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Daniel P. Horan, OFM Headshot

'Catholic' Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

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If you were to ask a stranger on the street or the co-worker at the water cooler what first comes to mind when they hear the word Catholic, chances are good that you might get a response like "the Vatican," "the Pope" or "the Mass." If you were to press further, you might even get a response that comes from the colloquial use of the term according to the English dictionary: a synonym for "universal." On the surface, both answers would be generally correct.

However, the origin of the word and its usage in Christianity for millennia suggests something quite different from what we might initially think. And what it really means has profound implications for what it means to be a Christian in the world and how we should conceive of being "church."

In 1990 the now-late Jesuit scholar of English literature and philosophy, Walter Ong, S.J., wrote an essay for America magazine that responded to the perennial question for educators in Catholic institutions of higher education: How does such a school incorporate this nebulous concept "catholic identity" into its mission in a tangible way?

Ong's contribution was to look at the meaning of the word catholic itself to get a better handle on the task at hand. What he revealed bears broader ramifications than simply helping Catholic colleges and universities develop their mission.

His insight should radically challenge our understanding of what it means to be a Christian (especially a Catholic Christian) in the world.

The centerpiece of his research is the etymology or origin of the word "catholic." While we do commonly use it to mean "universal," Ong points out that the Latin or Roman Church (as distinct from the Orthodox or Eastern Church) had a word for universal in Latin -- universalis. Ong asked:

If "universal" is the adequate meaning of "catholic," why did the Latin church, which in its vernacular language had the word universalis, not use this word but rather borrowed from Greek the term katholikos instead, speaking of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church (to put it into English) instead of the "one, holy, universal and apostolic church"?

Great question!

Ong explains that it has a theological and practical significance. The origin of "universal" in Latin likely comes from the two root-words unum (meaning "one") and vertere (meaning "turn"). The image it evokes is something like an architect's compass, which is used to make a circle around "one" central point.

Universal does bear a certain sense of inclusivity, for it gathers everything and everyone that is within the boundary of that line drawn around the circle. Yet, by virtue of the boundary or circle, it necessarily implies exclusion for whatever and whoever falls outside of the "universal" line.

By contrast, katholikos comes from two Greek words: kata or kath (meaning "through" or "throughout") and holos (meaning "whole"). This notion of "throughout-the-whole" carries no notion of boundary or lines drawn that demarcate those who are "in" and those who are "out."

The point, Ong suggests, is that the life, ministry and preaching of Jesus of Nazareth also supports this notion of katholikos -- "Catholic" -- rather than a more exclusive notion of the church as "universal." He points to Jesus's very short parable of "the yeast" found in Matthew 13:33 (and Luke 13:21), in which Jesus likens the Kingdom or Reign of God to a woman who makes bread.

The Kingdom of God is said to be like the yeast that is added to flour and is found "throughout-the-whole" of the dough, building it up, not destroying or separating the flour, but becoming one-with, part-of, and mutually benefiting from and contributing to the life of bread.

Ong is quick to point out how non-colonial yeast is. In its own organic way, it inculturates and accepts the ingredients in which it finds itself. One can even take starter dough from one type of bread and add it to an entirely different type of flour and the yeast appropriates the form of its surrounding, and does not turn the new ingredients into a replica of itself.

Yeast, in its true catholicity and insofar as yeast can in its own way, does not seek conformity in this regard, but works with and celebrates the diversity of flour and ingredients it encounters.

It doesn't take much imagination to see how these two conceptualizations of "catholic" can inform and shape our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the world.

The "universal" approach, one that draws lines and is inclusive only of those within a certain proximity to the "one point" around which the boundary is marked, is represented by those who are constantly concerned about who is in and who is out. Those who talk about the church as leaner, smaller, more "orthodox" are more likely to see boundaries between "the church" and "the world" as a good thing.

On the other hand, the "catholic" approach, one that recognizes the call for the enacting of the Reign of God "throughout-the-whole" of the world, sees the church as inclusive because it is to be found without separation from, but instead exists as part of the world and society. Those who talk about the church as in the world and not apart from it, follow in the pathway of the Second Vatican Council's document Gaudium et Spes, "The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the World."

As we begin celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, this need to remember what the relationship of the church to the world is becomes especially important. There remains too much discriminatory and exclusive talk about the church in this "universal" key. Some church leaders have made it quite clear that they see "the world" (as if it were something apart from the church and the People of God that constitute the church) as a threat to Christianity. The implication is that we must re-inscribe the boundaries, literally encircle ourselves around a singular point, and exclude those who do not happen to fall, as it were, "in line."

In an odd linguistic turn, perhaps what's needed more than ever is for Christians of all sorts, but especially Roman Catholics, to become more catholic.

We need to see ourselves and understand our Church (which is the Body of Christ) as living and moving "throughout-the-whole," as mutually building each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and as welcoming all with open arms as Jesus did.