In the Creed we say we “… believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Those four words are called the four marks or notes of the church. Many volumes have been written about each of these marks or notes, but here we will look at these most easily understood of these words, that is the word catholic.
When most people hear the word catholic they assume it refers to the Roman Catholic church, the church headed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. (It should be noted, although this church is called Roman it includes many Eastern Catholic churches, churches that use the same Liturgy as the Orthodox Church but who are under the jurisdiction of the Pope.)
Because so many people understand catholic to mean Roman, some Orthodox who are used to the Creed in Slavonic are surprised or even scandalized to hear the word catholic in the English translation of the Creed. This is because the Creed in Slavonic does not have a word which is exactly the equivalent of catholic. So we can see that the word catholic can be misunderstood.
The word catholic is often understood to mean universal. In other words, the fact that the Church is spread all over the world, and of course has a message for every time, place and people, which is why the church is always a missionary church. Although of course, it is universal in the sense that it is spread all over the world, the word catholic has a deeper meaning than this. The word catholic also means full, complete, lacking nothing. This means that even the smallest isolated church is catholic in the sense that it has all the things necessary for salvation. In New Testament times, the church of Jerusalem, or even Antioch or Rome, were rather small in terms of membership and size, but each was fully catholic. It lacked nothing. So for example, there is a small Orthodox Church at the Russian base in Antarctica. When the Liturgy is being celebrated when a bishop or priest gathers together with the laity, the church is fully catholic. The whole of Orthodox doctrine, ministry and sacrament are present in that small, isolated church.
According to the late Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, catholic refers to quality rather than quantity.
This is why when Roman Catholics, even Roman Catholics friendly to the Orthodox Church, say that the Orthodox Church is not “fully catholic”, to be truly catholic in the sense they mean the Orthodox Church needs to be under the Pope. The Orthodox reply is that each and every Orthodox Church, no matter how small or isolated is fully catholic and lacks nothing.
This means that to leave the church for some reason is to leave the catholic church. The church may suffer many things from human sins on the part of those inside and outside the church, no matter how many seemingly negative things appear in the church, the church is always the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” as Saint Paul wrote in Timothy (I Tim 3:15).
In conclusion, we can say that human beings may sin and do terrible things, the church will always remain catholic. Give us all we need for salvation.