The word “Catholic” has often been defined as meaning “Universal.” Many of us now take that definition for granted and assume that by universal we suggest a denominational universality under the Papacy. But as far as the etymology of that word is concerned this is not entirely correct. Catholic is a Greek phrase (cath’holic) meaning “According to the Whole.” This suggests an entirely different usage and understanding of who we are as a community of faith and it has implications for our own denominational identity and our pursuit of the ecumenical Christian unity.
In his book, The Changing Shape of Church History, church historian Justo Gonzalez explains the origins of the Cath’holic identity in the midst of Gnostic sectarianism. In it he explains how our canonical Gospels represent a theology of ecumenical consensus in contrast to the early strands of Christian fundamentalism [i]. One of the earliest attempts at creating a “New Testament” was not done by the apostolic traditions (Catholic or Orthodox) but by a fundamentalist Gnostic known as Marcion. In his rendition of Christianity only Paul knew the correct way to interpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and Marcion alone knew how to correctly interpret Paul). Thus Marcion created a New Testament text that was based on the letters of Paul and an edited version of Luke’s books. This was a way for him to create a scripture tradition that would emphasize his theological rendition alone. As a response the emerging cath’holic community recognized the error of sectarian groups like Marcion’s Gnostics and they instead adopted a consensual approach to Scripture. Justo defines this approach as the cath’holic model:
It was cath’holic in the sense that it was not partial, nor sectarian, nor even the witness of a single apostle. It was cath’holic in the sense that it was [according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John] even though Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not agree on a number of matters-or, I would even venture to say, precisely because they were different! The multiform witness to a single gospel was more credible, more universal in the catholic sense, precisely because it was multiform.[ii]
A Catholic is universal not because we submit to one particular authority (be it the Pope, Bishop or local Priest) but precisely because we are attentive to our collective interpretation of Christ in our lives. The best term used to define our leaders is as pastors because their role is not to be Church but to shepherd the Church which is the people of God (sensus fidelium) so that we can all recognize the universal voice of the creator as an incarnate word within each and every one of us.
To be a Catholic is not to stand in judgment on others based on interpretive authorities we choose to align with. Our tradition calls us to celebrate the Word of God as it exists within the lived tradition of the people of God. Like the Gospels our own shared stories may not all align with each and every one of us, nevertheless these various perspectives demonstrates the strength of a faith that can speak to various peoples and cultures. Cardinal John Henry Newman recognized the importance of a church that identifies itself “according to the whole.” At a time when the Church would retreat under a theological cloak of infallibility (Vatican I) he reminded the laity and the theological community that the issues that the Catholic community struggles with will not be dismissed and he encouraged them with the following words:
The voice of the Schola Theologorum, of the whole Church diffusive, will in time make itself heard, and Catholic instincts and ideas will assimilate and harmonize into the credenda of Christendom, and the living tradition of the faithful.