Why do Catholics call their Church the Catholic Church? Why not just call it the Christian Church? Is the Catholicity of the Church important? Is it Biblical? What does it even mean to say that the Church is “Catholic”? Today, I want to take a brief look at five things:
- The Scriptural Promise of a Catholic Church
- The Catholicity of the Church Today
- The Catholicity of the Church Speaks to Her Objectivity and Truth
- Catholicity of Time and Space
- The Surprising Eucharistic Dimension You May Have Missed
1. The Scriptural Promise of a Catholic Church
The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek καθόλου (katholou), meaning “according to the whole” or “universal.” It’s a reference that the Church founded by Jesus Christ is global in her mission, a Church for all people. It’s a view of the Church that we find in both the Old and New Testament. God repeatedly promised to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him and his descendants (see, e.g., Genesis 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4).
The Israelites and Jews had some sense of the universality of their mission, that they were the Chosen People not just for their own sake, but to bring the truth of God to the whole world. For example, Psalm 67 is a cry for all nations, not just Israel, to praise God. It opens (Ps. 67:1-3), “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee!”
But while there’s some element of this in the Old Testament, even the Old Testament points forward to the New Testament Church as being even-more universal. One of the most shocking Old Testament promises about the New Testament Church is from Isaiah 56:6-7, in which the Lord reveals:
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Put yourself in the shoes the Jews, and you can see what a shock this promise would be. By this point, Isaiah’s listeners have already endured the Babylonian Exile. Throughout their history, the Jews (and the Israelites before them) have suffered terribly at the hands of surrounding nations. And now God is telling them that He’s going to build a “house of prayer” so that they can worship alongside faithful Gentiles?
This prophecy isn’t alone, either. In Malachi 1:11 (NIV), God says, “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations.”
And of course, we see all of this fulfilled beginning with the New Testament, particularly after the Resurrection of Christ. We see this in a special way in Jesus’ Great Commission to His Apostles, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 28:18b-20):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
At His Ascension, Jesus likewise tells His Apostles (Acts 1:8), “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth.” Think of it as concentric circles, starting from Jerusalem and getting further and further away (and further and further outside of the Apostles’ “comfort zone”). This global preaching of the Gospel begins in earnest on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, where there were “dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). These Jewish pilgrims become some of the first hearers of the Resurrection (Acts 2:14-36), and many of them convert and are baptized (Acts 2:41), returning home with the Good News. Soon thereafter, the Gospel is preached to the Gentiles as well as the Jews (Acts 10:44-45, 11:1).
All of this means that the true Church is, from the day of Pentecost onwards, a truly international Church, Catholic in her mission and in her membership. It was St. Ignatius of Antioch, a student of the Apostle John, who gives us the first recorded use of the phrase “Catholic Church” to describe this Church, in a letter that he wrote to the Smyrnaeans around 107 A.D.:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. 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 [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
This is the earliest Christian understanding of the Church: a visible Catholic church, overseen by bishops, reaching as far as Jesus Christ reaches, and intimately connected with her Bridegroom and Head.
2. The Catholicity of the Church Today
Although many opponents of the Catholic Church will refer to her derisively as “Rome,” the truth is that the Church truly is Catholic. For example, the Pew Forum notes that the Church has become more international (and less specifically European) even over this past century:
And the 10 countries with the most Catholics are spread out over North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa:
So why does all of this matter? Is it important for the Church to be “multicultural”? Why would God go to the lengths of promising a Church that’s truly Catholic?
3. The Catholicity of the Church Speaks to Her Objectivity and Truth
Last week, a guy I was speaking to (a convert to Catholicism) said, “I realized that if Catholicism were true, it’s true in America or South Africa or Brazil.” That nails it. In the era before Christ, one of the major problems was the idea of “local” gods, tying particular places to particular deities. Even David, while on the run from King Saul, laments (1 Samuel 26:18-19):
Why does my lord pursue after his servant? For what have I done? What guilt is on my hands? Now therefore let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it is the Lord who has stirred you up against me, may he accept an offering; but if it is men, may they be cursed before the Lord, for they have driven me out this day that I should have no share in the heritage of the Lord, saying, “Go, serve other gods.”
David seems concerned that Saul is going to drive him out of the Lord’s land, Israel, and force him into paganism. God constantly corrects the Israelites for this narrowness of vision: after all, He is the God who brought them out of Egypt. This is colorfully illustrated in the life of the prophet Jonah. After God calls Jonah to preach to the Gentiles in Nineveh, Jonah runs away (Jonah 1:1-3):
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amit′tai, saying, “Arise, go to Nin′eveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
But of course, Jonah can’t actually get “away from the presence of the Lord,” and on some level he realizes this. The God of Israel is, whether Jonah likes it or not, also the God of Nineveh. And so we find an ironic moment when God disrupts Jonah’s flight (Jonah 1:4-9):
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.
So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.” And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
Jonah’s profession of faith reveals the absurdity of his voyage. He’s trying to run away from the God of Heaven, the God who made the sea, by… going out to sea. King David also comes to a deeper understanding of the universality of God, as he proclaims in Psalm 139:7-10:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Today, the problem is less that people will have religions tied to particular places (although there may be remnants of this in certain eastern religions, like Shintoism). Instead, we deal with cultural relativism, which turns out not to be so different: the idea that Christianity is true for me or for my culture, but something else is true for you or your culture. But the Christian response remains the same as it ever was: the God of Abraham is the God of Heaven. He created the heavens and the earth, the whole of the universe. He existed before any culture existed on the earth, and He will exist after the last culture disappears. He reveals Himself throughout Creation itself (Psalm 19:1) as well as through the prophets, and the truth about Him is not dependent upon our language, race, or culture.
And here’s the thing: as Catholics, we can point to the fact that Catholicism is clearly not dependent upon a particular race, culture, or language as proof of the universality and objectivity of the Catholic claim. To put it another way: if your religion is true, we should expect to see it practiced by people around the world. Catholicism passes that test in a way that few other religions or churches can.
4. Catholicity of Time and Space
If the catholicity of the Church means that we should find the same thing being believed around the world, it also means that we should find the same thing being believed throughout the ages, from the time that Christianity was first revealed in its fullness onward. Geographical catholicity says, if it’s true, it’s true here and there. Temporal catholicity says, if it’s true, it’s true now as then.
Of course, it takes time for the Gospel to reach all the ends of the earth (and in some ways, that’s a process still ongoing), and it takes time to fully understand the Gospel (and in some ways, that’s a process still ongoing), but you shouldn’t have to be American or living in the 21st century to hold your views of Christianity, if those views are true. Of course this means that you can’t say that everyone in the centuries preceding the Reformation was a heretic, or that everyone prior to you failed to get what the Gospel was really about. But it also shows why we Christians should be extremely interested in Tradition and in listening to what our forebears in the faith had to say about the truth of the Gospel. This is another aspect to the Church’s catholicity, and another hallmark of the truth of her claims.
5. The Surprising Eucharistic Dimension You May Have Missed
You may not have noticed, but there’s been a subtle thread running through this discussion of Catholicity: it’s intimately connected with the the Sacrifice of the Mass. Look at the evidence again. Isaiah 56 talks about how the Gentiles’ “burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,” and Malachi likewise refers to the Gentiles sacrificing “pure offerings” in God’s house of prayer. What does this sacrificial worship look like in the New Covenant? St. Ignatius is clear: “a proper Eucharist,” administered either “by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.” St. Paul is also clear, comparing the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Jewish temple sacrifice and even to pagan sacrifices (1 Corinthians 10:16-21).
So it’s in the Eucharist that we see this Catholic unity in a special way. Personally, I’ve been to Mass in at least two dozen different countries, sometimes in languages (like Maltese or Cantonese) of which I didn’t speak a word. But because we’re offering one and the same Eucharistic sacrifice, we could pray together across cultural and even linguistic borders without much trouble.
I think that this framework is crucial for understanding John 4, in which Jesus speaks of worshiping “in spirit and truth” while speaking to the Samaritan woman on Mount Gerizim (John 4:19-24):
The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
This passage is frequently misunderstood by Protestants. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote a famous Letter to a Roman Catholic. It’s worth the read, marking both how things have changed for the better (Catholics and Protestants, generally speaking, have much more affection and trust for one another today than they did in 1749, when Wesley wrote) and for the worse (Wesley speaks of belief in the “blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin” as one of the things that he and Catholics have in common; how many Protestants today can say the same?). In any event, even Wesley seems to fall into a common misreading of John 4:23-24:
I say not a word to you about your opinions or outward manner of worship. But I say, all worship is an abomination to the Lord, unless you worship Him in spirit and in truth, with your heart as wall as your lips, with your spirit and with your understanding also. Be your form of worship what it will, but in everything give Him thanks, else it is all but lost labor. Use whatever outward observances you please; but put your whole trust in Him, but honor His holy name and His Word, and serve Him truly all the days of your life.
Perhaps you’ve heard some variation of this before: “denominations” don’t matter, since it’s all about “spirit and truth.” In this reading, there are usually three elements: (1) a belief that the Jews and Samaritans thought you could only pray to God in specific spots, like Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim; (2) a belief that Catholics think you need to be in a Catholic church to pray; and (3) the idea that Jesus’ words liberate us from this, and from any sort of rubric, leaving us to “use whatever outward observances you please.” All three of these views are wrong.
First, it’s not true that the Jews and Samaritans thought you could only worship in those particular places. In Matthew 6:5, Jesus warns that “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners.” But note, He’s not saying that they think you can only pray on a particular mountain or in a particular city. Even these hypocrites realize that you can pray in synagogues and even out on the street. And of course, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 9:5), which wouldn’t be possible if the only place that the Jews worshiped was in Jerusalem.
Second, it’s not true that Catholics are obsessed with the “location” of worship. I’ve been to Masses in cathedrals and churches, but also in non-denominational chapels, gymnasiums, living rooms, and even lawns and campsites. And in terms of worshiping in general, hopefully that’s happening literally everywhere we are.
Third, it’s not true that Jesus is encouraging us to “use whatever outward observances you please.” The whole notion of worshiping in truth as well as in spirit suggests that there are right and wrong ways to worship (and particularly if we understand the act of worship as offering sacrifice). God went to great lengths to teach the Jews how to, and how not to, worship Him. He didn’t intend for all of that education to be simply discarded.
So what is going on here? What Jesus and the Samaritan woman were talking about was a particular kind of worship: sacrifice. The Samaritans believed (and still believe) that the Passover Sacrifice should be offered on Mt. Gerizim. The Jews celebrated the sacrifice in Jerusalem. So Jesus is saying the same thing that Isaiah and Malachi (and Ignatius and countless others) said: that in the New Covenant, the Sacrifice can be offered anywhere. Properly understood, this is a reference to the Sacrifice of the Mass, and that the fact that the Church instituted by Christ was founded to be truly Catholic and to offer the Mass throughout the world.