When I was an Anglican priest I once said to the (Catholic) Abbot of Quarr, “I’m a Catholic too, but in the Anglican Church.” He smiled and said, “You should understand that we Catholics define what being Catholic is rather differently than you do.”

It got me thinking. Certainly it is true that many Anglicans claim to be ‘Catholic’ but in the Anglican Church. Then on summer vacation I went to my mother’s Presbyterian Church and found that they had started to recite the creed on Sundays, so over Sunday lunch I asked my mother how she was able to stand up and say that she believed in ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ She replied that her pastor explained that ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal’ and that it refers to all baptized people who have faith in Christ.

I then discovered that this is the definition held by very many Protestants of most any denomination. I discovered Baptists who said with a straight face that they ‘believed in the Catholic Church’ and offered the same explanation as my mother. Therefore, when we hear Anglicans say they are ‘Catholic but in the Anglican Church’ I suppose we should accept their statement at face value rather like I did my mother’s. Another way she could have stated her belief was, “I am Catholic but in the Presbyterian Church.” Indeed, a member of her church who attends Mass with her husband says cheerfully, “I’m a Presbyterian Catholic!”

Other Evangelical Protestants might say, “I am Catholic but in the Foursquare Church of the Gospel of the Abrahamic Faith” for that matter why should not a sincere Seventh Day Adventist, Assembly of God or Member of the Television Cathedral of Tomorrow say, “I am a Catholic in the (fill in the blank) Church?” They all profess faith in Christ and have been baptized.

This pleasant re-interpretation of what ‘Catholic’ actually means is typical of the modernist Protestant. He loves to ‘re-interpret’ everything. For him the Virgin Birth does not mean that a girl who had never had relations with a man became pregnant and gave birth through the supernatural intervention of God. Instead it means ‘Mary was an especially pure and innocent young girl when she became pregnant.” He holds enthusiastically to the Resurrection of Christ, and by that he means, “In some wonderful way the noble teachings of Christ continued to be believed and proclaimed after his tragic death.”

While it is pleasant to imagine that ‘Catholic’ in the creed really means ‘all people everywhere who love Jesus” in fact, the phrase was put in the creed specifically to exclude those who’s faith and practice was outside the belief and discipline of the Roman Church. This page at Catholic Answers gives the evidence. J. N. D. Kelly, an Anglo Catholic scholar, writes: “As regards ‘Catholic,’ its original meaning was ‘universal’ or ‘general.’ . . . in the latter half of the second century at latest, we find it conveying the suggestion that the Catholic is the true Church as distinct from heretical congregations (cf., e.g., Muratorian Canon). . . . What these early Fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church” (Early Christian Doctrines, 190–1). 

Although we teach that the  Church ‘subsists’ within the Catholic Church. We do acknowledge an ‘invisible’ dimension in which the Church includes all those who are baptized and have faith in Christ, and we recognize our separated brothers and sisters as truly being our kin in Christ, however it is not historically correct to use the term ‘Catholic’ to refer to them.