March 5th, 2021



I dislike shibboleths. Sometimes, they are used to define in-groups and sometimes they are used to define out-groups, but when a word or phrase is being used as a party label or slogan, its meaning withers, and our language suffers.

We all know how it works. Certain terms of value or order are used as party labels, which causes all sorts of confusion. All of us in America are democrats, but we are not all members of the Democratic Party. We all uphold our republican form of government (well, most of us), but we are not all members of the Republican Party. We can believe in liberalism without being a member of the Liberal Party. Likewise, when we call ourselves members of the Christian Church, we may in fact be Methodists rather than Campbellites. John the Baptist wasn’t a Baptist, but a Jew. And so on.

Now some people object to the original, generic use of these labels. They want sole proprietorship of them. So some of my friends who are members of the Orthodox Church object to my describing myself as orthodox, since I am not a member of their church. On the other hand, some people avoid the generic use of perfectly good words because they associate them with other groups who use them as labels. Some Protestants, for instance, are allergic to the word “catholic,” as in “I believe in the holy catholic church.” They prefer to say “universal.” They do this to avoid identifying with the claims to universal jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church.

This peeves me. “Catholic” is a perfectly good word, and important in its context. It can mean “universal,” but it has wider applicability. It comes from the Greek katholou, which itself is a portmanteau word combining kata (about or according to) and holos (the whole). Something which is catholic is of general interest or applicability across the board. “I have a catholic taste in music” means I like all kinds of music, not just Gregorian chant. And catholicity is an important concept; indeed, it is one of the four marks of the true Church. It means that wherever you go, the truth of the Christian faith can be expressed without garbling, no matter what culture or language it is expressed in. In a day when the Critical Theorists will tell you that Christianity is an alien concept to other cultures and it is an act of colonialism to evangelize people unlike oneself, to affirm the catholicity of the Church and its faith are important.

Sad to say, we are not united in one organization anymore. Yet when we affirm the faith handed down to us from the early church and the Scriptures along with all other believers spread across time and space, we are being truly catholic. Most Protestants would agree with this, I think. So it is odd, indeed, to see them so allergic to using the word “catholic” and opting for “universal” instead; after all, in our modern usage, “universal” implies what they firmly say does not exist, for no single denomination can claim to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the Creeds. In attempting to deny the Roman Catholic Church’s usage of the term, they adopt an equivalent that expresses the RCC doctrine even more blatantly.

Some things are beyond irony.