The third Creedal attribute of the one, holy Church is catholicity—in Church Slavonic, Собо́рность: sobornost, meaning “symphony” or a “unity of consciousness.”
While ecclesiology has evolved (or rather, devolved) over the years to attempt to make catholic simply another word for “universal” and “lowest common denominator,” the true and original meaning of this word, both in general and it in its use in the Symbol of Faith, is much more than this simplistic and spirit-of-the-age rendition.
The origin of the phrase Catholic Church is found in a letter of a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, Ignatius of Antioch (ca. AD 100). He writes (possibly while the apostle is still living and ministering in Ephesus): “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 8).
In this simple statement, St. Ignatius sets the precedent for every future discussion regarding the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. The precedent set forth is that the catholicity of the Church—and her faith—is wholly dependent upon the theanthropic nature of the Body of Christ and the reality of her union with Jesus Christ as her Head. The Apostle Paul bears witness to this reality as well, writing: “God put all things in subjection under His feet and granted Him to be the head over all things for the sake of the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Epistle to the Ephesians, 1:22-23).
As Paul tells us, the Church is not only Christ’s Body, with Him as her Head, but the Church is the very “fullness” of God Himself. The Greek word used for “fullness” here is pleroma, a term common within Gnosticism. However, Fr. Stephen Freeman has noted recently that “in Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act – it carries with it something of the Divine itself. It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God.”
That the Church (as the Body of Christ) is the “fullness” of God here on earth carries with it a great deal of weight and significance for Christians. The Church is not merely an institution—guided by a dropped-from-heaven book—but is the very presence of the Holy Trinity here on earth, in a wholly unique and distinct manner.
Further, as Christ’s Body, the Church is identifiable in many ways that one might otherwise solely identify with Christ Himself. Since Christ is in His very Person Truth Incarnate, the Church as the Body of Christ is “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” along with being the “house of God” (a reference to the Temple) and the “Church [assembly] of the living God” (1 Timothy, 3:15). Pleroma, indeed.
The new saint of Serbia speaks of this reality as well, writing:
The theanthropic catholicity of the Church is actually an unceasing christification of many by grace and virtue: all is gathered in Christ the God-man, and everything is experienced through Him as one’s own, as a single indivisible theanthropic organism… The theanthropic Person of the Lord Christ is the very soul of the Church’s catholicity. It is the God-man Who always preserves the theanthropic balance between the divine and the human in the catholic life of the Church. The Church is filled to overflowing with the Lord Christ, for she is ‘the fullness of Him that filleth all in all’ (Eph. 1:23).
St Justin Popovich, The Attributes of the Church
Beyond the identification of the Church as the Body of Christ, the Church is also a reflection of the catholicity (and oneness and holiness) of the Holy Trinity:
The Church for Orthodox Christians is first of all an object of faith. We believe in the Church as we believe in God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit…. Just as the uncreated Trinity is one and holy, and as the Church is catholic… so the Church of the Trinity is catholic essentially and by definition: full, complete, whole, perfect, all-embracing, with nothing lacking in it of the inexhaustible fullness and superabundance of the very nature and life of God.”
Fr Milan Savich, Catholicity of the Church: “Sobornost”
Some have attempted to claim that the Creed does not have us declare faith “in” the Church (despite its actual wording), but this notion is completely untenable, especially if one bothers to research the manner in which the Creed has been interpreted and discussed over the centuries.
Fr. Milan continues on this same point, writing:
The Holy Trinity is the ideal and crown of catholicity. It is the light of the doctrine of the Trinity that ‘catholicity’ becomes a uniquely meaningful quality. The first eight articles of the Creed speak about the Holy Trinity and the ninth article speaks about the Church, since the Church is an image, an icon of the Holy Trinity on the earth. The Church is the earthly aspect of the Holy Trinity.
As an icon of the Holy Trinity, the Church is the Bride of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit and in service of and for the glory of God the Father. The reality of the Catholic Church being guided by the “Helper”—the Holy Spirit—is not only attested to by the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Gospel, but also in the writings and actions of the Apostles (e.g., Acts 15) and in other Church Fathers, such as St. Basil the Great, who writes: “And is it not plain and incontestable that the ordering of the Church is effected through the Spirit?”(On the Holy Spirit, 16:39).
Returning, then, to the actual meaning of catholic, it is helpful to know that the catholicity of the Church is neither merely external nor simply “universal” in the sense of “being everywhere in the world.” As Fr. Georges Florovsky notes: “Yet the Church is not catholic because of its outward extent, or because it is an all-embracing entity, not only because it unites all its members, all local churches, but because it is catholic all through in its very smaller part, in every act and event of its life” (The Catholicity of the Church, Chapter III of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I: Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Büchervertriebsanstalt, Vaduz, Europa, 1987).
The understanding of the “Catholic Church” as meaning “universal” is not to be only seen in terms of geography or scope, but in terms of pleroma—fullness; of wholeness and Orthodoxy: “The first Christians, when using the words ‘EKLYSIA KATHOLIKY,’ never meant a worldwide Church. This word rather gave prominence to the Orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the ‘Great Church,’ as contrasted with the spirit of sectarian separatism” (Savich, Catholicity of the Church: “Sobornost”). Indeed, it is among those who are schismatic and separate from the one, holy Church that this concept of a “worldwide church” that is united through “lowest common denominator” idea is most readily found. As Orthodox Christians, we must be careful not to succumb to the same error. And if we are to speak of the “scope” or “geography” of the Church Catholic, we are to speak of the Church in all places and in all ages—not only as it exists in the world today (or as the “Church Militant”). This is why we experience the fullness of the Catholic Church in every local celebration of the Holy Eucharist. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann and others have noted (and this is rather explicit in St Ignatius’ epistles), it is in the epiklesis and consecration of the Eucharistic liturgy that we are truly the Catholic Church (e.g., in Chrysostom’s phrasing in his Eucharistic anaphora, “Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us,” emphasis added).
From an early Patristic standpoint, perhaps the most concise and detailed summary of the catholicity of the Church is found in the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18:23
In this, we see that the catholicity of the Church is multi-faceted: she is “over all the world” (in fulfillment of the so-called “Great Commission”); “teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines” (there is no truth or wisdom lacking in the Church); “brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind” (the Church is holy); and “universally treats and heals the whole class of sins” (catholicity means there is nothing lacking in the healing ministry of the Church and her sacred mysteries).
However, even in Cyril’s day (as in Paul’s, seen in Corinth), there were counterfeit “churches” of heretics. As such, it was necessary to only seek out the ministry and salvation that is found alone in the one, true Church. Cyril exhorts his disciples:
And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God (for it is written, “As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it,” and all the rest), and is a figure and copy of ‘Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all.
Similarly, St. Irenaeus of Lyons warns Christians to only heed the traditions of the Catholic Church, and not any counterfeit “church” of heretics, “For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers” (Against Heresies, 3:4:1).
So then, if it is of the utmost importance for one to be in communion with the Catholic Church, how does one find this Church and her faith?
I have often then inquired… how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.
St. Vincent of Lérins, For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, ¶4
What St. Vincent outlines here is simple: in order to discern between catholicity and heresy, we must be in communion with the Catholic Church. There can be no “loner” Christians, left to their own cleverness and ingenuity to figure things out for themselves. There are no “other” churches besides the one, true Church, that can somehow “best” the Catholic Church at the truth. One’s understanding of the scriptures, for example, must be seasoned and kept on the “straight” path (Orthodoxy) through faithfulness to the Church: “the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation” (ibid., ¶5). As noted above, the Holy Spirit guides and directs the Church as an icon of the Trinity, and the Church is therefore the torch-bearer of the apostolic deposit of sacred, Spirit-filled tradition.
St. Vincent continues to explain that the Catholic faith is that faith “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (ibid., ¶6). As such, the Catholic Faith is characterized by “universality, antiquity, and consent.” By universality, it is not meant “everything that everyone believes,” as some in today’s ecumenical movements would be prone to declare. On the contrary, this means holding fast to the “one faith” we know is true, because “the whole Church throughout the world confesses” it to be true. In other words, this is not a “lowest common denominator” faith, but neither is it an “anything goes” smorgasbord of chaos.
On the question of heretics and “other churches,” St. Vincent is resolute:
What then will a Catholic Christian do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.
For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, ¶7
St. Vincent makes it very clear that those who abandon the Catholic Faith do so in the form of novelty. “… In the Church itself regard must be had to the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity, lest we either be torn from the integrity of unity and carried away to schism, or be precipitated from the religion of antiquity into heretical novelties” (ibid.,¶77). Schismatic Christians that claim to be “other churches” are denying the pleroma of the Church, that is, the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church itself. This denial is not merely a denial of doctrines or ideas, but a denial of the theanthropic unity of Jesus Christ, with the Church as His Body.
This cleaving to antiquity does not mean, on the other hand, that we must only believe and listen to “old” ideas and “early” Church fathers. There are still fathers in the Church today (this is at least part of what the prayer concluding most divine services means: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers…”; when a bishop is present, it is adjusted to “Through the prayers of our holy Master…”), and the “work” of “doing theology” in the Church over time is not one of innovation but of iconographic translation and application. The voice of the Spirit in the Orthodox Church is not a stagnant one, but a living and thriving faith within the pale of history.
The existence of various heresies throughout the centuries are not a denial of the fullness and catholicity of the Church, as some may object. On the contrary, their existence is permitted by God as a means by which the steadfastness and endurance of the one, true, Catholic faith is preserved. St. Vincent speaks of heresy, saying that it
…is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the blessed Apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, “There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you”; as though he should say, This is the reason why the authors of Heresies are not immediately rooted up by God, namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest; that is, that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.
For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, ¶48
Finally, I must acknowledge that there are, of course, many defective ecclesiologies in the world today. Some claim, for example, that there are many “branches” of the one, true Church, each with a distinct “part” of the total or Catholic faith. However, what is clear in the writings of the apostles and the tradition of the Church is that there can be only one, true Church and that this Church has the fullness of the faith. The faith is not divided and spread throughout various, competing “bodies” of Christ, and to claim that this is the case is to deny that Christ is the God-man and indivisibly and uniquely so. Because of this fullness, this wholeness and coherence, the Church is truly called catholic. As St. Justin puts it: “The theanthropic nature of the Church is inherently and all-encompassingly universal and catholic: it is theanthropically universal and theanthropically catholic” (The Attributes of the Church).
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.