While at seminary, I had a professor who would always correct students if he heard, “The catholics believe or the catholics say….” The issue he had was with us using the word “catholic” – little “c” – indiscriminately. His desire was to emphasize the fact that we are all catholic. We’re just not all Roman Catholic.
To be catholic is to be part of the One Catholic Church, the universal Church throughout the world, the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)
In about two months, Lutherans from around the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As we prepare to celebrate the 500th, we do so in light of the fact that when we hear the word, “catholic,” we too think of the Roman Catholic Church. Without giving much thought to the use of language, the word catholic has become synonymous with Roman Catholicism.
Sadly, for generations there have been and continues to be a divide in doctrine among Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Even as this divide exists, we continue to pray for the day when unity and fellowship comes. However, as we approach this exciting celebration of the Reformation, we do so recognizing that we are all part of the “one holy catholic church.” The Reformation was not about new teachings or a revolution within the Church, but rather a return to God’s Word in Holy Scripture.
The idea that we Lutherans can call ourselves catholic may sound like an identity crisis to some. But this is exactly what we are; we are part of the catholic faith and the universal Church on earth.
In the conclusion of the first part of the Augsburg Confession, it is written regarding the articles of faith presented to Emperor Charles V in 1530:
“This then is nearly a complete summary of our teaching. As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the catholic church (universal), or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.”
One of the themes of the Reformation is that the faith confessed by Luther and others was not new, rather it was the Roman Catholic Church that had departed from the one true faith.
Our catholic beliefs don’t end with doctrine. Just as Luther and the Reformers did not do away with the ceremonies and traditions, we retain those that are not in conflict with the Gospel. However, over the years we have sought to differentiate ourselves from the traditional ceremonies and traditions of both the Roman Catholic Church and the historic Lutheran Church in favor of American Christianity. In some ways, this may be a reaction to say that we are not Roman Catholic or in revolt of the Roman Catholic Church. But these departures have hurt the Church, its doctrine and theology, its liturgy, and its unity.
As it was not the intention of Luther to create a new Church, nor was it the intention to depart from the liturgy the Church has shared for centuries. Rather the intention was to retain the liturgy, rejoicing in how God is worshiped through Word and song, how the grace of God is poured out on the believer in Word and Sacrament, and the one holy catholic church is united in one voice and one body of faith.
As we approach the Reformation, remember we too are catholic. And next time we confess in the Athanasian Creed, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith,” you don’t have to be squirmish about the word “catholic.” We are all catholic. That is, we belong to the universal church, the Body of Christ. Thanks be to God!