My recent post on remaining protestant has stimulated a fair bit of discussion about the whole mess of thorny ecumenical and theological issues between protestants and Roman Catholics. At the heart of the issue for most of the protestant participants in the conversation – and I think this is a good representation of most of evangelical protestantism – was the issue of whether or not “the catholic church” is in some sense coterminous with “the Roman Catholic church”. In other words most protestants, myself included want to say that they are “catholic”, but that the proper theological definition of catholicity is not something inherent to Roman Catholicism, but rather is present or potentially present in any sort of church that upholds the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity.
The question that this raises in my mind is what most protestants mean by “catholicity”. It often becomes a throwaway line that since we are Christians we are “catholic with a small ‘c’”. But what does such “small ‘c’ catholicism” mean? Do protestants really tend to have an actual idea of catholicity that informs their Christian life and practice, or is claiming “small ‘c’ catholicism” just a rhetorical flourish to de-fang the central Roman Catholic critique of protestantism, namely that they have (to some significant degree) broken communion with the church that was founded by Christ?
Or, to put the question another way, Roman Catholicism has an answer to the question of what catholicity is. For them it is participation in the visible communal structure of the catolica (the whole church) which traces it historical existence to the Apostles through an ordained succession of bishops centering on the bishop of Rome (i.e. Apostolic Succession). Protestants obviously contest this notion of catholicity. But what substantive concept of catholicity do we offer in response? Or do we merely have a rhetorical equivocation on this point? How can protestants truly be “catholic” and what constitutes “protestant catholicity”?