When we say that we are “catholic” what in the world do we mean?
Recently, a friend said to me, with straight face, “you’re not catholic”. I think he meant, “catholic enough”, because any formerly Baptist Boy who chooses to come under the authority of a Bishop because it is good for his soul and has a deep desire for the Unity of the Body of Christ as demonstrated in his job choices– well, there’s a sliver of catholic in that boy somewhere!
So what does the word Catholic mean? To answer this I went searching. And in my particular search, I limited myself to Roman Catholic sources. After all, as they say being “anglo-catholic” is an oxymoron! So, what do the sources say?
In essence to be “catholic” boils down to two basic components; structural unity and theological unity. To have one without the other is to not be “catholic”. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, writes in 110: “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal [katholike] Church.” In these comments he is making the point that the Bishop is the structural footing upon which the Church is organically discovered. The Bishop is the right person for this job because, in Ignatius’ time, this was a person who was taught by the apostles themselves to carry, embody, and tell “The Story” to the world. This is structural unity centered around a person of a Bishop.
Vincent of Lérins (c. 434) points us to the other pillar of Catholicity when he defines the word “catholic” as “That which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” “This”, he adds, “is what is truly and properly Catholic” (Commonitorium, I, ii). The doctrine, is just as important, Lerins is saying, as the structure.
Thus, when we say the creed, we emphasize two pillars. First the pillar of structure and secondly the pillar of theology. Their point is unified… to connect us to The Story which leads to no other conclusion but that “Jesus is Lord”.