It often surprises people when I describe myself as a Catholic Christian, because the association immediately goes to the Roman Catholic Church. In reality, Catholic is simply a word that means “universal,” and is particularly associated with the unity of the Church.
When, in the Apostle’s Creed, we say “I believe in the holy catholic church” we are saying that we believe fundamentally, the church is one. Political and secondary theological issues aside, there is a unity in our common, core confession of Christ that binds all Christians universally into one church. All Christians are part of one catholic Church in this sense and should be able to say this part of the Creed without feeling uncomfortable.
There is another sense in which the word is used, however, and that is to refer to “the Catholic faith.”
Jesus gave special teaching authority to the Apostles, who in turn ordained and taught leaders in the church, who came to be called bishops. For one thousand years the Church existed in relative unity under the authority of bishops that came together in ecumenical councils–gatherings of church leaders that passed down what they received from the Apostles and hashed out the theological implications of the Apostolic witness. As challenges to the faith arose, these leaders articulated definitive summaries of the faith and issued theological statements as to how the Scriptures were to be interpreted and Christian worship ordered. The one Catholic Church existed in visible unity.
In 1054 the Great Schism occurred between the East and the West, and with it the degradation of visible unity of the Church. Without a universally agreed-upon authority structure, truly ecumenical councils became impossible. By time the Protestant Reformation had run its course, there were many competing theologies, confessions, and particular churches.
Nevertheless, some churches (while introducing and perhaps over-emphasizing secondary matters) remained faithful to the pre-Schism practice of the Catholic Church and the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils. This doctrine and practice together, once universally acknowledged by all orthodox Christians, are what we now call “the Catholic faith.”
Today all orthodox Christians hold to at least part of the Catholic doctrinal tradition, which includes the doctrine of the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ as fully human and fully Divine, and the rejection of Pelagianism.
In broad strokes, the core of Catholic faith may be said to include:
This is the Christ-centered and authoritative faith we see in a visibly united Catholic Church for one thousand years, illumined by the Holy Spirit as she met challenge after challenge. This Catholic faith has been faithfully passed from generation to generation in the Church from the most ancient times.
In every place the the Gospel has been preached the Catholic faith has been believed, and it endures still to this day, with the majority of the world’s Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and more) remaining steadfast in their witness to it as the truth. Historically it is certain that this is the faith of the early church and thus–I believe–that of the Apostles. This is important because if the Catholic faith is the faith of the Apostles, then it is the fullness of the truth from the Holy Spirit and carries the authority of Jesus.
This is why I am a Catholic Christian.