Why is the word ‘catholic’ in the Methodist Creed?

Your Faith
Fr. Joe Krupp
January, 2014

Dear Father Joe: Why does it say ‘catholic’ in the middle of the Creed in the Methodist church I attended recently for a wedding?

I’ve gotten no small amount of “creed questions,” especially since the release of the Mass translations in 2011.Your question will help us kick off a special column that I hope will help us understand the creed we say at Mass and the reasoning behind some of the changes. Let’s start with some history.

The creed you heard at the Methodist Church was the exact same one you say at Mass on Sunday: it’s one that is said (or believed) by most Christian Churches. It’s called The Nicene Creed and it has quite a history. There’s a lot of bad information out there about this series of events and I hope to present a brief history that describes what actually happened and how we got this creed.

We start in the year 313 A.D. Two Roman generals, Constantine (soon to become Emperor) and Licinius (soon to become dead), met in Milan and wrote together a decree that is now called The Edict of Milan. In it, the two agreed that persecution of anyone for religious purposes needed to stop. Some people think that this edict was all about Christianity, but reading the edict shows that is not the case. Christians got special attention in this document because they had gotten special treatment in a terrible way for some time. This edict allowed Christians to gather and be public about their faith for the first time and was a source of great joy to the early Christian community. Either way, the idea that someone should not be persecuted for their religious beliefs was rather revolutionary thinking for the time. (Side note: Constantine did not make Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Theodosius did that much later in 380 A.D.)

The result was that Christians, who had been persecuted on and off for over 200 years, came out of hiding. For the first time in a long time, Christian communities from all over the Roman Empire began talking to each other and, for lack of a better term, compared notes.

The key thing to remember is this: every one of these Christians held their individual beliefs while knowing it could get them tortured and killed – no one was going to “abandon ship” on beliefs they were willing to die for.

One of the beliefs that some Christians held was an idea called Arianism. Arianism was named after a guy named (you guessed it!) Arius, a Bishop from Libya. Arians taught that The Father (God) and the Son (Jesus) were not of the same substance: that there was a time the Son didn’t exist and God created him. This is a complex point that we don’t have time to get into, but in a nutshell, it attacks the doctrine of the Trinity which, according to our Catechism, is the “central mystery of our faith.”

The arguing got really intense and the Emperor Constantine (who was not a Christian at this time) was driven nuts by the constant bickering and hassles. He called for Christian leaders to gather at a place called Nicea (present day Iznik in Turkey) in order to articulate and put to paper those things that the Apostles handed on to their successors. They prayed, they argued, they fought, they prayed some more and, in the end, they wrote a creed which is now called the Nicene Creed.

This creed is said by Christians of many different stripes all around the world and is held by many as a great gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. So, what about the word “catholic” in there?

The non-Catholics who say that creed are referring, not to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the word “catholic” itself which in Greek means “universal.” They are saying that they believe in “one, holy, universal and apostolic Church.”

Dear Father Joe: In the new translations, we use the word “consubstantial”: I have no idea what it means and don’t understand why we use it.

A. Well, hopefully, from the above text, you’ll get a sense of why we use it. To defend Christianity against Arianism, the Church Fathers at Nicea had to be clear that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were all of the same substance: none were created. To reinforce this, they used the word “consubstantial” in Latin. In the previous translations of the Mass in English, we translated the Latin word “consubstantial” into the phrase “one in being.” The people who gave us the new translations worried that that phrase was too ambiguous, so they simply put the Latin word right back in there!

An easy help to using the word “consubstantial” in our creed is this: when you say consubstantial, think “of the same stuff.” That’s what they are trying to make sure we understand: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are “of the same stuff.”

I want to close with this encouragement from Pope Benedict XVI. In 2010, he stated that:

Many will find it hard to adjust to unfamiliar texts after nearly forty years of continuous use of the previous translation. The change will need to be introduced with due sensitivity, and the opportunity for catechesis that it presents will need to be firmly grasped. I pray that in this way any risk of confusion or bewilderment will be averted, and the change will serve instead as a springboard for a renewal and a deepening of Eucharistic devotion all over the English-speaking world.

I think this is a good challenge for us. Most people I know (me included!) are still trying to figure out how to prayerfully enter into the Mass when so much of it is in phrases that feel awkward and wording that is hard to understand. But the challenge is more than worth it. It is up to us to learn what we can in humility and obedience so that our prayer together is a prayer that comes right from our hearts. Don’t give up, the Mass is worth our absolute best efforts, both intellectual and spiritual.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!


If you’d like to submit a question for Father Joe to consider in a future column, please send it to: joeinblack@priest.com. Father Joe is unable to personally answer questions.