What does catholic mean? | Henry Karlson


Lawrence OP: The Universal Christ / flickr

The Catholic Church is called the Catholic Church and not the Roman Catholic Church because it is much larger than what is found in Western Christianity. The reality of the Catholic Church is that its essence lies in its universality, its catholicity, and not just in the relationship people have with the bishop (or pope) of Rome. Because so many people, including apologists, have centered their discussions on the papacy, the catholicity of the Church is often overlooked; in doing so, they make people believe that the Catholic Church is just “the Roman Catholic Church”. And yet, this is not the case. It is the Catholic Church. What does it mean? What exactly does the Catholic Church mean by using the term Catholic to describe itself? The term Catholic means “universal” or “whole”, and so describing itself as Catholic, the Church implies that there are at least one, if not many ways in which this catholicity can be found, not only in the Church, but in the essence of the Church itself. One such way is to see how the Catholic Church is actually a plurality of particular Churches with their own theological rites and traditions united to each other by communion (the Eucharist, the body of Christ):

The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is composed of faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government and who, coming together in various groups who hold themselves together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the spirit of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should keep its traditions whole and whole and just as it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place. .[1]

This answer could confuse many, because it would seem contradictory to say that the Catholic Church is one and yet find in it many particular churches, with their own hierarchy, their rites and their theological tradition. However, it is because they are united in communion with each other that they can be said to be one. And it is this unity that demonstrates its catholicity, since it shows that the Catholic Church contains within itself a diversity of thoughts and traditions. The Catholic Church does not require everyone to become one and the same, undermining their differences. Rather, it allows them to continue in their diversity, to have the Catholic Church as a foundation upon which their diversity can build. Thus, their unity hides behind their diversity, and this unity is established by Christ. For, as Scripture indicates, the body of Christ has different members, with Christ as the head (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-27). While Paul’s words are often used to explain the diversity of people in the Church, they can and should also be used to explain the diversity of liturgical and theological traditions found in the Catholic Church. The particular Churches are one in the Church insofar as they are vivified by the Spirit of Christ: “The Holy Church is the body of Christ vivified by one Spirit, united by the same faith and sanctified. All the faithful exist individually as members of this body, all one body because of one mind and one faith. [2]

This reality, the diversity found in the Catholic Church, helps us to understand, in part, its catholicity. Because the Church calls everyone into his domain, showing that there is a place that does not oblige him to undermine his rich heritage and his traditions. Everyone is called to the Church and in doing so they are called to bring their cultural perspectives into the Church. Saint Isidore of Seville therefore said that the Church is designated as Catholic for this reason:

‘Church’ (ecclesia) is a Greek word translated into Latin as “convocation” (summons) because it calls (vocare) each for himself. ‘Catholic’ (Catholic) is translated as “universal” (universal), after the term καθ ὅλον, i.e. “in relation to the whole” because it is not restricted to a part of a territory, like the small associations of heretics, but widely spread throughout the world. [3]

For the Church to extend to all, for it to be truly universal, the faithful must not only go out into the world and call everyone to the Church, they are called to find what is good and true in the world, whatever is good and true in the cultures of the world, and show how what they find has a place in the Church. That is to say, as it is said that Christ is the expectation of the nation, the nations of the world have within themselves, in their histories and cultural expressions, all kinds of elements that already connect them to Christ, all kinds of elements that should be affirmed and promoted and not denied by the faithful. Again, it can be said that one way to achieve this is to allow for a diversity of churches and rites in the Catholic Church. It is important that the faithful find a way to live the catholicity of the Church, that is, to find a way to promote all that is good and true in the world and, with it, to embrace all the world everywhere. “The Church is everywhere at home, and everyone should be able to feel at home in the Church. Thus the risen Christ, when he shows himself to his friends, takes on the face of all races and each his own in his own language.[4] It is catholic, that is to say universal, because the Church does not require that all become the same, renounce plurality in order to achieve unity with each other. Indeed, making everyone the same would undermine the Catholic nature of the Church.

Furthermore, Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the Church is capable of being universal, of embracing and uplifting the great diversity of the world, because it is founded and rests on the most catholic truth of all, the truth of revelation that points to the totality of the divine and its interconnectedness with humanity:

“Catholic” is a quality. It signifies totality and universality, and its understanding presupposes a particular human attitude of mind and heart. It is true that the catholicity of the Catholic Church is above all a revelation and a communication of the divine totality; it is true that the reception of this revelation by men is above all a work of grace; it is still possible for a historical period to be stretched beyond its limit by this grace. [5]

Thus, the foundation of the Church’s catholicity rests on Jesus, who must also be said to be universal, watching over and seeking the good of all. “Jesus must be Catholic, otherwise his Church which followed him and which is promised to its fullness, could not be called Catholic. To be Catholic is to embrace everything, to leave nothing out. [6]

What is meant by saying that the Church is Catholic is therefore many things, all linked to the concept of the universal, that is to say, all linked to universality. His universality must be seen as a reflection of the universality of Jesus, and with it, the universality of God. God loves and embraces everyone, and this is shown and revealed to us in the way Jesus loves and embraces everyone. Jesus embraces everyone; thus the body of Christ, the Church, is meant to embrace all, enabling them to come together in communion and to share with one another their particular gifts and graces. Catholicity is therefore linked to diversity, whereas ecclesia, the Church, relates to unity; as there is a variety of persons in the Trinity, and yet there is one God, so there is a variety of persons in the one Church.

So what does catholic mean? As can be seen from the way the word has been used throughout this text, it is a word that can be simply defined, as Saint Isidore did in his Etymologies: “‘Catholic’ (Catholic) means “universal” or “general”, because all Greeks call the universal καθολικός.[7] Catholic therefore simply means universal. It is the way we understand this universality that makes us think, because if the definition is simple, its application is not. The Catholic Church is not only founded on a kind of universality, but on the universal call of God to all creation so that creation can restore the integral unity that was lost to it because of sin. Catholicity serves as a counterbalance to individualistic ideologies and the sin that underpins them, not by undermining the unique gifts of the distinct people involved, but rather by uplifting them and enabling them to realize their true potential lie, not separate the from each other, not separately at all, but together as one. Interdependence is superior to independence. The Catholic Church, in its diversity of churches and rites within those churches, points to this truth; it is much more than Rome, much more than the Pope of Rome, and to call it the Roman Catholic Church is to misunderstand the Catholic Church and its principles. It’s Catholic. It’s universal. It is meant to reflect the universality of Jesus, and with it, the universality of God. “A Church can only be Catholic because God is Catholic first, and because, in Jesus Christ and finally in the Holy Spirit, this catholicity of God has opened itself to the world, revealing itself and giving itself to that time.” [8] The Church is catholic because she represents and presents to the world the universal goodness of the grace of God, even if she is supposed to call all the inhabitants of the world to be united, that is, in the universal body of Christ.

[1] Orientalium ecclesiarum. Vatican translation. 2.

[2] Hugh of Saint-Victor, On the Sacraments. Trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America, 1951), 254.

[3] Saint Isidore of Seville, Etymologies. trans. Stephen A. Barney, WJ Lewis, JA Beach and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 173.

[4] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. Trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund, OP (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 298.

[5] Hanrs Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctly Catholic. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 13.

[6] Hanrs Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctly Catholic27.

[7] Saint Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 172.

[8] Hanrs Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctly Catholic29-30.

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