Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where's the "Catholic" church?

Steve, "Intervening centuries" as between 400 and 2011 AD. I think that the usage (‘catholic’) goes back much further, to around 100 AD, but it had become a proper name, a brand name, at least by Augustine's time.

Meaning is based on usage, not etymology. In this case, contemporary usage, vis-à-vis Sean’s illustration.

The reason a random pedestrian would point the questioner to a Roman Catholic parish church is due to cultural associations based on cultural osmosis. It has nothing to do with the pedestrian’s ecclesiology or knowledge of church history.

Rather, the major reason that even many non-Catholics associate the “Catholic” church with the Roman Catholic church is due to pop media influence. The pope is famous. He is treated like a pop star.

Likewise, for Italian or Italian-American directors and TV producers, the Roman Catholic church is the default denomination for their Christian characters or church settings. That’s true even when the director/producer is a lapsed Catholic. That’s true when he’s mocking Roman Catholic figures and institutions.

This is also reinforced by the fact that many American directors and producers hail from NYC, and give their TV dramas a NYC milieur. NYC is iconic, and the trappings of the Roman Catholic church are iconic.

Since, moreover, film and TV is a visually oriented medium, it uses a character with a clerical collar, names him “Fr.” so-and-so, has interior shots of a Roman Catholic cathedral, and so on, as a convenient form of narrative shorthand. Pope, bishop, priest, nun, exorcist, candles, vestments, stained-glass, sign of the cross, and all the conventional paraphernalia. That supplies a familiar, ready-made context for the audience. Like literary conventions.

If, on the other hand, the director/producer was Greek or Russian, he’d switch to Orthodox paraphernalia. Same thing if more films and TV dramas were set in the Bible-belt, with directors and producer who were native to the Bible belt. Baptist religion would be the default milieu.

Proper names are among the things we primarily use to indicate identity. If a company arises tomorrow, and claims to be "GE," but some research shows that this company is constituted by a faction of board members who broke away from the "GE" that has existed for decades, and continues to exist, then we would not accept their claim to be GE. Now, suppose that this "GE" company is formed, and justifies its appropriation of the name by claiming to be even more general, and more electric, than the other company, the one everyone refers to as "General Electric." Fine. Maybe they are, that would have to be demonstrated. But what is indubitable is that this new company, whatever they might wish to call themselves, whatever they might be, is not GE. The identity of GE is recognized by the name, and by the material continuity of the organization, acting as such, through time. New structures can be developed. Different aspects of essential roles can be emphasized, or not, at different times. Services, marketing, etc., will change over time, adapting to circumstances. The central idea, the essence, of the organization will blossom into action, growing and expanding, so long as the organization lives.

I used a better example, which you ignore. Take NBC. This was founded in the 1920s. It’s retained the same name over the decades. But is it the same organization?

Yes, there’s historical continuity, but there’s substantial discontinuity. It went from being a radio network to a TV network. Its programming has acquired a leftwing political slant. It also promotes queer characters. That certainly wasn’t the case in the 50s or 60s.

Finally, it has changed hands many times. Bought out by different parent companies.

So it’s pretty meaningless to say that NBC is the “same” organization throughout time. That attribution is subject to too many caveats.

In principle, you could have a brand-new TV network which only runs syndicated NBC dramas from the 60s and 70s. That would have far more in common with the historical roots of NBC than NBC in 2011.

Yes, GE changes over time. So does the Catholic Church. But in order for a thing to change, it has also to remain the same. Those who have left to start their own company can complain that the Catholic Church has not remained the same in essentials. But they cannot claim to be the Catholic Church.

You’re committing the word-concept fallacy.

When, for instance, the Westminster Divines speak of the “catholic” church (WCF 25), they define catholicity in terms of their particular Protestant ecclesiology.

You may disagree with their definition, but given their definition, they can rightly claim to be “catholic.”

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