The Church is Catholic

Michael A. Hayes
It is one of the ironies of contemporary cultural ecclesiology that words which were used to speak of universal qualities have become to be used specifically for separate entities. Thus for example, it is common parlance to talk of ?the Church of Christ? or ?the Orthodox Church? or ?the Catholic Church? not meaning attributes or qualities of the Church but to designate divided denominations from one another. These titles can often be employed in such a differentiated way as to suggest superiority. When we say the Church is Catholic in conformity with the theological tradition that comes from the Fathers however, we are not using titles, but inviting reflection (and action) on what it is to be a member of the Church.

The word Catholic (katholikos) is from the Greek and simply means universal (kata- according ? holos ? the whole). In combination with the word ?church? it essentially refers to one of the marks of the Church (and is closely linked to ?One?), and was so used by St Ignatius of Antioch at the beginning of the 2nd century; but in the course of history it has come to be used as one of the distinguishing epithets of the Christian Church. The fact that the word Catholic is used as an adjective ? the Greek katholikos ? tells us that it is an attribute, or a quality, or a feature. Like the other ?marks? of the Church ? One, Holy and Apostolic ? exploring what Catholic means is an important task, but one that seems not always clear because of the way language changes and is used.

St Ignatius writes in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans: ?Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the Catholic Church (n.8).? Rather than having divisive connotations as its use developed through the separatist and sectarian movements and in the various schisms, and through the consequences of the Reformation, the true meaning of the word Catholic is in its unifying quality or feature rooted in the presence of Christ.

In his Catechetical lectures, St Cyril of Jerusalem explains to the neophytes: ?The Church is called ?Catholic? because it extends through all the world?because it teaches universally and without omission all the doctrines which ought to come to humanknowledge?because it brings under the sway of true religion all classes of people, rulers and subjects, learned and ignorant; because it universally treats and cures every type of sin?and possesses in itself every kind of virtue which can be named? and spiritual gifts of every kind? (Catechetical Lectures, 1, n.23).

Given the confusion of the issue of words, it is important to focus on the underlying truths rather than perceived denominational reality. To call the Church Catholic is not so much to talk about geography and numbers as to talk about theology and mission.

The Second Vatican Council specifically developed and proclaimed the theology which acknowledged that all human beings are related to the Church in a variety of ways, because all people are called to salvation by the One God. And the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the sacrament ? instrument and sign of that. (LG 14-16). Jesus Christ is the Universal Saviour, the mediator for humanity, and is head of the Church ? the Church is his body (one of the key features of St Paul?s letter to the Ephesians). In that sense the Church is truly Catholic ? Universal ? in that all people are called to share in the salvation which Christ offers and the Church proclaims wherever she invites people into the living body of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the Church, provides the constant energy driving the Church to bring all humanity to Christ. To use the term Catholic of the Church is to insist on the essential missionary nature of the Church ? it is an adjective giving impulse to action, not a title proclaiming grandeur!

Because of the Catholic nature of the Church, her members are compelled not only to a universal missionary impetus, but the same Catholic nature calls her members to a loving devotion to ?the bride of Christ?. This loving devotion is expressed by St Augustine of Hippo, the great Father of the Western Church:?

?In the Catholic Church, there are many other things which, most properly, keep me in her bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished in hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very See of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep, up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And at last the very name of Catholic, which, not without reason belongs to this Church alone.??