Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.   

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