patient teaching of the concept.

    • One of my profs at Seward (Joe Herl) was on the hymnal committee for LSB and said that they almost changed “Christian” back to “catholic” in the Creeds, but in the end decided not to. So perhaps in the next hymnal?

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