What does “Catholic” really mean?
In order to answer that question, to the benefit of Catholic and non-Catholic alike, I’d like to examine the core distinguishing elements of catholicity. I hope to reveal the inner logic of the word, which is the unity of the people of God in all eras, in every place, in dogma and worship, and in life and death.
Apart from Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9, which uses a similar phrase, “Catholic” is first used to describe the Church by St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the apostles Peter, Paul, and John, who died a martyr in Rome around A.D. 107.
Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
Since St. Ignatius presents the term without explanation, it is reasonable to take this title or mark of the Church as apostolic. From this point on, the Church is called Catholic by many early Church Fathers, including Irenaeus, Cyprian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine of Hippo, and many others, in a variety of different contexts. Augustine speaks of the Catholic community in each city being so notoriously unique that everyone knew who they were, though by this time many heretical sects claimed the title of Christian.
Grammatically, the Greek word καθολικός means “according to the whole,” or more popularly, “universal.” With the transition in the European and west African regions from Greek to Latin in the third century, the Latin equivalent catholicus began to be used as a proper name for that papal, episcopal, clerical, monastic, and lay society present in every city and region and organized around the city of Rome.
The most important reference to the catholicity of the Church is in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, in which belief in the Church and her identity is made an article of faith equally important to and dependent on the divinity and activity of the Holy Spirit. From the original Greek:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
The simplest and most enduring sense in which the Church is Catholic is hierarchically. The whole and complete Church, the Church that is truly universal, is the one ruled by the pope and governed in every city by bishops in communion with him, because she stands united under a single authority and listens to one voice: that of Christ, far above the din of political schemes, cultural and national quarrels, and ecclesiastical disagreements. This is the sense best understood today, and in this respect, being Catholic means embracing the pope’s communion; being subject to his lawful commands; listening to and obeying that bishop who rules in union with him; and most importantly, believing all that has formally issued from the Chair of Peter in every century.
The Church is also Catholic in the unity of its parts within the whole. As a society spread throughout the world, she holds one and the same faith in every place. She worships with one voice and makes one solemn sacrifice, though in many rites, and she listens to one teaching authority. Despite the fact the Church adapts herself to every nation and culture, she first baptizes them and then infuses them with one wisdom: Christ. Because of this, one region and another must exhibit visible unity in prayer, sacraments, and doctrine. The Latin rite cannot appear substantially different from the Greek rite, nor can Greek doctrine differ substantially from Roman. Each rite and tradition challenges the others to remain faithful to the Holy Spirit, the invisible soul of the visible Church. This principle emphatically excludes the practice of offering the sacrifice of the Mass in whatever style or liturgical orientation one pleases and casts doubt on the wisdom of reforming the text and especially the ars celebrandi of the Mass, not to mention the divine office and the other six sacraments. No less does it exclude the habit of some Greek rite Catholics and nearly all Greek Orthodox of pretending that disunity in dogmatic theology is legitimate diversity.
Is this all that it is to be Catholic? Far from it! On the contrary, the most important aspects of catholicity are invisible. Catholic unity at its heart is the unity of the Holy Trinity. It is the unity of the Son of God with His human nature, which He received by the gracious fiat of Mary, mother of God and of us all. It is the unity of the whole Church, the Body of Christ, with its head, Jesus. Lastly, it is the unity of all His members in every time, both living and dead, so that “God may be all in all” and that we “may be one” as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are, and that “neither death nor life will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28, John 17:21, Rom. 8:38-39). Moreover, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
In the final analysis, Christ is the Church, and the Church is Christ, and the Church embraces as her members all the righteous patriarchs and prophets of the Old Covenant freed from limbo by Christ’s harrowing of Hades. One Holy Spirit speaks of one holy God in one holy Church from Adam to today. In the words of St. Ignatius:
[Christ] is the door of the Father, by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church. All these have for their object the attaining to the unity of God. But the gospel possesses something transcendent: the appearance of our Lord, Jesus Christ, His passion and resurrection. For the beloved prophets announced Him, but the gospel is the perfection of immortality. All these things are good together, if you believe in love.
These principles mean that the Church militant, the Church triumphant, and the Church suffering all constitute one body whose members enjoy one communion of saints. This is why we invoke the names of our departed over the consecrated gifts at the Mass and seek the prayers of the martyrs and saints in heaven, confident that we can both help and be helped by those who no longer sojourn with us.
Moreover, because the one Church is as old as humanity, and because one Spirit “has spoken through the prophets in one apostolic Church,” the ritual of the sacrifice of the Mass, the celebration of the sacraments, and the hierarchical constitution of the Church militant are foreshadowed in the Levitical ordinances imposed on the Hebrews by Christ through Moses. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem forty years after our God’s resurrection and thirty years before the death of his apostle John, Christ’s sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist displaces and fulfills all the Levitical sacrifices and is that worship that infallibly pleases God and is offered to his name by every nation.
According to the prophet Malachi:
From the rising of the sun even to the going down thereof my name has been glorified among the gentiles; and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering: for my name is great among the gentiles, saith the Lord Almighty.
With this broad vision, and knowing we worship the God of the prophets, Jesus Christ our Lord, the necessity of liturgical continuity with the past becomes blindingly evident. If the Catholic Church is prophesied by and foreshadowed in the Hebrew people, our worship is temple worship and should exceed the glory of the Levitical cult in Solomon’s temple, inasmuch as “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). The mystical liturgical cult of our Church is foreshadowed in temple, tabernacle, and ultimately the garden of Eden, and brought to its fulfillment on that sacred night when Christ our Lord took the sacrifices of Melchizedek, gave thanks to His Father through them, transubstantiated them into Himself, and offered Himself under those signs in anticipation of his crucifixion and resurrection.
In conclusion, then, I’ll leave you with the fulfillment of Malachi’s words in Christ’s covenant, in the words of the Roman canon, which dates to the first century after Nicaea:
Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the glorious ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord, we, your servants and your holy people, offer to your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy bread of eternal life and the chalice of everlasting salvation. Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
Jonathan Pierre Cariveau is a Minnesota native and a convert to Eastern Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. He writes on Eastern Catholicism, Church history, liturgical theology, and Catholic life in the 21st century.