It appears that “catholicity” is replacing the term “ecumenism”—and that for good reason as we shall see below. Meanwhile, the use of “catholicity” represents an interesting non sequetor. That inconsistency pertains to use of the word “catholic” with a small “c” and “Catholic” with a capital “c”. The first use with a small “c” is to be understood to mean “universal.” The use with a capital “c” is understood to refer to the Roman Catholic Church.
The ambiguity and confusion are quite alarming. I recall attending a church that placed the Apostles’ Creed in its bulletin with an asterisk by the word “catholic” to explain that it meant “universal.” It is interesting that a 20thCentury Evangelical church using a Second or Third Century creed, eventually translated from the Latin, keeps one ambiguous transliterated term in its liturgy. Granted, it was probably borrowed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, only removing the “k” from the end of the word, “The Holy Catholick Church.” Meanwhile, modern Evangelicals are taught to remove “borrowed terms” from modern Bible translations.
The policy-making agreement for worldwide Bible translation work, “Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible” (1968), included an important a statement regarding the use of loan words from other languages:
“For major languages borrowing should be kept at a strict minimum, for all such languages have a sufficiently large vocabulary or phrasal equivalence to make borrowing relatively unnecessary”
“Guiding Principles” were originally drafted by the hand of Eugene Nida in 1964. Whatever malaise was applied to loan words in Bible translation, it curiously does not seem to apply to Creeds. For this reason, the word “catholic” continues to be used in the Apostles Creed to this day, even though it is confusing to those who read it.
For the Roman Catholic Church, the Apostles’ Creed belongs to them, therefore it is uniquely in their purview to interpret it and its terminology. For example, it was his treason against the word “Catholic” in the Apostles Creed that John Huss was sent to the stake in Constance on July 6, 1415. In the meantime, according to the 1208 “Profession of Faith Prescribed to the Waldenses,” the word “Roman” was added to the list of adjectives describing the Catholic Church:
“We believe with our heart and confess with our mouth only one Church, not that of the heretics, but the Holy Roman Church, Catholic, Apostolic, outside of which we believe that no person is saved.”
Notice that the word “Roman” was added to the list of descriptors of the “catholic” church in 1208, Rome thereby clarifying their self-understanding. From these two examples, it is clear that this loan word from Latin, “catholic,” comes a thorny and polemic historical context.
Modern scholars seem to be using the noun “catholicity” as a synonym for “ecumenism” or “cooperation.” The concept of catholicity may be founded on the false notion that there was a consensus of faith in the Early Church. Prior to Constantine there were a multiplicity of approaches to the church and the gospel, which is confirmed by the existence of the seven major autocephalous (having their own head) Orthodox Churches in the modern times. In addition to these verifiable autocephalous churches, numerous other churches can be discerned in histories by their inclusion among the listings as either rival churches or heretical churches.
If there was a consensus of faith within the State-Church movement initiated by Constantine, after he saw a cross in the heavens and heard a voice saying, “Conquer with this,” that consensus came with significant compromises to the gospel. Some of these compromises include:
· General Atonement and universal salvation—to accommodate every person living within any given state.
· Sacramentalism politically silencing its rival Evangelical soteriology—Sacramentalism became the approved means of grace, largely due to the ecclesio-doctrinal and political efforts of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine.
· Although against the teaching of the Pastoral Epistles, church leaders were called priests.
· Although idolatrous from a biblical point-of-view, state churches did not forbid the veneration of Mary, angels, and saints, and prayer to the same.
· The Great Commission was revised to champion the use of the sword to conquer lands and people for the benefit of church and empire.
Many more compromises and heresies can be added to this list.
In the mid-19th Century the use of the word “ecumenical” was originally used for interconfessional cooperation among Evangelicals in their missiological endeavors. This was the case as noted in the “New York 1900 Ecumenical Missionary Conference.” The term “ecumenical” transitioned to mainline Protestant use after the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference. The Ecumenical Movement transitioned again on August 23, 1948, with the founding of the World Council of Churches. Then on November 21, 1964, 2,156 Roman Catholic bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council approved the decree “Lumen Gentium” (2,151 for and 5 against). In this most recent emendation, the word “ecumenical” moved from pan-Christian to pan-religious:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too many achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.”
The term ecumenical in missionary conference circles went from describing Evangelical missions. It morphed into a mainstream Protestant use. Then once the Roman Catholic Church entered into the Ecumenical waters, it quickly took on a pluralistic religious overtone. This same pan-religious emphasis was confirmed in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions [other than Judaism and Islam] that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.’”
In a way it is easy to understand why the term “ecumenism” has gone into disuse among 21st Century American Evangelicals. Perhaps that is why some Evangelicals are now looking to use the term “catholicity.”
It may also be helpful to consider noted Evangelicals who “returned” to Catholicism in the last 100 years as a point of caution:
· In 1922: G.K. Chesterton, Author, Evangelist, and Apologist.
· In 1985: Tom Howard, brother of David Howard and Elisabeth Elliot.
· In 2007: Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
The path they trod is well worn. Waldensian Pastor and Evangelist, Durand of Osca took this path from 1204 to 1206. His reconversion into Catholicism led to the writing cited above, the 1208 “Profession of Faith Prescribed to the Waldenses.”
Confusing discipleship is not helpful for the next generation of Christians. Hence another term is needed to reflect the spirit of “catholicity” experienced by some young Evangelicals today. A term should be chosen that does not carry significant ecclesiastical polemic. “Great Commission Partners” is used by some missionaries to delineate other Evangelical mission organizations with similar views of the gospel and whom they can partner. More seem to be using the term “Reformed” to delineate an affirmation with the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Whatever the case, "catholicity" does not appear to be a helpful term.
The Book of Common Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments… (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, n.d.), 23.
“Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible”; from Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., and John B. Sheerin, C.S.B., eds. Doing the Truth in Charity: Statements of Pope Paul VI, Popes John Paul I, John Paul II, and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity 1964-1980. (New York: Paulist, 1982), 164.
Nida was the Executive Secretary of Translations of the American Bible Society from 1946 until 1980. A position from which he was able to make personnel and funding decisions for worldwide Bible translation for 35 years. These 35 years were marked by important transitions in original language textual work and worldwide Bible translation—a transition that Nida superintended from his position. “Guiding Principles” were eventually reworked and jointly published by the Roman Catholic Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and the United Bible Society Executive Committee on Pentecost, June 2, 1968. A revised edition of this strategic plan was renamed to “Guidelines,” approved by the President of the Society for Promoting Christian Unity and the Honorary President of the United Bible Societies in 1987. It is currently housed on the Vatican website.
Heinrich Denzinger, Peter Hünermann (ed., original edition), and Joseph Hoffmann (ed., French edition), Symboles et définitions de la foi catholique: Enchiridion Symbolorum (aka. Denzinger, or DS), 38th ed. (37th ed., Freiburg: Herder, 1997; Paris: Cerf, 2005), §792; translation mine.
Jean Gonnet and Amedeo Molnar, Les Vaudois au Moyen Age (Torino, Italy: Claudiana, 1974), 5.
“A Century by Century Quickview of Developments in Western Christianity,” Chart 6 in “Timelines for Western Christianity: Chronological Theology”; available following a link at: https://www.evangelismunlimited.org/c/evangelism-in-church-history (Online); accessed 6 Oct 2023; Internet.
“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium” (21 Nov 1964) §16; available at: http://listserv.american.edu/catholic/church/vaticanii/lumen-gentium.html; accessed 19 April 2007.
Catechism of the Catholic Church [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994], §843.