Truly “catholic” (and other labels)

Names and labels often pique my interest (as do grammatical things and words — which reminds me that an older friend once paused to ask me, in a Bible-class setting, whether the spelling of the word he had just used were “p-e-a-k” or “p-e-e-k,” to which I replied “p-i-q-u-e,” but this is all beside the point).

For instance, a “sanctuary” often isn’t one, really, so that’s a misnomer; “pope” and “narthex” and “sacristy” are just silly words devoid of substantive meaning.  And what about this one — the piece of furniture in which a baby can be ceremonially, un-biblically sprinkled may be labelled “baptistry” or “baptismal font,” but those are both misnomers.  Presbyterians often have those (not-)baptismals, and so do Catholics and others.

There are commonalities all ’round, and sometimes they unite people you wouldn’t expect to be united.  Leroy Garrett, a respected scholar and writer now in his mid-90s, wrote this of a recently unifying experience at an institutional church building in New Mexico:

What particularly caught my eye at the Chapel was a notice that the Independent Catholic Church of Antioch at Santa Fe conducts Mass there each Sunday afternoon. It bills itself as neither Roman, Orthodox, or Protestant, but just Catholic. But it is high-church, with a rich liturgy, with priests, including women, in colorful vestments conducting Mass at what was once a Roman Catholic altar. It calls itself “a love church” that reaches out to all humanity, and as for such social issues as abortion and birth control it leaves it up to each person to decide for himself. They emphasize that Jesus rejected no one, and they seek to be like him. One of their “Spiritual Principles” is: “We affirm that we are a truly Catholic Church in the most universal sense. Our altars and Priesthood are open to all humanity.” It is one more example of the diversity of Christendom.

I would call into discussion the implications of certain capital letters in the above description, as well as the extent of the “universal” acceptance to which this unique NM group aspires.  (The “rich liturgy” often appeals to non-liturgists until they experience “richness” over a period of months or years, at which point they finally realize that pretty much every liturgy is just another overblown human creation.)  Still, that particular liturgy in — which I presume amounted, at one point to a departure from a-biblical restrictions of the Roman Catholic institution — is laudable at least for said departure!

On the sidewalk recently, I overheard two students talking of what I took to have been a reference to, or a congregational recitation of, one of the so-called “creeds.”  They were taking exception to the appeal in this “creed” to the “holy, catholic church”–a designation that is for me at once inspiring and off-putting.  I only heard two or three sentences, but I think one of the two students had no idea, as yet, that the meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal.”  The other student, I think, was about to start explaining this.  I wonder, though, whether even after hearing the explanation, the first student would have been left, like me, unconvinced that the expression “holy, catholic church” should be recited by believers today.

Words are, after all, symbols and communicators.  Communication scientists make all sorts of studies of linguistics and semiotics, and they doubtless have a lot to say about such things.  I am but a closet observer of, and participant in, communication, but I do have the distinct feeling that using the term “catholic” is not appropriately communicative in a protestant church.

And the term is all the more a barrier for a neo-Protestant such as myself.  (There is so much to protest; vive la rebellion!)

Please share your thoughts. I read every comment.

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