On Being Catholic

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.

ImageIn 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 Imagepeoples 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.


[i] Justo Gonzalez, The Changing Shape of Church History, (Chalice Press, St. Louis MO, 2002) p.70

[ii] Ibid., pg.71-72

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About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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3 Responses to On Being Catholic

  1. reyjacobs says:

    No. Catholic means that the guys in the mid 2nd century took writings from various denominations, lightly edited them, and put them together as one.

    In other words, the Ebionites had one gospel. Undoubtedly it had no name but just “The Gospel.” It was the proto-type of the Gospel of Matthew. The Valentinians had one gospel, just called “The Gospel”, and it was the proto-type of the Gospel of John. The Marcosians had one gospel, “The Gospel”, and it was the proto-type of Mark. The Marcionites had one gospel, just “The Gospel”, and it was the proto-type of Luke.

    In each of these denominations their one gospel was just “the gospel.” When the Catholicizers came along and decided to create a ‘universal’ Christianity by mixing some Ebionism with some Valentinianism with some Marcosianism and some Marcionism, they decided to canonize edited forms of all 4 of these denominational gospels. But instead of calling them The Gospel According to the Ebionites, The Gospel according to the Marcocians, etc. they gave them personal names and pretended they were written by particualar ‘eye-witnesses’ rather than by denominations. So instead of Gospel according to the Ebionites, you get Gospel according to Matthew. And of course, in the original Ebionite text there was no birth-story — that was added.

  2. reyjacobs says:

    This is almost admitted in Irenaeus. You just have to be able to read between the lines, for he does associate each of the 4 gospels with one of these sects. But he would never outright admit they were written by these sects. That’s just obvious though. That’s what Catholic means: Taking the views of the various earlier sects and mixing and matching them to produce something that will supposedly be ‘universal’ or more or less acceptable to people from every sect.

    • jdgonzo73 says:

      Thank you for offering the details regarding the historical origins of the canonical scripture. I am not sure that the etymological definition of the word “Cath’holic” is open for debate however. You may be accustomed to understanding this term within the contemporary usage of “universal” but the original Greek is more accurately translated as “according to the whole”. The implication again is that the early Catholic community, which by the second century respected the episcopal authority of the regions (Papal Primacy had not been asserted at that point), sought a consensual approach through their joint faith through a canonical scripture that (although edited) did respect the theological tradition that was being exhibited with these works.

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