Many Catholics think that “Catholic” means “universal,” and they are correct, but they make the mistake of thinking this is universal not through history but just today in this current Church crisis. We look to the great saint and doctor of the Church of the 5th century, St. Vincent of Lerins, for how to navigate a Church crisis when many bishops believe and teach different things. St. Vincent of Lerins was one of the very, very few bishops who fought against the global 5th century heresy of Arianism believed by 99% of the bishops of his day. We will see below in his writings why “Catholic” does not mean “universal” (for example, as in an opinion poll of a certain time of history) but rather that Catholicism is that what has been believed “everywhere, always and by all” Catholics of the past, as New Advent quotes the great saint:
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no way depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers.
Here’s some other quotes in italics from the doctor of the Church, St. Vincent Lerins, who stood against the global heresy of the 4th century of Arianism with my analysis in bold applying it to the current global heresy of modernism:
What then will a Catholic Christian do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which in the present cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.
Of course, the first sentence might not be used by traditionalists but rather against traditionalists, namely, “if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith,” it should be excised from the body. Indeed, are not those today who attend the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) and hold to the same faith as our great-grandparents simply “a small portion of the Church”? Indeed, we are small, and some would say “pestilent.” However, St. Vincent of Lerins is again asking us to consider not only the 1B Catholics living currently, but all the Catholics who have ever lived. How do we know this is his assertion? Because he links the word “pestilent” with the two words “novel contagion.” Any new doctrine developed by so-called “Catholics” must always be seen as a novel infection affecting only certain sad times of Church history. The cure for the cancer of any such “novel contagion” in any dark point of Church history was just written by the Doctor of the Church: “It will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which in the present cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.”
So also when the Arian poison had infected not an insignificant portion of the Church but almost the whole world, so that a sort of blindness had fallen upon almost all the bishops of the Latin tongue, circumvented partly by force partly by fraud, and was preventing them from seeing what was most expedient to be done in the midst of so much confusion, then whoever was a true lover and worshipper of Christ [preferred] the ancient belief to the novel misbelief, escaped the pestilent infection.
Again we see that it is possible for God to allow 99% of the Catholic bishops of the world to fall into error in the darkest times of Church history, especially when Catholics live under a great punishment from God for their own sins. But the litmus test of heresy in a person is if they “prefer the ancient belief to the novel misbelief.” When there is confusion in Church history, St. Vincent teaches that those who have new beliefs are living in “blindness” but the “true lover and worshipper of Christ” holds “the ancient belief.” The ancient faith is the same faith that all the dead Catholics before us believed. Indeed, these dead Catholics are currently the most alive in Christ.
But it may be that we invent these charges out of hatred to novelty and zeal for antiquity. Whoever is disposed to listen to such an insinuation, let him at least believe the blessed Ambrose, who, deploring the acerbity of the time, says, in the second book of his work addressed to the Emperor Gratian: “Enough now, O God Almighty! Have we expiated with our own ruin, with our own blood, the slaughter of Confessors, the banishment of priests, and the wickedness of such extreme impiety. It is clear, beyond question, that they who have violated the faith cannot remain in safety.”
I was just telling a young family the other night that it is all the holiest priests I know (those much holier than me) who always get put on the shelf or suspended under false accusations while the corrupt and heretical clergy continue unchecked, nearly to a man in the 21st century. Indeed, the heresy of modernism executes the exact thing that St. Ambrose begged God to end: “the banishment of priests.” He lamented the sidelining of true priests, not heretical priests. So also we too must pray for the end of this punishment from God that He allows: apostasy from the top-down, as prophesied (most likely) in the third Secret of Fatima.
But in this divine virtue, as we may call it, exhibited by these Confessors, we must note especially that the defense which they then undertook in appealing to the Ancient Church, was the defense, not of a part, but of the whole body. For it was not right that men of such eminence should uphold with so huge an effort the vague and conflicting notions of one or two men, or should exert themselves in the defense of some ill-advised combination of some petty province; but adhering to the decrees and definitions of the universal priesthood of Holy Church, the heirs of Apostolic and Catholic truth, they chose rather to deliver up themselves than to betray the faith of universality and antiquity. For which cause they were deemed worthy of so great glory as not only to be accounted Confessors, but rightly, and deservedly to be accounted foremost among Confessors.
Notice here that St. Vincent of Lerins is basically saying that the bad guys of Church history always promote notions that he can only describe as “vague” where the good guys of Church history hold to a faith he can only describe as “Apostolic and Catholic.” Modernism has infected the whole Church, but it started as St. Vincent of Lerins said, with the “vague and conflicting notions of one or two men.” Indeed, heretics always use vague language so that they can be slimy and sneak away like a snake. But those who hold to Apostolic Catholicism choose “the faith of universality and antiquity,” as St. Vincent wrote. Notice again that “universality” does not mean that which might be erroneously held by most Catholics in an isolated time of Church history, but rather the saint directly links “universality” to “antiquity.” That is, the Catholic Faith is the Faith of our Fathers. Our Faith is that which is believed not by a bishop’s conference but that which has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” as the saint said.
But some one will ask, How is it then, that certain excellent persons, and of position in the Church, are often permitted by God to preach novel doctrines to Catholics? … The reason is clearer than day why Divine Providence sometimes permits certain teachers of the Churches to preach new doctrines — That the Lord your God may try you; he says. And assuredly it is a great trial when one whom you believe to be a prophet, a disciple of prophets, a teacher and defender of the truth, whom you have folded to your chest with the utmost veneration and love, when such a one of a sudden secretly and furtively brings in noxious errors, which you can neither quickly detect, being held by the prestige of former authority, nor lightly think it right to condemn, being prevented by affection for your old master.
Notice that God only allows good Catholics to be betrayed doctrinally by a bad hierarchy not so that such good Catholics go to hell, but so that they have a higher place in heaven through identifying the classic truths of the Catholic Faith around such bad leadership. Of course, it’s no fun having bad leadership in the Church but it is only permitted “that the Lord your God may try you.” Indeed, consider how many lukewarm Catholics have had to google classic Catholic teaching just the past two years alone in order to get to the bottom of a thousand conflicting opinions found in the current hierarchy. Even non-Catholics are googling the truths of traditional Catholicism not despite our wonky leadership but because of our wonky leadership. Glory be to God that out of this confusion is springing new converts who are discovering Apostolic Catholicism and our Holy Fathers. They are discovering the One Catholic Faith found in “antiquity,” as St. Vincent of Lerins calls it. The saints clearly teach that when confusion abounds in the hierarchy, “antiquity” is the only safe and guaranteed path to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one and only Savior of the world.