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The term “catholic” in the Nicene Creed

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6 minutes to read Four reasons to think that the term “catholic” in the Nicene Creed should not be read as involving communion with the Church of Rome.

From a Catholic correspondent:

You’ve said on more than one occasion that the Catholic Church mentioned in the Nicene Creed is not the Roman Catholic Church. I have disagreed with you, pointing out that being in communion with the Pope, who is bishop of Rome, makes one part of the Catholic Church. I’ve come across on line an extract from a book which studies this question. I’m not talking about whether the Church went off the rails, just pointing out that when the Fathers at the Council of Nicea talked about the Catholic Church, they meant those who were in communion with Rome. I think the extract is worth reading, just to get a balanced picture.

The extract, unfortunately, is no longer available. Suffice to say, like most Catholic literature I found it interminably dull—and I don’t intend to interact with it here. Rather, I want to point out a few more general problems with taking catholicity in the Nicene Creed to imply communion with Rome:

1. Anachronism

Consider these two statements:

  • C: “In the fourth century, the term catholic church referred to the body of churches in communion with the bishop of Rome.”
  • R: “In the fourth century, the term catholic church referred to the Roman Catholic Church.”

How does R follow from C? Can you spot the fallacy here? It begins with an “a” and ends with “nachronism”. Here’s an example in case it’s not clear:

  • C*: “In the book of Exodus, the term law referred to the body of religious principles and practices administrated by the priesthood.”
  • R*: “In the book of Exodus, the term law referred to the body of religious principles and practices administrated by the Sanhedrin.”

2. You can’t eat your cake and have it, too

In the same vein: say, arguendo, that the framers of the creed took it as given that Rome was the head of an authentic Christian institution, and that “catholicity” therefore entailed communion with Rome. Can we reasonably imagine that these same framers expected their definition to extend to any church claiming to be the Roman Church—provided it was located in the right place and claimed succession from the church they knew? That certainly seems like a stretch.

It seems more reasonable to think that, in the event that Rome apostatized, the framers would have dropped communion with Rome as an element of catholicity.

Put another way, you can’t eat your cake and have it too: if in the fourth century the term “catholic” implied a group of churches in communion with the Roman Church, then in the 21st century the same term must imply a group of churches in the same kind of communion with the same Roman Church. If the kind of communion is not the same, and/or the Roman Church is not the same, then the term cannot be consistently applied in the 21st century. And of course, it goes without saying that the nature of communion was different (see point 4); and I’ve given ample defense in the past for my contention that the Roman Church in the 21st century is not a Christian church at all—let alone the same church as that of the fourth century.

3. Essential versus incidental elements to catholicity

In light of the above, if (again, arguendo) we cannot consistently apply the term “catholic” in the Nicene Creed to our situation in the 21st century, what should we do? Obviously there are two options: Firstly, we can accept that the creed itself is faulty since it contains a definition of the church we can’t apply today (and this would be equally true for Roman Catholics as it would be for Protestants). In this case I think it would do violence to the creed to use it at all. We should simply discard it. Or secondly, we can accept that the creed’s framers took the term “catholic” to imply more than we do because they lived in a different time and a different situation, for which there is no modern corollary.

In other words, in the fourth century communion with Rome was taken as a given in the definition of catholicity—but this was an incidental element of the definition, and not an essential one. It was an element which was assumed because it was the nature of the church at the time; but as such, it was not an eternal truth about the church; nor even necessarily an authentic truth. If you take the creed as pointing to essentially spiritual truths, then the church’s catholicity is a spiritual matter (ie, a universal body of believers united in Christ), which may or may not be reflected in its physical structure (ie, a given hierarchy instituted by Christ). You could hold to some mistaken notions of the church’s physical structure, yet still get the spiritual structure right. You might even hold to those mistaken notions precisely because your accurate understanding of the spiritual truths combined with your intuitions to suggest a certain structure.

So it doesn’t seem problematic to me for 21st century Protestants to recite the Nicene Creed and take “Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” to refer to a spiritual unity and authenticity, rather than to some culturally-bound, historical fact about how the church’s structure once was, but cannot be now. In fact, that seems to be the right and appropriate way to understand the creed. The other way around is ass-backwards and nonsensical in modern Christendom.

4. “Communion” doesn’t mean what Catholics like to say it means

All this said, I’m not remotely convinced that communion with Rome was regarded as a given in the definition of catholicity. Or, put another way, if “communion” was regarded as a given, then I’m not remotely convinced it meant “submission” or “oversight by” or “complete unity with” or any such concept that Roman Catholics would anachronistically require. It’s simply untenable to think that Rome was guiding Christendom in the same way it guides the Catholic Church today; or even that it had anything resembling the kind of authority it assumes for itself today.

For example, writing of a dispute in Irenaeus’ day, and another that became prominent shortly afterward, the Catholic scholar Klaus Schatz commented: “Rome did not succeed in maintaining its position against the contrary opinion and praxis of a significant portion of the Church. The two most important controversies of this type were the disputes over the feast of Easter and heretical baptism. Each marks a stage in Rome’s sense of authority and at the same time reveals the initial resistance of other churches to the Roman claim.” (Papal Primacy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996], p. 11) Similarly, in the late second century Polycrates applied the principle of Acts 5:29 to his dispute with the Roman bishop Victor (Eusebius, Church History, 5:24:7). Tertullian criticized the bishop of Rome for an inconsistent response to Montanism (Against Praxeas, 1). The author of a work commonly attributed to Hippolytus refers to the Roman bishop Zephyrinus as “an uninformed and shamefully corrupt man”.

Note that even if Catholics try to say that, in principle, Rome in the fourth century had the same kind of authority as it does in the 21st century—even though in practice this wasn’t yet a fully developed or recognized doctrine—this doesn’t salvage the word “catholic” for them. Because if the kind of communion taken as implicit in the creed is only the kind of communion which was understood and practiced in the fourth century, then it isn’t modern Roman Catholic “communion”. It’s just a general notion of Rome’s importance, and of the need for churches to be in fellowship with one another.

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