Alhough the idea of universality was highly developed in the Bible, catholic (καθολικός) is not a scriptural word. The term appears for the first time in Saint Ignatius of Antioch (Smyrn. 8.2).
History. In the first two centuries, two ideas of catholicity were predominant: first, geographical universality (with all its consequences, including universality of people, of conditions of life, etc.); then, in a subsidiary way, universality of truth and orthodoxy. See A. Göpfert, Die Katholizität der Kirche (Würzburg 1876) and R. Söder, Der Begriff der Katholizität der Kirche und des Glaubens nach seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Würzburg 1881). Saint Augustine, particularly, in opposing the Donatist schism, developed the notion of geographical catholicity. See P. Batiffol, Le Catholicisme de saint Augustin (5th ed. Paris 1929). In Saint Augustine also— and sometimes in Saint Optatus of Milevis—one finds the word catholica as a noun; it denotes the Church, the magna catholica, and not the fides or the religio. See O. Rottmanner, "Catholica," Revue Bénédictine 17 (1900) 1–9. However, the Fathers gladly explain catholicity by all the aspects of the Church capable of being universal: it is spread over all the earth; it brings the true religion to all men; it speaks to people of all conditions; it heals all kinds of sin; it offers men the most varied spiritual gifts. Thus, for example, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. 18.23; Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 33:1044) explains it.
The Middle Ages were to gather and synthesize all that the Fathers had written; hence the long lists of aspects of catholicity that one finds especially in the commentaries on the ninth article of the Creed, et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. See, for example, James of Viterbo, De regimine christiano (1301–02), in Le Plus ancien traité de l'église, ed. H. Arquillière (Paris 1926), or Juan de Torquemada (d. 1468), Summa de ecclesia (Venice 1561). An unpublished text characteristic of the abundance of the aspects of the idea of catholicity is one by John of Ragusa, Tractatus de ecclesia (Basel, University Library, MS A I 29, folio 302v–431r). The Church is catholic, he says; it extends to all places, over all times, from Abel to the end of the world; it has spread among all peoples (Rv 7.9); it propounds all the universal precepts, and not the particularist obligations of Judaism; it possesses every sacramental remedy, for every ill and every fault; it teaches a complete doctrine, which gives to all men all that is necessary for salvation; it is the means of universal salvation, for outside the Church there is no salvation; it is catholic in virtue of its worship, which is set forth in every way and at all times; finally, it embraces all men, the good and the wicked (Tractatus de ecclesia 2.11–12).
In modern times, the development of controversial theology gave some vitality to the question of the notes of the Church, but they were understood in a very apologetic sense. The Church is catholic, it was said, because it extends over all the earth; this diffusion, without being absolute, is greater than that of the other Christian communions and progressively tends toward absolute universality. The catholicity of time—uninterrupted continuance since antiquity—is of secondary importance. Finally, a universality of doctrine appeared, particularly in Suárez in his controversy with James I. For three centuries quantitative catholicity was emphasized for an apologetic purpose; see G. Thils, "La Notion de catholicité de l'église à l'époque moderne," Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 13 (1936) 5–73.
At the end of the 19th century, attention was given to a notion of qualitative catholicity. In the beginning there was reference to the transcendence of the Church in comparison with all the particularisms of nation, language, race, etc.; see A. de Poulpiquet, "La Notion de catholicité," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 3 (1909) 17–36. Later was stressed the fundamental capacity of the Church to touch and to transfigure all things in restoring them to unity in Christ; see Y.M. J. Congar, Christianity Divided, tr. M. Bousfield (Philadelphia 1939) 93–114. At present, there is insistence on diversity in unity, catholicity being the opposite of uniformity; see G. Thils, Histoire doctrinale du mouvement oecuménique (2d ed. Louvain 1963) 262–75. Since Vatican II the idea of the Church as communio has come into prominence, basing ecclesiology on the ontology of communion revealed in the Trinity and the Incarnation.
Theology. A historical survey shows sufficiently how complex is the catholicity of the Church. By catholicity one understands the Church itself insofar as it is constituted in the plenitude of Christ and is capable of expanding totally and universally in all its elements and according to all its dimensions.
One may distinguish, first of all, catholicity as note, as a distinctive sign permitting the discernment of the true Church—the universal extension of the Church, its transcendence in comparison with all that is particularized, and its multiform incarnation in all reality. There is also catholicity as property, which is an essential constitutive element of the Church.
Catholicity, like the Church itself, involves an interior and divine aspect, and an exterior, visible and social aspect. As for the invisible aspect, God the Father has made His Son the Christ, the one in who dwells and is incorporated all the plenitude of the divinity (cf. Col 2.9). And Christ has sent the Spirit, who pours into men's hearts a varied abundance of gifts. Thus engendered by the Holy Trinity, the Church is "the Body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fulfills Himself in and by all things" (Eph 1.22); it ought to attain the whole new universe, recreated in embryo in the Resurrection of the Lord. But there is also a visible and social aspect. The extension of the Church, the active presence of the Lord to all the world, the universal epiphany of the gifts of the Spirit are sensible and visible both in the Church—the institution of salvation—and in men and the effects achieved by its spiritual work.
Catholicity may also be considered as a gift and as a mission: Gabe und Aufgabe. A gift, since it is one of the constitutive dimensions of the Church itself, which is a gift of God, instituted by Christ, engendered by the power of the Spirit. But also a mission. The grace of the Lord ought to be applied to all men of all times "in order that they may enter into all the plenitude of God" (Eph3.19). Thus is achieved the fullness of the total Christ, the Church, which visibly manifests this spiritual plenitude in a world itself in a state of perpetual becoming. The mission is the very expression of this catholicity.
The Church is thus a mystery of unity and of diversity. As for diversity, it should realize concretely in its structure and in its daily life all legitimate diversity and variety out of regard for the Holy Spirit and the multitude of His gifts: diversity in spirituality and in rites; in languages and institutions; in doctrinal categories and philosophical systems. But this marvelous diversity would be only chaos without the cement of the essential unity of the Spirit, of dogma, and of structure.
See Also: mystical body of christ; resurrection of christ; church, articles on; catholic
Bibliography: y. m. j. congar, Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947–) 2:722–25. j. l. witte, "Die Katholizität der Kirche," Gregorianum 42 (1961) 193–241. w. stĀhlin, Allein. Recht und Gefahr einer polemischen Formel (Stuttgart 1950). y. congar, After Nine Hundred Years (New York 1959); Dialogue Between Christians (London 1966); Vraie et fausse réforme dans l'Église (2d ed., Paris 1969). h. volk, Gott Alles in Allen (Mainz 1961). h. asmussen et al., The Unfinished Reformation (Notre Dame 1961). p. althaus, "Sola Fide Numquam Sola," Una Sancta (1961) 227–35. j. meyendorff, Orthodoxy and Catholicity (New York 1966). j. pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago 1971). r. evans, One and Holy (London 1972). h. urs von balthasar, Katholisch (Einsiedeln 1975). k. rahner, Grundkurs des Glaubens (Freiburg 1976).
"Catholicity." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catholicity
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