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Versions of Catholicity

“Since their inception, Free Churches have represented for both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church the quintessence of what is uncatholic.  Because catholicity qualifies all other essential attributes of the church, all the ecclesiological capital sins of Free Churches can be understood as transgressions against catholicity.  The Free Church understanding of unity, of holiness, and of apostolicity is problematic because it is uncatholic.  The unity of Free Churches in uncatholic because it lacks concrete forms of communion with all other churches, that is, with the whole church.  Their holiness is uncatholic because it is exclusive; according to the Free Church idea, all who do not consciously believe and live commensurately are to be excluded from the church.  The apostolicity of Free Churches is uncatholic because it lacks connection to the whole church in its history, which is assured by  the successio apostolica.  Moreover, the specific ecclesiological characteristic of Free Churches resides precisely in their understanding of unity, holiness, and apostolicity.  Were they to become catholic, they would, according to the argumentation of the episcopal churches, have to surrender their very identity.  A catholic Free Church is a contradiction in terms; it understands itself as free precisely with regard to those relationships that would tie it to the whole and thus make it catholic in the fist place.

“This picture changes significantly from the Free Church perspective.  Together with other churches deriving from the Reformation, Free Churches have from the very outset subscribed to catholicity and have simultaneously denied this attribute to the Catholic Church.  The unity of the Catholic Church is uncatholic because the Pope (or bishop), to use Luther’s words ‘declares that his court alone is the Christian church.’  Its holiness is uncatholic because it maintains a distance from its sinful members (casta meretrix) and is never willing to pray for the forgiveness of its own sins (ecclesial sancta et immaculata).  The apostolicity of the Catholic Church is uncatholic because it insists too much on the form of preserving apostolicity (succesio apostolica), binds church doctrine to certain formulations from the past, and in this way renders them uniform.  According to Free Church argumentation, the Catholic (and implicitly, Orthodox) Church refuses to accept its own particularity, and thus denies (full?) catholicity to other churches.  This sort of exclusive claim to catholicity is from the Free Church perspective narrow, intolerant, and thus profoundly uncatholic.  To be catholic, the Catholic and Orthodox churches would have to understand themselves as churches among other churches.  But by doing so would they not surrender their own identities?”

–Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998), 259-61.


  1. roflyer wrote:

    This is a good book. I’m actually writing a paper right now on the communion ecclesiology of Ratzinger, Zizioulas, and Volf.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  2. freder1ck wrote:

    Heh. I daresay that you won’t find another group more diverse in practice than the Catholic Church in politics, ethnicity, doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  3. roflyer wrote:

    i guess this would depend on what you mean by the “Catholic Church,” the laity or the magisterium?

    Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  4. freder1ck wrote:



    Of course when I say the Catholic Church, I always mean the totality of the baptized who are in communion with Rome… the hierarchy, after all exists in service to the body. I would even claim that the papacy facilitates a greater diversity in the body than would otherwise be possible.

    Even so, the bishops are hardly evidence for seeing the Catholic Church as a monolithic group where everybody marches in lockstep.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Aric Clark wrote:

    The problem with the Free Church side is that very often they are just as exclusivist (or more so) than Roman Catholics. My Baptist family is absolutely convinced that unless you belong to their particular branch of anabaptism you are a heathen bound for hell. There is no concept of a “church among the churches” with them. In fact, judging by the Free Churches in Scotland that is also true there. I would say that as a rule the RC post Vatican II is MORE open to a diverse christianity than Free Churches.

    Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  6. roflyer wrote:


    Ouch? I wasn’t necessarily implying anything by my question. I just wanted you to clarify what you meant when you said the Catholic Church. Obviously, we don’t know much about each other. I would hardly suggest that the hierarchy necessarily facilitates a monolithic Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church as a whole is quite diverse. Of course, many Catholics would not welcome the diversity of the Church as warmly as you seem to, especially with regard to doctrine.

    Sorry if my comment seemed loaded. I just hear so many people talk about the “Catholic Church” and what the Catholic Church is about. My question always is, “where and what is the Catholic Church?”

    Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  7. freder1ck wrote:

    RO Flyer,

    I’m not offended but am moved by your perceptive distinction between hierarchy and people.

    I would clarify a bit on doctrine, by which I really mean theological ideas. There’s a hierarchy of values and some things are more central than others. Jesus is the Christ. He saved us through His incarnation, death, and Resurrection. He’s substantially present in the Eucharist. The Nicene creed (with or without the filioque, which Eastern Catholics don’t say). All these things (and not just them) are central. Beyond this core, there’s a great freedom in how to understand things like soteriology, ethics, relationship between church and culture, etc. Theologians can argue vehemently with each other and yet remain in communion.

    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is concerned predominately with the core of the faith, so when Leonardo Boff claimed that Mary was hypostatically united with the Holy Spirit, he received a correction, as well he should have.

    Most Catholics, sadly, are practically inoculated against diversity of doctrine. I was in a parish where the Vacation Bible Committee bought a Calvinist presentation filled with sola scriptura, etc, and almost NOBODY noticed. And this was not an isolated incident.

    Where Catholics get into an uproar is with liturgy, but really only at parishes in their area. Folks aren’t worried that the Archdiocese of Milan uses the Ambrosian rite or that the Melkites down the block use the Liturgy of St. Basil. But introduce hand holding during the Our Father or get rid of it – and watch out!

    Where and what is the Catholic Church? This is a great question. TS Eliot said that the church is always decaying and being renewed. If you’re looking for the heart of the Catholic Church, look at where the people are facing the problems of life together with gusto, where they sing strongly listening to each other, and where they are confident at tackling any sort of work in the world. Ask yourself, where is the Portico of Solomon today?

    Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 8:51 am | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    These sentences are plainly false: “The unity of the Catholic Church is uncatholic because the Pope (or bishop), to use Luther’s words ‘declares that his court alone is the Christian church.’ Its holiness is uncatholic because it maintains a distance from its sinful members (casta meretrix) and is never willing to pray for the forgiveness of its own sins (ecclesial sancta et immaculata).”

    This sentence is either incoherent or misguided: “The apostolicity of the Catholic Church is uncatholic because it insists too much on the form of preserving apostolicity (succesio apostolical), binds church doctrine to certain formulations from the past, and in this way renders them uniform.”

    For roflyer, the entirety of the reason that such nonsensical things can be written about the apostolic churches is that they actually have identifiable “whens” and “wheres” even if those are not totally clear at all points. I understand the general sentiment (much of it valuable and worth discussing) of the “criticisms” levied (possibly hypothetically) in the excerpt above, but they are disingenuous; both in their oversimplification and/or mischaracterization of the apostolic churches as well of their ignorance of the degree to which said churches understand the tension present in various aspects of their existence and the ways in which those tensions are sublimated and resolved.

    Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  9. roflyer wrote:


    I think you are correct to note the theological diversity within the Catholic Church, however I’m not always so confident that the CDF finds this acceptable much less desirable. I think that you have too narrowly defined this so-called “hierarchy of values” to the Creeds. Catholic theologians do not just presuppose the Creeds and the rest is up for personal reflection. Instead, there is a much richer and more nuanced doctrinal tradition, which includes the Creeds but also includes a bunch of ecumenical councils and decrees, etc. I think you overstate the freedom of Catholic theological reflection.

    I’m not familiar with the exact complaints of the CDF against Boff, but I tend to be of the mind that you’re probably doing something right if you’ve got the CDF on your back.

    Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  10. freder1ck wrote:

    RO Flyer,

    You’re right that the Catholic Church is broader, richer, and more nuanced than I have sketched in this combox. I would say that theological reflection is extremely free, but that there are certainly limits to what can be taught or published as Catholic. Balthasar respected Kung’s academic freedom to write what he has about infallibility, but that it would be false of him to pass it off as Catholic.

    Your CDF comment (which tacitly approves of a conflation of Mary with God!) tells me that we’re back in the same old territory of reformation / counter reformation apologetics – which bores me to tears. You ask where and who is the Catholic Church, but you don’t seem terribly interested in the answer.

    I’m not going to abuse Halden’s hospitality by continuing an argument I can have on any of 100 internet forums…

    Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Hill, clearly Volf is stating the respective critiques of the apostolic churches and the Free Churches in stark terms for maximum contrast. If you actually read the book you’ll find he isn’t the ignoramorous you seem to think he is. In fact half of the book is a sustained analysis of and dialogue with Ratzinger and Zizioulas on ecclesiology. He’s done his homework.

    And likewise if you read Volf’s work you’ll see that the problems Volf has with the apostolic churches is not that they have visible “whens” and “wheres” but the nature of those specifications. His own proposal of a Free Church communion ecclesiology has plenty of “whens” and “wheres”. That in itself is not the issue, and putting it like that confuses the issue.

    I wouldn’t expect you to know this stuff or anything having not read the book, or to agree with Volf (since you’re, well, Catholic!). But I would ask for the same hermenutic of love that you’ve asked for in other discussions. Assume the best – that Volf isn’t just a misinformed idoit, but that he does know something about his subject matter and just has a different take on it than you and yours. If you want people to approach the claims of the Catholic church that way, shouldn’t you return the favor?

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  12. roflyer wrote:


    First of all, I’m sorry our conversation is boring you to tears! Let me just clarify what I said and I’ll be happy to close the discussion.

    To clarify, my comment on the CDF does not “tacitly approve of a conflation of Mary with God,” because as I mentioned I have not even read the charges mounted against Boff.

    Of course, my comment on the CDF were intentionally inflammatory to make a point, which has little to do with the reformation / counter reformation divide. I do not have an inherent prejudice against the existence of the CDF, I just don’t like the constant suspicion of liberation theology, that’s all.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:


    Sorry for seeming to knock Volf. Although I have very little familiarity with his work, he comes highly enough recommended to me from various sources that I take him seriously wherever I encounter him. I had assumed (even if I didn’t indicate it) that the statements were likely for heuristic purposes and I wouldn’t assume they exhaust or even partially describe his actual feelings on the various subjects they address. I just wanted to make the point that many statements akin to those in the litany excerpted pass for something like descriptions of Catholicism when they are really just propaganda and have never really corresponded in any meaningful way to reality, and certainly not the reality of the Catholic church of the 21st century. Pardon me for being frustrated with statements like “the Catholic Church is never willing to pray for the forgiveness of its own sins.” The credibility of Volf aside, that statement is laughably ignorant. I’m not sure how anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Catholicism could think that. It is manifestly false. Likewise, how is the statement that “the Pope declares that his court alone is the Christian church” helpful at all when it rather disingenuously ignores the substantial efforts undertaken by the Catholic Church to clarify its position on that score. The church “maintaining a distance from its sinful members” is such a vague (and again, misguided at best) claim as to be likewise unhelpful. As for the statement on apostolicity, I’m still quite baffled by it: the Catholic Church’s apostolicity is uncatholic because it insists too much on preserving the form of apostolicity? He might be saying something, but the sentence as written invites an infinite of interpretations. Binding church doctrine to formulations of the past is a precondition for coherent doctrine through out Christian history and is a similiarly hollow “criticism.”

    Again, I really don’t intend to comment on Volf at all. I am perfectly willing to accept on faith that he has a lot of offer. But smart people write unconvincing things sometimes, and I’d be interested to hear someone address the substance of my points.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    To add a bit of a coda to my last post:

    I think there is a difference in responding charitably to a positive argument for a tradition that may find itself currently outside of communion with the See of Rome, and that is something that I strive to achieve (often failing, but hopefully with less frequency).

    My response to supposed characterizations of Catholicism is a different matter, and I’m afraid on this score “error has no rights.” Of course that doesn’t mean that Miroslav Volf has no rights, but I’m not under any obligation to read error with charity, and it would be a sin against my conscience so to do. This isn’t to say that I ought to try to burn the place down, but hopefully just to point out my problems and potentially gain some clarity if there is a misunderstanding on my part. If nothing else, it is an ecumenical exercise for all of us on how a Catholic might perceive what is written, even if out of context (and nothing is ever perfectly in context).

    The fact remains that this country (U.S.A.) and indeed the modern world, is built on anti-Catholic sentiment (some of it anti-Christian), and much of it is outright incorrect. This point cannot be ignored in any discussion about Roman Catholicism, as there is a prejudice against it hardwired in to our consciousness in some ways. Having grown up totally beholden to an utterly false impression of Roman Catholicism and leaving it behind only with the greatest of difficulty, I’m particularly sensitive to these issues. These threads of “ignorance” (and when I use that I mean it in the simple factual sense of “not knowing”) still persist in attenuated form even among well educated and thoughtful men and women.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I think that first of all, he is listing the criticisms made of the Catholic church by the Free Churches of the reformation era, not necessarily claiming those criticisms of his own.

    However, I also think your “reading” of Catholicism is a very specific one, and one that is not self-evidently the most accurate one to many protestants. For example, I think Volf’s contention that the Catholic church refuses to pray for the forgiveness of its sins has some weight to it. Now, like everyone I watched rapt and joyous when JPII apologized for the sinful actions of Catholic Christians in the past related to all manner of issues.

    However, why was that such a landmark event if the Cathlic Church praying for forgiveness is so utterly common and obvious as you imply? Why was it JPII in the year 2000 that was apologizing for the church’s treatment of Galileo? That took a little while, don’t you think?

    Does not the Catholic Church believe that because the church is the Holy Bride of Christ, that she cannot sin or err? To be sure, the Catholic Church always admits that its members may sin, but that sounds like too quick a shuffle-step to me. I’ve never seen anyone be able to make a meaningful distinction between the church’s members sinning versus the church itself sinning. Is not the church made up of its members and is not everything a Christian does done as part of the church?

    I don’t mean to ramble. I certainly agree that the Catholic church has admitted that its members sin, but I’m not so sure they are willing to say the same thing about themselves as a church. I think that’s a bit of fancy footwork, but I don’t think it really owns up to history rightly. But you may know something I don’t. Is there some place in time where the Church has apologized and asked forgiveness for its sins, as a church?

    Also, last time I checked Rome does think that communion with itself through the bishop standing in apostolic succession is essential for any group to be a church. Now, the Orthodox are a bit of an exception, but even they have lost catholicity because it only comes from being in communion with Rome. Whatever “clarification” the Catholic church has made about the ecclesial status of non-Roman churches, it hasn’t changed its position in any substantial sense. It pretty much insists that only the Roman church is the church. Maybe Luther’s statement puts the matter too starkly, but I don’t really think its innaccurate.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Re: #14

    Hill, I agree there’s lots of ignorance of Catholicism and anti-catholicism out there. But I don’t think that means you now can claim that as a liscence to not engage in actually hearing out those that disagree with you.

    Like I said, if you actually read Volf’s book you’ll find that he is NOT ignorant of Catholicism in the least. He had deeply engaged Ratzinger’s ecclesial thought and the conciliar documents from Vatican II, etc.

    If your line is just going to be “error has no rights” then I guess all conversations you have are going to be over before they start. I find that saddening.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    My error has no rights line was a bit of an inflammatory attempt at humor. (cf. Pius IX and his “Syllabus of Errors.” Actually don’t. It might stir the pot unnecessarily.) I’m not disagreeing with Volf. I don’t have enough of an awareness of his positive project to be capable of disagreeing. I’m just objecting to his portrayal of Catholicism. If the Catholicism he outlines in the paragraph you’ve excerpted is the essential element for the purposes of his comparison, then I can’t help but be suspicious from the outset. It is true that I haven’t read this book (although you’ve piqued my interest) but it’s likely the case that many other frequent readers and commentators of this blog are in a similar position, and on it’s face, the excerpt is relatively inflammatory.

    As for the sin of the church issue, I don’t have on hand any specific doctrinal formulations as to the church being free from sin while her members are not. I really think this issue is semantic. What does it mean for the Church to sin? Is that a coherent concept? I’ve always understood the “infallibility” of the Church (and by extension her lack of sin, if there is such a thing) to have such a deeply eschatological character as to be difficult, if not impossible, to sensibly discuss in a particular temporal context. This is something I’d actually really enjoy discussing and ought to research myself. I think the problem is that many Protestants ascribe a certain “holier than thou” sentiment to Catholicism, when penitence is such a deep and intrinsic part of Catholic spirituality. From the inside, I just think implying that the Catholic Church is unwilling to acknowledge her sin is missing the forest for the trees (or perhaps missing the trees for the forest). There may be some unwieldy theological formulations in circulation that obscure this point, however.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

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