Where is the Catholic Church?

Jan 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

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?’

Pope Benedict 16th

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 ‘kata-holon’ 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.’


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  1. One caveat. Most Protestants would interpret those quotes as “catholic church” rather than “Catholic Church”, meaning the universal christian church (i.e. the invisible church).

    If you live in the Bible belt, it’s easy to believe that your denomination is a part of the universal christian church and you’re all working toward the same mission (even though there are some minor doctrinal points separating you and your neighbour). All churches are about the same age, and most have approximately the same beliefs with detail variation (time baptism, whether God picks us ahead of time or we have any say, etc), so it doesn’t seem one church is any different from the others. There is one universal christian church that are separated because of different worship styles and “too much intellectualizing” over “how many angels dance on the head of a needle”.

    However, if you go to Eurasia you see that only the Catholic or Orthodox church have a history that traces back before the last few hundred years, and if you go into the mission field, you encounter more denominations than there are groceries in a typical supermarket, with just as much diversity. They can’t all be part of the same “universal christian church” but no three denominations can decide on “the minimum qualifications of being part of the universal christian church”, so you either spend a lot of time converting people who already converted to “one of those denominations” or you agree to a cease fire out of practicality, stating through your actions to new converts that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you say that you are Christian (and are not Catholic or Mormon or JW)”. Your message gets so watered down that there isn’t enough to feed a martyrdom, let alone any sort of conversion of the heart. Or you if you don’t agree with the cease fire, you thoroughly confuse the population of the mission, making them believe that Christianity is as inconsistent as Hinduism.

    Or if you go into a good Protestant seminary, chances are it’ll contain teachers from all major denominations since few denominations can afford to create seminaries on their own. You go in with convictions and come out wondering if Christianity is at all coherent and if there is a “universal christian church”.

    A good Catholic or Orthodox seminary (i.e. one without liberals) won’t have those issues and will ultimately strengthen one’s face. It’s even possible for a Catholic to go to an Orthodox seminary (and vice versa) and have the same result. The common heritage of the one Catholic Church is still preserved even though there is great estrangement due to mutual stupidity and sin.

  2. Anil,

    I agree that most Protestants mean something different when they say ‘catholic church.’

    Here I wanted to show what we mean and also demonstrate what that the earliest patristic usage of the word conveys.

    Bryan Cross does a good job of explaining why Protestantism has no visible catholic church here. If you haven’t already, read that. The comments are also good at examining this topic.

  3. Thanks for this, Sean.

    I was once director of adult education at St. Michael’s near the Galleria. Alas, it was not a good time in my personal life. But that church is very important to the life of Houston, and I’m grateful I was able to serve it.


  4. Mike – it is a very beautiful parish and they have some good priests currently. I go occasionally for daily mass when schedule permits.

  5. Thanks Sean,

    But I was simply pointing out that it’s possible to read the Fathers in a Protestant way in much the same way as the scriptures can be read as Protestants read the Bible. William Lane Craig for instance, recommends regularly reading the Fathers but cautions that it must be read in light of “the simple message of the Bible” which excludes the Catholic and Orthodox elements as superstitions and evidence of poor scholarship.

    Dr. Craig is extremely intelligent and strikes me as very sincere. Without an argument against this reading, such as the one I provide or the one provided by your link, the interpretation of what the Fathers are saying becomes a “my authority versus your authority” question, which is really hard to resolve, especially to with someone who is intelligent and learned. And most Protestants aren’t interested in pursuing this question anyway (either because they don’t think it has an answer or because they’ve accepted Indifferentism or they believe “anyone who looks at the evidence long enough will come to my conclusions, so I need to provide more evidence”).

  6. Thanks Sean, nicely put. Few Reformed apologists from Green Baggins claimed they are the true catholics and that the Catholic Church was not a part of “catholic” church anymore! (according to their own A) Their criteria of being a catholic is so vague that even a guy you believes that Jesus is just a man that came from an alien world is considered a catholic.


  7. It appears to me that good Orthodox folks, especially theologians, are not averse to calling themselves the Catholic church with a capital “C”.
    “Catholic but not Roman.”
    In a pre-schism world, “Catholic” was used east and west without qualifiers. “Orthodox” was also common in both east and west and also seemingly needed no clarification. These have now become primary descriptives of separated Churches and for that reason if you ask the question in 2011 people generally mean Rome.
    So a protestant has no tenable answer to your question. But the Orthodox will shrug and say, hey….that was/is us.

  8. Some Eastern Orthodox may claim to be the Catholics and to be the Catholic Church, but in much of their own literature (which betray no axe to grind) they freely refer the term “Catholic Church” to the body of Christians in communion with the Successor of Peter. Even their polemical literature denounce the Catholics for their “heresies.” St. Augustine’s criterion for discovering “Where is the Catholic Church?” amidst the divisions of Christians remains as true as ever today.
    -James D.

  9. 1. Timotheus 3

    2 A bishop then must be … the husband of one wife, …
    4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;

    (taken from KJV)
    Do I have to add anything here? I think you get it!

  10. Alan Berg.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Your comment is one that has been made before in various forums and thus answered many times before as well. For such an answer, look here.

    God bless.

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