Now let’s be clear; we are not tackling the topic of “What it Means to Be Catholic”. In this post, we’re going to perform an analysis of the word “Catholic”. Let’s start with a brief etymology of the word, then we’ll move into a question posed by a Jesuit priest which will be answered with some supporting evidence from the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
To begin, the lowercase “catholic” originates from two Greek words: kata meaning “throughout”, and holos meaning “whole”. These two words form the Greek word katholikos which literally translates to “throughout the whole”, or as is widely accepted, “universal”. This word was later adapted to Latin as catholicus, then in French as cahtlolique, and finally in English as the familiar “catholic”. This is simply the lower case version of the word.
The upper case “Catholic” is defined as
“Of, belonging to, or designating the ancient Church before the great schism between East and West, or any Church standing in historical continuity with it, as:
(a) the Western or Latin Church after the schism (distinguished from Eastern, Orthodox),
(b) the Latin Church that remained under the Roman obedience after the Reformation”
That’s a lot of words to say that it means what you think it means. An interesting note is that the earliest recorded evidence of the word “Catholic” used to describe the Church is from St. Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Smyrnaeans written in 107 A.D. He was a disciple of St. John and was consecrated as the Bishop of Antioch by St. Peter and was deeply loved by the Christians whom he served. However, in a time of great persecution by the Roman emperor, Trajan, Ignatius refused to apostatize and as a result, he was sentenced to death and brought to Rome to become an example of the fate of Christians under Trajan. Along the way, Ignatius wrote seven letters to various groups of people. In his epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he urged Christians to remain with their bishop. He said, “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” (see chapter VIII of his letter to the Smyrnaeans in the link above). More about St. Ignatius of Antioch can be found here.
This is all somewhat interesting and is valuable as it is – it could be an interesting bit of trivia to have rattling around in the back of your mind. But, fortunately (on purpose, really), there is more to it.
Let’s go back for a moment to the Latin word catholicus which could be (and often is) defined as “universal”. Ah yes, I know what you’re thinking and it’s a very good point. Why did the Latin word, universalis, which literally translates to “universal” not make the cut? Why are the Four Marks of the Church “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” and not “one, holy, universal, and apostolic”? A Jesuit by the name of Walter Ong asked (and answered) this question in 1990 and I believe his answer is interesting enough to write a blog post about.
The word “universal” is thought to be derived from the two root-words unum meaning “one”, and vertere meaning “turn”. The phrase “one turn” implies the drawing of a circle around one central point which one could argue is an inclusive act that gathers everything within the boundary to that central point. The nature of a circle, however, implies that there is inclusivity and exclusivity, so whatever is outside of the circle is necessarily excluded from the “universal” boundary.
This brings us back to katholikos, or “throughout the whole”. The difference between “universal” and “throughout the whole” may not seem so obvious at first glance, but clearly, there is a major difference.
This could be viewed as a nitpicky linguistics argument and could be easily dismissed, but alas, there is a teaching given to us by Jesus himself that supports the use of “throughout the whole”. The Parable of the Leaven (or yeast), described in Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:21, compares the kingdom of God to a woman adding yeast to a large quantity of flour. The yeast is worked into the flour and is found “throughout the whole”, building the flour into dough rather than destroying or excluding itself from the flour. In a similar way, if a portion of leavened dough is placed in a measure of entirely different flour, the yeast will take on the form of its new surroundings rather than creating an exact replica of itself. It can be said that yeast, in this way, does not seek conformity; it seeks to work with and celebrate the diversity of whatever flour it encounters for the good of the dough.
If we are to be the Catholic Church – that is to say, the Body of Christ – we are to be “throughout the whole” of the world, not walled away in our “universal” circle. I think the most important point to take away from all of this is: to call ourselves Catholic, we must ourselves, along with our Church, be living “throughout the whole” of the world, lifting one another up and and welcoming all with open arms as we were taught by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In this way, we will encounter an ever-growing foretaste of the kingdom of God on Earth, as it is in Heaven.