Becoming Catholic #2: The "Big ‘C’" Catholic Church in the Church Fathers

MAKING WISDOM POPULAR

The “Becoming Catholic” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt at describing the journey of a lifelong protestant to the Catholic Church. You can read all the individual articles here.

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I never consciously considered becoming Catholic until the summer of 2017. Until then, I had been nurtured as a Christian in an environment where Catholicism was not welcomed, and looked upon as a leper (not universally, but frequently). Despite the fact that all the protestant sects I belonged to at various points disagreed on many important doctrines, they all agreed on one negative point: they were not Catholics.

But they had an out. “Oh, I’m catholic—the small ‘c’ catholic.” Everyone tried this because they knew that “Catholic” meant “universal,” and what Christian would want to believe doctrines that weren’t “universal”? I heard this from everyone I knew: non-denominational, presbyterians, baptists, reformed, etc. It was everyone’s “get out of jail free” card. No matter how different, peculiar, or novel they may have been on every issue under the sun, they all afforded themselves this out: they were “small ‘c’” catholics. Intelligent people I respected asserted it (and still do), so I accepted it as a given.

Until I read the Church Fathers. There is no trace of this idea in their writings. There was only Catholic (“Big ‘C’”), and non-Catholic (that is, heretics—little ‘h’). That is all. Many of the Fathers make this explicit. They had a particular, visible, authoritative society of Christians in mind when they used the word “Catholic.” Don’t take my word for it—take acclaimed Anglican patristic historian J.N.D. Kelly’s, who wrote as follows:

As regards ‘Catholic,’ its original meaning was ‘universal’ or ‘general’…As applied to the Church, its primary significance was to underline its universality as opposed to the local character of the individual congregations.  Very quickly, however, in the latter half of the second century at latest, we find it conveying the suggestion that the Catholic is the true Church as distinct from the heretical congregations.[1] [Emphasis added]

He concluded:

What these early fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church.[2]

In fact, according to Kelly, to the extent there was any idea of an “invisible” “small ‘c’” catholic church, it tended to come from the gnostics (a general term for one of the earliest and most pernicious batches of heresies faced by the Church, and which many protestants claim to reject today).

Indeed, as you will see in a wide array of quotes from both Western and Eastern Fathers over many centuries, Kelly was absolutely correct—there was no “small ‘c’” catholic church, only the “Big ‘C’” Catholic Church. This idea of the one, true, Catholic, Apostolic Church existed for at least the first thousand years of Christianity (I’m using 1054, the year of the East-West Schism between the Catholic Church and what became known as Eastern Orthodoxy, as the nominal end date, though for a variety of reasons, that’s not correct, and will be addressed in future blogs in this Becoming Catholic series).

The first use of the term “Catholic Church” comes as early as approximately 107 AD, with Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who was taught by the Apostle John. The very idea of the ancient Church Councils that many protestants claim to accept presupposes a “Big ‘C’” Catholic Church in which Christians lived and existed in visible unity—not a merely spiritual, undefinable, always debatable, always illusive “small ‘c’” catholic church (a concept which, now, seems to me intentionally fuzzy, as it allows those who proffer it the very autonomy which is the basis of their schism from the Catholic Church—yes, there will also be a later post about this issue too).

Such a thing never existed, and it never occurred to Christians until after the protestant “reformation.” Even after the split between Catholics and the Orthodox in 1054, both sides continued to assert the fundamental validity of the notion that there is only one “Big ‘C’” Catholic Church—as they do to this day. The 1054 schism itself was followed by various bouts of unity (inter-communion between East and West) until at least the 15th century—after which the division between East and West hardened, even though a number of eastern churches have since returned to the Catholic Church.

Even more disturbing to me was the fact that, when the Fathers described the non-catholic heretics, they were invariably describing people that sounded a lot more like me, and the various protestant denominations I had belonged to—sects that presumed to interpret the Scriptures as they pleased and on their own; lacked Apostolic Succession, and thus authority; and taught novel doctrines whose adherents tended to be highly localized and peculiar in time/place.

This description continues to apply to the thousands of protestant sects of today, in stark contrast with the still-existing “Big ‘C’” Catholic Church.

The biblical evidence, though outside the scope of this particular blog, is also clear: Christ established one Church, a Church which was universal (“Catholic”), and had divine authority to teach, etc. Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17 speaks emphatically of the unity of this Church (this prayer will be covered in another blog post in this Becoming Catholic series).

Without further ado, here is a good sample of Church Fathers attesting to the universal belief in the one, united, “Big ‘C’” Catholic Church:

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 9 (c. AD 110)

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.  Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.  Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

Martyrdom of Polycarp, 19 (c. AD 156)

This, then, is the account of the blessed Polycarp, who, being the twelfth that was martyred in Smyrna (reckoning those also of Philadelphia), yet occupies a place of his own in the memory of all men, and that he is everywhere spoken of by the heathen themselves.  He was not merely an illustrious teacher, but also a preliminary martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, as it was completely consistent with the gospel of Christ  Having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls, the governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.

Muratorian Fragment (c. AD 178)

[Paul also wrote] out of affection and love one to Philemon, one to Titus, and two to Timothy; and these are held sacred in the esteem of the Catholic Church for the regulation of ecclesiastical discipline.  There is current also [a letter] to the Laodiceans, [and] another to the Alexandrians, [both] forged in Paul’s name to [further] the heresy of Marcion, and several others that cannot be received into the Catholic Church—for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey.  Moreover, the letter of Jude and two of the above-mentioned (or, bearing the name of) John are counted (or, used) in the Catholic [Church]; and [the book of] Wisdom, written by the friends of Solomon in his honor.

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Tertullian of Carthage, Prescription Against Heretics, 30 (c. AD 200)

Where was [the heretic] Marcion, that shipmaster of Pontus, the zealous student of Stoicism?  Where was Valentius, the disciple of Platonism?  For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago—in the reign of Antonius for the most part—and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherius, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled.

Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 68:8 (AD 254)

They alone have remained without, who, if they had been within, would have had to be cast out…Peter, on whom the Church was to be built, speaks there [John 6:67-69], teaching and showing in the name of the Church, that although a rebellious and arrogant multitude of those who will not hear and obey may depart, yet the Church does not depart from Christ; and they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock that adheres to its pastor.  You ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if anyone be not with the bishop, then he is not in the Church, nor those who flatter themselves in vain and creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another.

Council of Nicaea I, Original Appendix to the Nicene Creed; Canon 8; Canon 19 (AD 325)

But those who say: “There was [a time] when he [the Son] was not,” and “before he was born, he was not,” and “because he was made from non-existing matter, he is neither of another substance or essence,” and those who call “God the Son of God changeable and mutable,” these the Catholic Church anathematizes…

Concerning those who call themselves Cathari [Novatians], that is, “the Clean,” if at any time they come to the Catholic Church, it has been decided by the holy and great council that, provided they receive the imposition of hands, they remain among the clergy.  However, because they are accepting and following the doctrines of the Catholic and apostolic Church, it is fitting that they acknowledge this in writing before all; that is, that they communicate with the twice married and with those who have lapsed during a persecution…

Concerning the Paulianists who take refuge with the Catholic Church, a decree has been published that they should be fully baptized.  If, however, any of these in times past have been in the clerical order, if they have appeared spotless and above reproach, after being baptized let them be ordained by the bishop of the Catholic Church.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18:23, 26 (c. AD 350)

[The Church] 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 the doctrines that 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 that are committed by soul or body, and possess in itself every form of virtue that is named, both in deeds and words, and in every spiritual gift…

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), not merely where the church is, but where the Catholic Church is.  For this is the peculiar name of this holy Church, the mother of us all, the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.

Council of Constantinople I, Nicene Creed; Canon 5 (AD 381)

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.  And [we believe] in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.  We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, [and] we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen…

Those who embrace orthodoxy and join the number of those who are being saved from the heretics, we receive in the following regular and customary manner: Arians, Macedonians, Sabbatians, Novatians, those who call themselves Cathars and Aristeri, Quartodecimians or Tetradites, Apollinarians—these we receive when they had in statements and anathematize every heresy that is not of the same mind as the holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church of God.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, The True Religion, 7:12 (c. AD 390)

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We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is Catholic, and which is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies.  For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly they call her nothing else but Catholic.  For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name that the whole world employs in her regard.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, Faith and the Creed, 10:21 (AD 393)

[W]e believe also in the holy Church, [intended thereby] assuredly the Catholic.  For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches.  But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what we believe.  As a result neither do the heretics belong to the Catholic Church, which loves God; nor do the schismatics form a part of the same, inasmuch as it loves the neighbor, and consequently readily forgives the neighbor’s sins, because it prays that forgiveness may be extended to itself by him who has reconciled us to himself, doing away with all past things, and calling us to a new life.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation,” 4:5; 5:6 (AD 397)

For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, indeed, because they are but  men, still without any uncertainty (since the rest of the multitude derived their entire security not from acuteness of intellect, but from simplicity of faith)—not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things that most justly keep me in her bosom.  The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age.  The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his Resurrection, gave it in charge to feed his sheep, down to the present episcopate.  And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.  Such then in number and importance are the previous ties belonging to the Christian name that keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself.  But with you, where there are none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play.  Now if the trust is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith that binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion…

If you should find some who does not yet believe in the gospel, what would you [Mani] answer him when he says, “I do not believe”?  Indeed, I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.

Saint Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, §§4-6 (c. AD 434)

§4. I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, 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 anyone 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.

§5. But here someone perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

§6. Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

Council of Chalcedon, Session 15, Canon 14 (AD 451)

Since in certain provinces readers and cantors have been allowed to marry, this sacred synod decrees that none of them is permitted to marry a wife of heterodox views.If those thus married have already had children, and if they have already had the children baptized among heretics, they are to bring them into the communion of the Catholic Church.

SOURCES

[1]J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper One, 1978), 190.

[2]Id. 191.

RESOURCES

You can access my conversion story, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers (purchased and free) at the following links:

(1) My Conversion Story (podcast)

(2) Heart, Mind, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome (Chapter 7 features my Conversion Story)

(3) “38 Volume Set” of Church Fathers for purchase (physical books)

(4) Church Fathers: New Advent website (the “38 Volume Set” online for free)

(5) Church Fathers: Ethereal Library of Christian Classics website (another free version of the “38 Volume Set”)