We Are Catholic

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, February 17, 2022

We Are Catholic!

Today we continue a conversation about the ancient creedal “marks of the church” and how they are foundational for church life as we move through and beyond the pandemic. Last week we considered what it means that the church is “apostolic,” and today we move to the church’s identity as “catholic.”

One of the members of the Pastor Nominating Committee that called me to serve as the congregation’s pastor gave me a precious gift when I began serving – a special copy of the hymnal in which she circled all the hymns the church liked to sing. More than half the hymns didn’t make the cut. As I leafed through the hymnal, I saw something else – on the page where the Creed was printed, a hand stamp had been artfully created and applied, blacking out the word “catholic” and substituting instead the word “Christian.” They wanted to be clear that not only are Presbyterians “ABB” Christians (anything but Baptist), they are also “ABC” Christians (anything but Catholic).

“Catholic” was not coined by nor is it a trademark of the Roman Catholic church. It derives from the ancient Greek katholou, which means literally “according to the whole.” It is a genetic term; every part of the church has the same DNA. This is the basis for Paul’s claim that no part of the body can say to another, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:20-22)

“I believe the … catholic … church.” Only a truly catholic church is publicly credible. (See this post for my discussion of why the creed should read “I believe the … church” rather than “I believe in the … church.”)

The apostolic church is catholic. It is everywhere the same organism. The word “apostle” literally means “ambassador,” one who is sent out on behalf of another. Just as an embassy in a foreign country is considered sovereign territory of the ambassador’s home country, so it is for apostles. Wherever they go, they represent and extend the realm of their Lord and Savior. They don’t begin new churches; they create outposts of the church that sent them.

Churches can and should look very different externally, from place to place and time to time. A vital post-pandemic church will look quite unlike vital pre-pandemic churches. The apostolic church is always ready to pivot, to adapt to shifting contexts just as Paul did, living like a Jew when among Jews, and like a Greek when among Greeks. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Any church that tries to repristinate its pre-pandemic self is sure to fail. New contexts always require new forms of life and ministry.

Still, for the church to be vital, it needs to continue bearing its original genetic code, rooted in Jesus’ Great Commandment and Great Commission. Whatever external shape the church may take, it is necessarily a community that loves God and neighbor unreservedly, and bears witness publicly in word and deed to the saving grace of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

“Catholic” is not a brand, not a denomination. It is an identity. For a church to be vital and credible in the emerging post-pandemic world, it will certainly need to find new forms of life and ministry. But new ways of being church are not enough; the credible church will also demonstrate its continuity with the church of all times and places. It will own, not disown, the many manifestations of the church that precede and surround it.

Because it is catholic, the church treasures the wisdom of all who have been part of its life and witness, in all places and times. It knows that the Spirit that infuses its life is the same Spirit that spoke and moved through the church in other times and places. Same oxygen. Same genes.

Thus it is attentive to the voice of the church from other times and places. Our church has chosen from the vast array of witnesses a few public confessions from across the church’s history to comprise its “Book of Confessions.” Other witnesses could also be marshaled, but the voices in our Book of Confessions are sufficient to give us reliable guidance on how to live out the church’s essential identity in varying circumstances.

When we say we are catholic, we are affirming that whatever form the church may take, it always bears the same essential genetic code. Its primary marker is humility. We are part of something bigger. And its second marker follows close on its heels – open hearts, ears, and hands to the wider church. More than ever, the vital post-pandemic church will be necessarily ecumenical, not just in theory but in practice.

We can begin practicing for that now. What are we doing to join our hearts and hands with congregations other than our own? We can begin with shared ministry and mission with our sister congregations in our presbytery, but it can’t stop there, if we want to survive and thrive through and beyond the pandemic.

Yours in shared identity,

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