Ask A Catholic: Branches of Catholicism

Ask A Catholic: Branches of Catholicism

What questions do you have about Catholicism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below. 

By Mitch Finley

This is called “Ask a Catholic,” but are you Roman or some other variety of Catholic? What are your thoughts on the branch theory?

Indeed, I am a Roman Catholic, by far the most common kind. However, in addition to the Latin, or Roman, tradition, there are seven non-Latin, non-Roman Catholic churches: Armenian, Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian, East Syriac (Chaldean), West Syriac, and Maronite. Each of these churches is as Catholic as the Roman Catholic Church.

As far as the “branch theory” is concerned, the Wikipedia article on this topic makes worthwhile reading for anyone who wants to know what this theory is about.  The opening paragraph of the Wikipedia article is as good a summary as any: “Branch theory is an ecclesiological [theology of the church] proposition that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church includes various Christian denominations whether in formal communion or not. The theory is often incorporated in the Protestant notion of an invisible Christian Church structure binding them together.”

I’m no expert on the branch theory, but I do know that the official Roman Catholic position rejects it.  As the Wikipedia article states:  “The Catholic Church does not accept that [Protestant churches] are fully part of the one church, maintaining that ‘there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church . . .’”

At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s, declared that while the most complete expression of the Christian faith is found in the Catholic Church, authentic goodness, truth, and beauty may be found, in various degrees, in Protestant [churches] and even in non-Christian traditions. 

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an English convert to Catholicism and one of the most frequently quoted English-speaking authors ever, once said that non-Catholic religious groups, from Luther on, came into existence when they chose various aspects of Catholicism to accept and others to reject.  Wrote he: “I could not cease to be a Catholic, except by becoming something more narrow than a Catholic. A man must narrow his mind in order to lose the universal philosophy . . .” (i.e. Catholicism).

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