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.
Read more at Word on Fire.