On May 24, the Orthodox Church commemorates Vincent of Lérins, a fifth century Gallic monk. St. Vincent spent the earlier part of his life as a Roman soldier, later converting to Christianity and accepting a monastic vocation. He lived his remaining years at the castle monastery on the island of Lérins in the French Riviera.
Leaving only a solitary written work behind, St. Vincent’s Commonitorium (ca. A.D. 434) is a treatise on the “catholicity” of the Church—especially as it relates to the then-contemporary Nestorian controversy, having been condemned at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus some three years prior.
So what does it mean, according to both St. Vincent and the Orthodox tradition, for the Church to be catholic?
To Be a Catholic Christian
The word catholic is derived from the idea of being whole or complete. The “catholic faith” is the whole, complete, and fully sufficient faith of the Church. The opposite of catholic, then, is that which is isolated, sectarian, and heretical. While many Protestants today have come to use the term catholic to describe a disposition that is accepting of all perspectives across a loosely defined “Christianity,” this is actually the opposite of true catholicity.
To be a catholic Christian is to be one that has accepted wholesale the entire faith of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. A catholic Christian believes everything that the Church believes, while these Protestants would say that a catholic Christian accepts everything that any Christian believes. The two could not be more distinct, with the latter having absolutely no grounding in either Church history or the Creed itself.
Universality, Antiquity, and Consent
In Vincent’s definition of the catholic faith, he summarizes it as that (2.6):
… which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.
By universality, Vincent means that the catholic Church confesses the one, true faith, which is accepted throughout the world and in all orthodox churches.
By antiquity, Vincent means that the catholic Church holds to this one, true faith as confessed and defended (often by death) by our forefathers and mothers. Their interpretations of the Scriptures, their sacred hymns, their lives and martyrdoms. For St. Vincent, antiquity is the reverse of novelty; it is the opposite of individualism.
By consent, Vincent means the conciliar and ecumenical foundation of our dogmatic beliefs; specifically, the imperial or Ecumenical Councils and other important local synods of the catholic Church through history, along with their canons.
For those matters not touched upon by an ecumenical or general council, Vincent explains that a catholic Christian must look to the interpretations of the Fathers and Saints, holding to the opinions most commonly found. And of these latter opinions, St. Vincent exhorts all catholic Christians to accept them “without any doubt or hesitation” (3.8). They are not mere theologoumena or “pious opinions.”
A Faith for Everyone, Everywhere
The Church is catholic because, as I have written elsewhere, she is a Church “for all ages, nations, and races.” No one is excluded from the great wedding feast of the Lamb by birth or tongue, and the doors are open to all who accept Christ’s kingdom with the fear of God, faith, and love.
By this, we must also understand that any semblance of racism, nationalism, ethnic pride, or exclusivity—of status, caste, or culture—is not only unacceptable as catholic Christians, but also a denial of the Christian Gospel. To be a catholic Church is to be a Church that has good news for everyone. The good news of Jesus Christ—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—is not a news conditioned by any specific culture, language, or race. There is not a single aspect of the Gospel that depends upon anything but Christ, as this good news can be preached to anyone, at any place, and at any time.
Indeed, in the catholic Church, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28). Catholic Christians are not so by birth or ethnicity, but because they have a change of heart through an encounter with God (Rom. 2:28–29)—for not all descended from Israel are Israel (Rom. 9:6). In other words, there are no “cradle” Christians; every member of the catholic Church is a convert.
It’s All About Jesus
Ultimately, the Church is catholic because Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.
The catholicity of the Church, as the Body of Christ, is—like all other creedal attributes, including holiness, singularity, and apostolicity—part of her very existence. The Church is catholic because she is the Church. And the Church is such because she is the Body of Christ, the pleroma or “fullness” of God (Eph. 1:23), as the apostle writes.
Catholicity is not something human beings can effect, either from within or without. It is nonsense to presume sinners could cobble together the catholicity of the Church as a result of either accepting heterodoxy or sanctioning schism.
Catholicity comes not from accepting anything that anyone broadly defined as a Christian happens to believe. On the contrary, the catholicity of the Church is a theanthropic (Divine-human) attribute, present because of the abiding presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Only by joining ourselves to his one, true Body can we thereby be truly catholic.