Catholic or catholic?

There is a common misconception among Protestant Christians concerning the terms Catholic and catholic. There are even, surprisingly enough, some Catholics who confuse these terms. The difference lies, as you may have guessed or already known, in whether the c is capitalized. In capital form, the term refers to the Catholic denomination, from which the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.) branched off to form the Protestant line of Christianity, which includes such denominations as Baptist, Methodist, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, and many more.

One problem that arises because of this confusion is in hostility towards individuals and towards documents because of the animosity of many Protestants toward Catholicism. For example, a portion of the Nicene Creed includes a line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The role of the Nicene Creed, as well as the Apostle’s Creed and other documents, was to unite believers everywhere under a central umbrella of universal truths about God and about the Church (note the capital C — all believers, everywhere and in every time, as one body). These were basic beliefs, such as that God is the Creator of all things seen and unseen, and that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. These are merely a few of the truths accepted universally by Christianity. The line, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” meant that Christians believe in a unifying aspect of belief in Jesus Christ, that regardless of their differences, they are still one Bride.

The use of “Catholic” to refer to a particular group within the Church began with the Great Schism, the split of the Eastern and Western churches in 1054 A.D. This was when being “Orthodox” or “Catholic” meant something about your specific beliefs and loyalties. Since then, it has become only more meaningful in defining an individual’s beliefs and loyalties since the Reformation brought about another gigantic schism in the Church. To a Protestant, to be “Catholic” is often a negative consideration — cult (which technically speaking includes all Christianity — see links one, two, and three), corruption, and surface-level belief is merely a small portion of the laundry list of terms often applied to Catholicism.

So what does this mean? Why is this important to know? To distinguish between “catholic” and “Catholic” means to better understand one another. It is to avoid conflicts over opinions that do not apply, such as in the case of the Nicene Creed. If you see someone write about the catholic Church, you will have a very different set of preconceptions and judgments than if you see someone write about the Catholic church — this applies to both Protestants and Catholics. If you jump on someone’s back because he is talking about believing that the catholic Church is the only means of salvation (yet through Christ — don’t judge my intentions and beliefs without knowing me), you may have just unnecessarily injured a relationship with a brother because of your own ignorance. On the other hand, if you can ask intelligent questions and learn to expect intelligent answers, your relationship can be preserved.

Religious and theological education is a wonderful thing. Don’t take it lightly when someone says that their time in school has changed them for the better, and don’t tell them that they’re unequivocally wrong just because your parents or your Sunday School teacher taught you different. Without properly understanding the terminology, the history, and the theological differences (this includes within the denominations and theological veins you judge to be heretical or deceptive — four-point vs. five-point Calvinism is a good example), our conversations will always be fraught with worry of offending. Or worse, our discussions will be the cause of further schisms and hostility toward one another.

If you react strongly when someone uses the word catholic or Catholic, whether verbally or in writing, I strongly urge you to do some research and train yourself out of that knee-jerk reaction. It does not befit us as Christians to deride and condemn one another based on misunderstanding.