A “Church”, however large or beautiful, is not synonymous with “Cathedral”

I’m not sure if it’s truly the case that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but I’ll admit that when USA Today posts an article entitled “The beauty of America’s cathedrals“, we can only quibble — just a bit — over the misuse of the word “cathedral”.

Different words mean different things. A tree is not a bush. A frog is not a toad. Sometimes it takes a little effort to tell the difference. Cathedral does not mean “big fancy church”.

For the record, according to the Church (the progenitor of the concept of cathedral), only six of the ten churches listed in the article are true cathedrals. Three others are Episcopal “cathedrals”. They are indeed beautiful (I have visited all three), and Episcopalians (along with the entire Anglican communion) claim apostolic succession. They claim it. They do not have it.

The final building is the U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel, a non-denominational building that is not claimed to be a cathedral at all.

A cathedral is not merely a grand church building. A true cathedral may not even be the largest church in a particular place. For example, in Chicago, where I became Catholic, there are other Catholic churches in the city that are larger and (dare I say) more beautiful than Holy Name Cathedral.

A true cathedral is such because it contains the chair — the cathedra — upon which the bishop sits. The cathedra is a sign of the bishop’s apostolic teaching authority and his primacy in his own diocese. For example, when the Pope, the bishop of Rome, pronounces something ex cathedra (“from the chair”), it is a sign that he, in that moment, is teaching with the authority of his office. You will note that such occasions are surprisingly rare compared to the countless “official acts” that comprise his daily work.

You’ll never actually see Pope Francis sit in his chair (cathedra) — the Throne of St. Peter — sculpted in bronze by Renaissance master Bernini and (purportedly) housing the remains of St. Peter’s own (wooden) chair. And it’s not just because he’s a humble guy; it would take a little doing to get the Pope up to that high perch in a dignified manner. A cherry picker festooned in velvet is probably not something on the MC’s shopping list.

chair

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