As we close the chapter on another Easter, Christians worldwide have celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. Differences in worship and in dogma are widely evident. Most are aware of the hundreds of Protestant denominations, but some may not know that even the Catholic Church has its share of dissident groups.
It is a mistaken assumption, by many, that the “catholic” church is specifically the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Rather, the RCC- currently led by Pope Francis- is “a” catholic church. It is by far the largest, wealthiest, and arguably the oldest catholic church, but as this short article shows it is far from the only one.
For starters, what is the catholic church? The word “catholic” meant universal well before it meant something related to the current RCC. In short, it was (and is) the Christian faith as understood and believed by the whole world, passed down from the Apostles.
Many Christians pledge on a weekly basis the Nicene Creed, which was developed in the 4th century. In this Creed, it states “I believe in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”. To this day, many groups outside of the RCC openly profess this creed, including Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox, and even some other Protestants. This proves that catholic is not the same as Roman Catholic.
In the United States especially, if one states they are Catholic, it is assumed it is Roman Catholic. However, there are several other holy and relevant catholic churches in the world- and in the USA.
The Union of Utrecht is a federation of Old Catholic churches, none of which are in communion with Rome, that seceded from the Roman Catholic Church primarily over the issue of Papal infallibility around the time of Vatican 1 (Council). The “Declaration of Utrecht” solidified this movement in 1889. The Union of Utrecht is in full communion with the Anglican Communion (Church of England) and with the Philippine Independent Church.
The Polish National Catholic Church (which broke from Utrecht) in 2004, is another example. The PNCC is more conservative than most “Old Catholics”, and more similar to Rome.
Other/ smaller independent Old Catholic churches exist in North America, most of which are not part of the Union of Utrecht.
In addition to these examples, there are the Eastern Catholic Churches (fully recognized and in communion with Rome and the Pope- but these groups are fully autonomous with their own See):
Armenian Catholic Church
Chaldean Catholic Church
Coptic Catholic Church
Maronite Catholic Church
Melkite Catholic Church
Syrian Catholic Church
Why is this relevant?
Christians for hundreds (and even thousands) of years have prayed for and longed for a church that is precisely what Jesus and the Apostles had taught; one that is as close as possible to that of the 1st and 2nd centuries.
We all can agree that at times “the Church” has failed. It has become too infiltrated with political ambitions, power, greed, and ego. While it is led supernaturally by Jesus, on Earth it is led by sinful men (and women). Thus the Christian institutions will always fall short of what they could or should be.
Evidence of the strong differences of opinion and theology are found in the sheer number of Protestant (and Catholic) denominations that have spread across the globe. In some cases, wars are fought over these (usually minor) differences.
The Roman Catholic Church, with over 1 billion adherents worldwide, has had a tough time of keeping everyone “happy”, and in truth they have not been able to do so. Some of the splinter groups the RCC fully appreciates and recognizes, while others they are in discord with. However, just because a (smaller) group is not cheerfully validated by Rome does not mean that such separate groups are less Christian.
Is there a “true” Catholic Church? The Pope says “yes”, but many others would say no. In the end, does that question matter to God? Should it matter to us?