Some of us have had the experience of bringing a friend to church with us and then hearing a question like this: “Didn’t you say this is a Lutheran church?” “It is! Why do you ask?” “Well you all stood up and said you were Catholic!”
What the friend is referring to is the way in the third article of the Apostle’s Creed we state “I believe in … the holy catholic church” (or “… one holy catholic and apostolic church” in the Nicene Creed.) So the confusion is quite understandable – in fact a lot of Lutherans have wondered about this too! And it’s not just Lutherans who use this language, but many other Protestant churches (as well as Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians).
The reason for this somewhat surprising choice of word, as is so often the case in Christian practice, is grounded in history and tradition. The Apostle’s Creed seems to have originated in Rome and used the Latin word catholicam which was derived from the Greek word katholikos, which meant “of the whole” – an expression which was intended to encompass every true follower of Christ, of all times and places. As is so often the case with ancient theological terms, this word was so loaded with meaning that it was adopted in other languages too. Thus, we get katholish in German, catholique in French, and catholic in English (also kaþólsk in Icelandic, in case you were wondering).
Since for centuries there was only one Christian church, the word ‘catholic’ was a natural way to describe it. When the church formally split into Eastern and Western factions in the 11th century, they both laid claim to being the authentic church and called themselves “Orthodox Catholic” and “Roman Catholic” respectively.
When Martin Luther and others later sought to reform the Roman Catholic (uppercase ‘C’) church they were motivated by the desire to purge the abuses that had crept into church practice and return to the pure Gospel as taught in the Bible. Thus they emphasized that their beliefs were catholic (lowercase ‘c’) in that they continued the authentic teachings of the historic Church – not a new invention.
As a rule, Protestant churches don’t use the term catholic in our denominational names because we reject the presumption that The Church established by Christ can be defined by or limited to any human organization. However, we Protestant Christians do most definitely consider ourselves members of The Church catholic – what St. Paul calls “the Body of Christ.”
So that explains why Lutherans use the adjective catholic to describe our beliefs, but not necessarily why we haven’t looked for a less-confusing alternative! In point of fact, it was common practice in many American churches in the past (and some in the present) to substitute the phrase “The holy Christian church” when saying the Creeds. But this really diluted the original meaning, since “Christian church” will normally be taken to be the generic human institution. Similarly, “universal” has sometimes been proposed as the closest English synonym, but because “universalism” is associated with accommodation of non-Christian beliefs, that’s not so good either. This seems to be a case where explaining an obscure word is preferable to using a more familiar one that doesn’t have the precise meaning intended.
But perhaps the best argument for retaining the word catholic in the Creeds is because it has historical and ecumenical significance. Though the various “flavors” of Christianity differ on many things, we all adhere to these fundamental statements of belief that we call the Creeds. About 30 years ago an Ecumenical Commission, working with representatives of many denominations, established a common international wording of the Creeds that most churches use today. Thus, at least in the saying of the Creeds, the many diverse branches of Christianity are proclaiming our common commitment to the catholic (universal) beliefs held by all faithful Christians of all times and places.