Where is the Catholic Church?
Where is the Catholic Church?
If you are curious then I might first suggest that you try this exercise:
If you live in a small town, go to the corner store on the main street and ask the first people you meet, ‘Where is the Catholic Church?’
If you live in a big city, go downtown and ask the first people you meet, ‘Where is the Catholic Church?’
If you live in Singapore, go to the nearest market and ask the first people you meet, ‘Where is the Catholic Church?’
If you live in Nigeria, go to town and ask the first people you meet, “Where is the Catholic Church?’
In each scenario I am willing to wager that the vast majority of the people asked this question will give you directions to the nearest church. But not just any church. You will be given directions to a church which is pastored by a priest who has been entrusted by a bishop to celebrate the sacraments. And this bishop will be in communion with the bishop of Rome, Benedict the 16th.
I recently tested this theory. I work in Houston, TX in an office complex that is 40 stories high. I stood in the lobby for a few minutes and asked several passers-by if they knew where the Catholic Church is located. I asked ten people in the span of ten minutes. Two people said, ‘I do not know, sorry.’ The rest of them gave me rough directions to either St. Anne’s Catholic Church or St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Both parishes are about equidistant from the office. Both St. Anne’s and St. Michael’s are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If I were to leave the office and follow the directions I was given I would pass at least a half dozen other churches but those churches were not identified as the ‘Catholic Church’ by any person that I asked. If I stood there all day and asked one hundred people the same question, I would be shocked if anybody pointed me to a church that is not in communion with the bishop of Rome.
You can also examine the question this way:
Go outside and go to your neighbor’s house. Knock on the door. Ask your neighbor what church they attend. If they attend a church then ask, ‘Which one?’ After they tell you which one ask, “Is that a Catholic Church?” If they answer in the affirmative then I would be willing to wager that the church in question will be a church pastored by a priest who is in communion with the bishop of Rome. If they say, ‘No, it is not a Catholic Church’ then I am willing to bet that their church will not be pastored by a priest who is in communion with the bishop of Rome.
What is my point? My point is that when it comes to the question, Where is the Catholic Church?: “Securus judicat orbis terrarum” or “The verdict of the world is conclusive.” – St. Augustine (Contra Epist. Parmen. III.24)
The word ‘Catholic’ comes from the Greek ‘kath-holan’ and literally means ‘embracing all or pertaining to the whole.’ Members of the Catholic Church have been calling themselves ‘Catholic’ since at least Ignatius (AD 107).
See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out the appointment of God. 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 also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
- Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrneans
I believe that this is the very first extant example of the Church being called “Catholic” that we have. Notice how the identity of the Catholic Church is tied to the bishop and the celebration of the Eucharist and by the minister of the sacrament acting ‘in persona Christi.’
By the time the Apostles Creed is penned the usage is clearly widespread. The usage and understanding of the label ‘Catholic’ is not hidden within patristic sources.
St. Augustine writes:
For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual, men attain in this life…not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations…so does her authority…the succession of priests…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 precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church…Now if the truth 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…For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church…for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me. Wherefore, if no clear proof of the apostleship of Manichaeus is found in the gospel, I will believe the Catholics rather than you.
- Against the Epistle of Manichaeus, 4:5,5:6 (A.D 397)
Notice how St. Augustine defines the Catholic Church. It is not merely a set of people who agree on doctrine. The Catholic Church spreads across ‘nations.’ The Catholic Church has ‘authority.’ The Catholic Church has ‘the succession of priests.’
There are more fathers who express similar ideas:
Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who 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.
- Cyprian, To Florentius (A.D. 254)
This is what we mean by ‘Catholic Church.’