Catholic Vision Is Communal, Diverse: Focus on Papal Power Deprives Catholicism of Inherent Richness

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

Catholic Vision Is Communal, Diverse: Focus on Papal Power Deprives Catholicism of Inherent Richness


Running through tonight's presentation is a concern that has been with the church from its very beginning, that is, how to maintain the identity of the church without suppressing legitimate diversity or without closing off its contacts with other faiths and with wider human community.

The right is always more concerned with identity (purity/excommunication) than with outreach and dialogue, which, they say, dilutes and corrupts identity. The concern of the left is just the opposite: Outreach and dialogue are what we're all about; identity will take care of itself if we're faithful to our mission to others. Truth, however, is in the middle. Both-and, not either-or. Both identity and diversity. Both unity and pluralism.

The meaning of the word

Catholicism is a rich and diverse reality. It is a Christian tradition, a way of life and a community. It is comprised of faith, theologies and doctrines and is characterized by specific ethical, liturgical and spiritual orientations and behaviors; at the same time, it is a people or cluster of peoples with a particular history or cluster of histories.

The word Catholic is derived from the Greek adjective katholikos, meaning "universal." Although the word is commonly used in opposition to "Protestant," its real opposite is "sectarian," which pertains to a part of the church that has separated itself off from the worldwide church and, to some extent, from the world itself. The Catholic is open to the whole of reality without fear of loss of identity. The sectarian fears such contact may result in loss of identity. The Catholic says we must also be transformers of culture; the sectarian says we must only be countercultural.

The quintessential Catholic, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, put it this way: "The church is called `Catholic' because it extends through all the world... because it teaches universally and without omission all the doctrines that ought to come to human knowledge ... because it brings under the sway of true religion all classes of people, rulers and subjects, learned and ignorant; and 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."

The word Catholic was incorporated into the early Christian creeds along with the other marks of the church: one, holy and apostolic. After centuries of common use, the word Catholic became divisive following the East-West schism of the 11th century and the Protestant Reformation of the 16th. The West claimed for itself the title Catholic church, while the East, which had severed the bond of communion with Rome, appropriated the name Holy Orthodox church. Later, after the ruptures of the Reformation, those in communion with Rome retained the adjective Catholic, while the churches that broke with the papacy were called Protestant.

However, some today insist that the adjective Catholic applies also to many other Christians who regard themselves as evangelical -- reformed and Catholic alike. There is some support for this view in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which broadened the notion of catholicity to include churches outside the Catholic church ("Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," no. 8), and spoke of these churches as possessing varying "degrees" of catholicity ("Decree on Ecumenism," no. 3).

One final point: Even in the strictly canonical sense of the word, "Catholic" does not apply exclusively to Roman Catholics. It is a mistake to equate the Catholic church with the Roman Catholic church. The Catholic church is not the Roman Catholic church, but rather a communion of Catholic churches, of which the Roman Catholic church is one member, albeit the largest by far.

In addition to the Roman, or Latin-rite, Catholic church, there are seven other non-Roman, non-Latin ecclesial traditions: Armenian, Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian, East Syrian (Chaldean), West Syrian and Maronite. …

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Catholic Vision Is Communal, Diverse: Focus on Papal Power Deprives Catholicism of Inherent Richness
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