The Church is Catholic

The Church is Catholic

The third ‘attribute’ of the Church is catholicity.

In Russian, this is sometimes Собо́рность or sobornost, meaning ‘symphony’ or a unity of consciousness. In this, the conciliar essence of the Church is emphasized, though the meaning of catholic goes deeper than conciliarity alone—the monarchical unity of the Church is also essential, a reflection of the monarchy of the Father in the holy Trinity.

While ecclesiology has changed drastically over the years, attempting to make catholic mean the pluralistic, lowest common denominator of faith across all forms of Christianity, this is not the actual meaning of the word catholic, nor is it the context in which the Creed speaks.

The origin of the phrase ‘Catholic Church’ is found in one of the late-first century letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the apostle John. He writes:

Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. —Smyrnæans 8

In this simple analogy, Ignatius sets the stage for all true discussions related to the catholicity of the Church: The Church is catholic because Jesus Christ is her Head. The apostle Paul speaks plainly to this:

God put all things in subjection under his feet and granted him to be the head over all things for the sake of the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. —Eph. 1:22–23

Additionally, we hear from Paul that the Church is the “fullness” of God. The word fullness here is pleroma, a term borrowed from Gnosticism. Of this, Fr. Stephen Freeman has noted:

[I]n Christian usage it refers to a spiritual wholeness or completeness that is being manifested or revealed in some way. It is more than a Divine act – it carries with it something of the Divine itself. It is not simply the action of God, but is itself God.

That the Church is the fullness of God carries with it a great deal of significance. The Church is not some sort of institution or human organization; it is a Divine-human act, body, and community of the holy Trinity. God is truly with us.

If the headship of Christ is what makes the Church catholic, then the abiding presence of Christ in the Church by the Holy Spirit is how the Church is led into all truth. The Catholic faith is a personal faith, because the heart of our faith (and Church) is the Lord himself—Christian truth and our holy tradition is a person, not a set of propositions. This is why Paul can tell us that the Church herself is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

St. Justin Popovich helps summarize this concept:

The theanthropic catholicity of the Church is actually an unceasing christification of many by grace and virtue: all is gathered in Christ the God-man, and everything is experienced through Him as one’s own, as a single indivisible theanthropic organism . . . The theanthropic Person of the Lord Christ is the very soul of the Church’s catholicity. It is the God-man Who always preserves the theanthropic balance between the divine and the human in the catholic life of the Church. The Church is filled to overflowing with the Lord Christ, for she is “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

And again, the Church herself is a reflection of both the unity and monarchy of the holy Trinity:

The Church for Orthodox Christians is first of all an object of faith. We believe in the Church as we believe in God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit . . . Just as the uncreated Trinity is one and holy, and as the Church is catholic . . . so the Church of the Trinity is catholic essentially and by definition: full, complete, whole, perfect, all-embracing, with nothing lacking in it of the inexhaustible fullness and superabundance of the very nature and life of God . . .

The Holy Trinity is the ideal and crown of catholicity. It is the light of the doctrine of the Trinity that ‘catholicity’ becomes a uniquely meaningful quality. The first eight articles of the Creed speak about the Holy Trinity and the ninth article speaks about the Church, since the Church is an image, an icon of the Holy Trinity on the earth. The Church is the earthly aspect of the Holy Trinity.
—Fr. Milan Savich, Catholicity of the Church: Sobornost

As an image of the Trinity, the Church is the Bride of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. And of the Church and her guidance by the Spirit (Acts 15:28), St. Basil writes:

And is it not plain and incontestable that the ordering of the Church is effected through the Spirit? —On the Holy Spirit 16.39

Returning to the true meaning of ‘catholic,’ we must remember that catholic does not imply an amalgamation of any and all ideas under a banner of pluralism. We must also be careful in implying or even claiming outright that catholic means ‘universal.’ The Church is not universal in terms of geography or pluralism, but in the sense of pleroma—in the sense of being whole, complete, and lacking nothing.

The first Christians, when using the words “EKLYSIA KATHOLIKY,” never meant a worldwide Church. This word rather gave prominence to the Orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the ‘Great Church,’ as contrasted with the spirit of sectarian separatism. —Fr. Milan Savich

Only recently, among a radically divided Christianity in the West, has ‘catholic’ taken on such incorrect usage. For most Christians today, saying that a doctrinal position or church is ‘catholic’ means that it ‘plays nice’ with the pluralistic spirit. The idea of fullness, orthodoxy, and universality across both space and time are all but lost.

In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote a comprehensive statement on the catholicity of the Church:

It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts. —Catechetical Lectures 18.23

For St. Cyril, the catholicity of the Church is multi-faceted: The Church is “over all the world”; the Church “teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines”; the Church “brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind”; the Church “universally treats and heals the whole class of sins.”

But even in St. Cyril’s day, there were counterfeit churches. He warns:

And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is—for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord—nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God—for it is written, “As Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it,” and all the rest—and is a figure and copy of “Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all.” —ibid. 18.26

Centuries earlier, St. Irenaeus of Lyons exhorts Christians to only heed the traditions of the one, true Church:

For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.
Against Heresies 3.4.1

The Catholic faith is not divided and spread throughout various, competing bodies of Christ. There is only one, holy, catholic Church, and to claim otherwise is to deny that Christ is her Head.

The Church is catholic because our faith and tradition is embodied in the God-man himself, with us united to him in his very Body.

Catholicity is not a synonym for pluralism, nor is it merely a reference to the global existence of the Church. The Church is catholic because she is whole, complete, and lacking nothing, and because it is a faith that spans all ages, places, languages, and cultures.

The Church is catholic and universal because Jesus Christ himself is catholic and universal.

The theanthropic nature of the Church is inherently and all-encompassingly universal and catholic: it is theanthropically universal and theanthropically catholic. —St. Justin Popovich

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The Church is One — The Church is Holy — The Church is Apostolic


  1. Maximus says


    Do you have St. Justin’s “Notes on Ecumenism”? It’s an excellent booklet. His definition of true “ecumenism” is basically what you have laid out here. He also said that only persons grounded in these dogmas and realities should even attempt to be ecumenists.

    • says

      No, but that sounds interesting. I’ll have to try and check it out. Thanks!

      Ecumenical is another one of those words with a lot of baggage today.

      • Maximus says

        Buy it brother. The holy father describes what Orthodox Ecumenism really is: trinitizing, christifying and catholicizing the world. This is the task of the Church, but it can only be accomplished by illumined persons in the true Body of Christ armed with pure dogmas. Constantine Cavarnos interpreted Fr. Florovsky as holding the same views of St. Justin on this subject in his booklet “Fr. Florovsky and Ecumenism”.

  2. Vladimir Howry says

    I was wondering a bit about the comment you make about the Church reflecting the Trinity and the monarchic aspect of the Father. I felt a little puzzled and was wondering if you could clarify for me what you meant. The article as a whole was wonderful, I’m just not quite getting that part.

    • says

      On that point, I’m trying to strike a balance between conciliarity and headship in the ‘structure’ of our Church. Christ is the Head of the Church, of course, and each bishop or archbishop is the head of their local church, as well. In this, we see the monarchical authority or structure that is a reflection of the Holy Trinity, with the Father as arche/aitia (source/origin) of the Holy Trinity—of the Son and the Spirit. But, as with the Trinity, the Church is a conciliar unity, and all bishops are equal. It’s a both/and emphasis; a paradox, if you will.