Catholic v. Universal

Catholic v. Universal June 10, 2016

Writing on Catholic education in a 1990 America essay, Walter Ong pushed the discussion of Catholic identity back to the roots: What is the “catholicity” of “Catholic”?

“‘Catholic,’” he observed, “is commonly said to mean ‘universal,’ a term from the Latin universalis.” But this doesn’t fit the linguistic history: “If ‘universal’ is the adequate meaning of ‘catholic,’ why did the Latin church, which in its vernacular language had the word universalis, not use this word but rather borrowed from Greek the term katholikos instead, speaking of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ (to put it into English) instead of the ‘one, holy, universal and apostolic Church’?”

Ong turned to etymology: “The etymological history of universalis is not in every detail clear, but it certainly involves the concepts of unum, ‘one,’ and vertere, ‘turn.’ It suggests using a compass to make a circle around a central point. It is an inclusive concept in the sense that the circle includes everything within it. But by the same token it also excludes everything outside it. Universalis contains a subtle note of negativity.” By contrast, “Katholikos does not. It is more unequivocally positive. It means simply ‘through-the-whole’ or ‘throughout-the-whole’—kata or kath, through or throughout; holos, whole, from the same Indo-European root as our English ‘whole.’”

He suggests that the Greek term was preferred because of its connection with Jesus’s parable of the leaven: “Yeast is a plant, a fungus, something that grows with no particular limits to its borders. If the mass of dough is added to, the yeast grows into the added portion. Understood as Catholic in terms of this parable, the Kingdom or the church is a limitless, growing reality, destined ultimately to be present everywhere and to affect everything, though by no means to convert everything into itself. Yeast acts on dough, but it does not convert all the dough into yeast, nor is it able to do so.”

Not only does this make sense of the choice of terms, but it is actually more historically accurate: “Living yeast corresponds to what the Catholic Church has really been, for the Catholic Church has in fact never been at all definitively ‘universal’ in the sense that it has actually included all parts of the human race or even anywhere near the greater part of the human race. But if it has never been by any means ‘universal’ in such a sense, it is certainly ‘catholic’ in the sense that it has always been.”

Ong’s point is important and well-taken, but skewed in a couple of ways. First, while the church (or the Roman Catholic Church) has never been universal in the sense of including all places and races, it stands closer to that reality now than ever before. And this leads to a second point: The claim of universality is an eschatological claim, a claim about what the church will be, made on the assumption that the most essential reality of the church is what she will be.

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