Will the Real Catholics Please Stand Up?

In common parlance, the word “catholic” is synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church.  There are a number of Lutherans and Anglicans around who refer to themselves as catholic – I’ve been one of those for around ten years now.  Some of us quibble over calling ourselves Catholic versus catholic, as some save the large-C for Romanism and the small-C for more generic catholicism.  Looking to the language of the Creeds and virtually all of the Early Church Fathers, the word “catholic” has always been used for the true church.  With that in mind, no Christian who believes him-or-herself to be a true Christian, should ever shy away from the label “catholic”, capitalized or otherwise.  And so, I’ve always tried to make a point of calling myself “catholic”, or, to avoid confusing strangers, “Catholic, but/just not Roman Catholic,” and encouraged those in my pastoral charge to think of us the same way.

But in recent reading of the Anglican divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, I see that insistence on our catholicity taken to a new level.  Not only are we, Protestants, truly and fully Catholic, but the Romans or Papists are NOT truly and fully Catholic.  Indeed, they never seem to afford the Roman Church the attribute of Catholic.  Why?  Because the Reformers believed with full conviction that the Roman Church was in error and therefore unworthy of the term.  How’s that for epic seriousness!

A few days ago I finished reading a classic short book from 1562, An Apology, or Answer, in defence of the Church of England by John Jewel.  This is one of those books that really ought to be required reading for every would-be Anglican clergyman.  After the official formularies, this is one of the most important documents in our tradition.  I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve been a priest for over six years before ever picking it up.

In it, Jewel organizes his thoughts into six sections:

  1. Of true religion
  2. Doctrine received in the church
  3. Source and origin of heresies
  4. Popes claiming headship of church
  5. Church fathers & councils
  6. Of great councils, abused by papists

In logical and charitable (yet forceful) fashion, he moves from subject to subject with a steadfastness that inspires.  He outlines the history of God’s religion, both Old Testament history and New, noting that the powers of the world always persecute the Truth.  Many a time, before Christ and after, God’s faithful people have been accused of being heretics, often by people and factions more powerful than they.  This brings him to the central issue this book addresses: The Pope (and the then-recent Council of Trent) has declared the English Church and all other Protestants to be heretics.  Is this a fair accusation?  Jewel argues “no.”

The first step of his defence, therefore, is to outline what the true catholic faith is.  He basically follows the order of the creeds: detailing the trinity, christology, the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology, the ordained ministry and the power of the keys, matrimony (of ministers included), the Scriptures, the Sacraments (especially of Holy Communion), liturgy and worship, and sin and salvation.  He backs up his statements with a number of Scripture quotes, but even more with references to the Early Church Fathers.  This is not because he’s light on Scripture, but because he’s showing that the Bible-based faith of the Reformers is fully in accord with what the Church has always believed.  John Jewel’s understanding of Protestantism is Catholicism.

He then goes on to address the question of heresy of which the Pope has accused us.  Because of all his references to the Early Fathers already, he is able to take a strong first swing at the Pope by declaring that if he would accuse the Reformers of heresy, “his Suit should rather have been commenced against Christ, the Apostles, and the Holy Fathers; for these Things did not only proceed from them, but it was by them also that they were ordained“.  He calls out malpractices and abuses rampant in the Roman Church and asks for their origin in Scripture or the Early Church.  He lists the ancient heresies condemned by the Early Church and affirms the Reformers’ rejection of the same.  He addresses the issue of division among Protestants with the observation that there was division among Romans, too, over a number of practices and teachings.  Yes, there were radical reformers out there with some very divisive and strange doctrines, but Jewel marks a sharp separation from them:


He then goes on the offensive, attacking the Roman doctrine of the primacy of the Pope over all other bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs.  He notes the many evil men who have held the role of Pope, he quotes many saints and fathers of old who held little faith in the integrity of the Roman See, and most importantly he argues from the Scriptures and the Early Fathers that Roman primacy is not the way of catholicism.  He digs into the Fathers and the General Councils (what we today usually call the Ecumenical Councils) to show that the relationship between Pope and Church claimed by Rome is not in accord with how things once were.  He calls out the Papacy for claiming a higher authority even then those great Councils, and argues further that the so-called General (Ecumenical) Councils convened by Rome in the previous few centuries were utter farces – how could a Council be properly Ecumenical if the bishops of Greece and Alexandria, etc. were absent?

The Council of Trent, especially, is discredited by John Jewel’s arguments, because that council, condemning Protestants, did not even listen to a defence from any bishop or representative of the reformed churches.  It was what we would call a kangaroo court – an instrument to carry out the will of just one man: the Pope.

Granted, a great deal more water has gone under the bridge since 1562.  In some ways, the Papists have really cleaned up their act; in other ways, they’ve really dug in to some of their grievous errors.  In some ways, we Protestants have recovered elements of catholic piety that the Reformation had set aside; in other ways, we’ve splintered and relinquished our claim to true catholicity.  Jewel’s book is out of date in some ways.  But the basic arguments – that Scripture and Early Church history are the foundation of Protestantism – are as relevant as ever.  It’s a real shame that we’ve lost the resolve of Jewel and others, and in many cases tacitly handed the Early Church over to Rome as if the Saints of old are more properly theirs than ours.  Protestantism is seen today as antithetical to Catholicism… and that means in the war for language and words, the Papists won.  Shame on us for surrendering!

Anyway, this is an excellent read and an inspiring text that will boost your confidence in the faithfulness of the Anglican tradition not only to the Bible but to the Early Church.  You can find a copy of it (with mostly-modernized spelling) online here: https://www.anglican.net/works/john-jewel-apology-answer-defence-church-of-england/

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
This entry was posted in Book Review, Theological and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Will the Real Catholics Please Stand Up?


    As a former Roman Catholic, I struggled mightily with these things when I converted to Lutheranism. I asked my priest MANY questions, but perhaps the most revealing one was; “why was it a sin to eat meat on Friday when I was young, but now it’s fine?” I also asked, why pray to a saint and not Jesus?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s