What is Catholicism?

This question comes up in my mind, and not for the first time. The idea came from a blog post written by a convert to Roman Catholicism with a highly critical attitude in regard to Continuing Anglicanism and even to the Ordinariates in the RC Church. He is entitled to his view as I am to mine. I have linked to his blog before, but this time I don’t want nastiness, whether on this subject or other issues recently discussed.

I am not embarking on a piece of apologetics or nastiness in regard to the Roman Catholic Church. My subject is not strictly theological or ecclesiological, but some such ideas may well creep in. The article I have in mind is remarkably secular in its criteria of Catholicity, very American, with a business analogy of market. Etymologically, the word Catholic means universal, for all. Apologetics often interpret the concept in different ways to sound convincing – in view of the fact that Roman Catholics are very numerous in the world, but are a minority against non-religious people and other world religions. The RC Church is open to all, but so are other Christian Churches and communities.

We tend to associate the word Catholic with the notion of liturgical and sacramental Christianity that appeals to more senses than simply hearing the words of Scripture. Rome doesn’t have the monopoly here, because there are many liturgical and sacramental Churches that aren’t formally and canonically in communion with the Pope. I find nothing more natural than the idea that Catholicism subsists in Anglican, Orthodox and Old Catholic Churches as well as the Roman communion. Ecumenism in the RC Church softened the old Extra Ecclesia nullus salus position, but it is still implicit in official teachings and opinions of Roman Catholics.

The problem, the way I see it, is the profound change brought to European Catholicism by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, which correlated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment movements. Much as my own mind has been formed by scientific and philosophical rationalism for the sake of serving humanity and the modern notion of human rights, I do believe that we need to recover much more of medieval Catholicism. What is in my mind is what an English parish in the fifteenth century would have had in common with a comparable Orthodox parish in the Greek islands or mainland. What I would like to emphasise is a spirit, not so much academic theology or liturgical minutiae. Much of this notion persisted in parts of Europe, France in particular, but was ruthlessly destroyed in the Protestant world and heavily reformed and rationalised in post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism.

My Bishop and most of my brother priests tend towards a Tridentine liturgical expression with trappings like lace and baroque vestments. I have no problem with that, and I still have both from my Institute of Christ the King days. I prefer a more medieval or monastic expression with plain albs and simple vestments in keeping with the spirit I mentioned above and my option of using the Sarum liturgy. Our Church is broad enough to encompass everything because these things concern culture and human sensitivity more than faith or morals. I have not rejected the Baroque expression, but feel more at ease with things like neo-Romanticism, Arts & Crafts and the yearning for things medieval. This is reinforced by my experience of French Catholicism through “recusant” parishes and the heritage of Gallicanism that formed and gave shape to the early Traditionalist movement of Archbishop Lefebvre in the early 1970’s.

One can be criticised for flights of Romantic imagination and fantasy, idealising the artistic expressions of the past whilst accepting Enlightenment ideas and the benefits of modern technology and science. After all, who would want medieval medicine, sanitation or cruel punishments of wrongdoers? We Anglican Catholics often do come under this criticism, and are encouraged to “get real” and learn about contemporary (Roman) Catholicism. In most of Europe, such “real” Catholicism is confined to metropolitan cities and is nearly dead in small towns and the countryside. It is essentially secular and rationalistic, and would only appeal to those who might also be attracted to Evangelical Protestantism, with few exceptions like in the Diocese of Versailles where Catholics are convinced and well-to-do.

Am I the only one to “get it right”? Far from it, I argue not for a totalitarian, regimented or uniform expression – but diversity and a spirit of freedom, joy and all the positive aspects of Renaissance humanism. We need to abandon the “one true church” or “we are right and everyone else is wrong”, and offer something beautiful and appealing in contrast with the bleakness of our modern urban world and the threats facing us in the coming years. I prefer to approach Christ in freedom, love and attraction to beauty, not the old threat of being thrown into the outer darkness and tortured by demons for all eternity. Anglicanism doesn’t need to be “liberal” or unfaithful to be loving, tolerant and ready to discuss rather than dominate or dictate. Perhaps it is Anglicanism and Lutheranism that have remained closer to medieval liturgical Catholicism than post-Tridentine Rome.

A part of being Christian and Catholic is living the dream, the dream of Christ and the Gospel, in a world that tells us that Christianity is finished and that the future is Orwellian globalism and head-chopping jihadism. I am reminded of Wordsworth’s elation on seeing the back of the Ancien Régime and then his nausea on seeing the baskets of severed heads and stinking corpses being taken from the Place de la Concorde to the Picpus cemetery. What a memory to take back to England and the daffodils of Grasmere! Sometimes, dreams and imagination are the only way to keep ourselves sane in spite of the adversity we or others live through.

We are not the “only” ones, but we try to do our bit alongside others in other places with similar ideas. That’s what is important and what really is Catholic.

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3 Responses to What is Catholicism?

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your attention to “the profound change brought to European Catholicism by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation” in contrast to other historical actualities and possibilities makes me think of Dom Gregory Dix’s book, The Shape of the Liturgy – as I remember it, anyway – with its picture of something really held in common combined with assorted distinctly (sometimes, very) different particularities, and a sort of recurrent lurking danger sometimes actualized of sudden insistence of what is familiar to one place as being uniquely true and requiring uniform imposition everywhere else, a danger perhaps peculiarly looming in the Western late mediaeval/early modern period, somehow almost at once variously and extensively actualized by local ‘reformations’ and Tridentine reform. Pope St. Pius V recognized established diversity, and yet… (for example, ‘Latinists’ or whatever bought up and destroyed manuscripts of the traditional liturgies of reunited Churches in the Levant). The Church of England recognized (possible) diversity – abroad, but at home, ‘common’ pretty exclusively meant ‘uniform’ (examples to the contrary – like Latin BCP services for the learned – notwithstanding).

    • The events of the sixteenth century, both the Renaissance and the Reformation had to happen. That was history. The old morally rotten structures had to come down and something had to be done for the future. The Enlightenment was a good thing for humanity and the rights of persons under principles of law and morality. How could the Church adapt and survive such profound changes? The same thing happened with the French Revolution and the two World Wars, the second (with the Cold War) leading to Vatican II.

      The Roman Catholic Church has gone along with the broad lines of the Enlightenment and to some extent tried to emulate the re-judaising and de-paganising tendencies of generic Protestantism. Medieval Catholicism is essentially a culmination of de-judaised and paganised Christianity, and there were excesses in popular religion and the use power structures made of it to control whole populations.

      Should western Catholicism emulate Orthodoxy in Orthodox countries like Russia, Greece, Serbia, Romania, etc, but with a western expression? In the 1980’s I saw this notion as something appealing with Western Orthodoxy under Eastern Orthodox churches. The most successful attempts in western Catholicism to recapture this ideal have been the monasteries since the foundation of Solesmes by Dom Guéranger in 1833. Since that time in France, the monasteries have had a tremendous influence on the Liturgical Movement and some of the parish clergy, especially in the country.

      Today, I don’t see much prospect for a generalised movement. The traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church have some good ideas, especially on the New Liturgical Movement and many ideas from Pope Benedict XVI representing twentieth century German theology. With the positive elements, RC traditionalism has its limits. We Anglicans and Continuing Anglicans are also limited by our lack of resources and pignon sur rue (loosely translated as being well-established and known). I do think our Anglican way is on the whole more healthy.

      The future is bleak, but we can only carry on as best we can and wait for better times, or prepare the future for those who will follow us.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for such a food-for-thought-full response! So much so, that I don’t know which marrow-rich part to try to start mumbling over (old dog keen on new… nourishment that I am).

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