BY DRASKO DIZDAR
Fifty years ago, at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church set itself a number of goals. Among those were opening up to the rest of the world and the unity of the church, indeed, of humankind.
The Council insisted that, far from being exclusive and sectarian, the church is only truly catholic when it embraces the living and lively diversity of everything that is genuinely human. As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church put it quite unambiguously:
All are called to this catholic unity of the People of God…. And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation (Lumen Gentium 13; emphasis added).
According to the Catechism: “The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole’” (§830). It comes from the Greek words kata (according to) and holos (whole). In other words, “catholic” means inclusive, holistic, open to everyone.
Let’s be clear about what “catholicity” does not mean then: it is not a fancy word for the religious beliefs and practices that make Roman Catholics different from everyone else (so-called “Catholic cultural identity”). On the contrary, “catholicity” denotes what unites rather than what divides; it speaks of communion rather than difference; of unity-in-diversity.
By calling itself “catholic” the church asserts that which unites and opens it up to all people, beyond all differences. Paradoxically this openness is the distinguishing and specific mark of its “identity” and the heart of its “culture”.
So, far from being a “tribal cipher” that merely marks the church off as yet another of the world’s religions, catholicity is a deeply mysterious and paradoxical process. It is a way of saying that we are discovering ourselves becoming something unique precisely because we find our differences transformed in a universal communion where everyone is welcome just as they are.
We are “catholic”, then, to the extent that we are open. Open to what? Christ and the world. As the Catechism makes very clear, catholicity is first and foremost about Christ: “First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. ‘Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.’” (§831).
Only when we are absolutely clear about the centrality and primacy of Christ as the embodiment and giver of catholicity, can we speak of its specifically human dimension and scope: “Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race” (§831).
Our catholicity is a mark of “identity” as communion, not tribe or institution. Catholicity is the means of our healing, our restoration to the integrity and wholeness for which we are created. In and through the church as “catholic communion” all humanity is called to participate in realising its likeness to the Triune God who is a “communion of love”.
Catholicity is the ecclesial way of speaking about God’s transforming humanity into the image and likeness of God as communion of love; an image and likeness we see absolutely realized in Christ, the One who is at once one-with-God and one-with-us, so uniting us with God. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it:
The essence of original sin is the split into individuality, which knows only itself. The essence of redemption is the mending of the shattered image of God, the union of the human race through and in the One who stands for all and in whom, as Paul says (Gal 3:28), all are one: Jesus Christ… [T]o be a Christian means to be Catholic, means to be on one’s way to an all-encompassing unity. (Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 49).
“Catholicity” is not a fancy word for Catholic tribalism, then, but a call “to an all-encompassing unity” that excludes no one since all are “children of God”, and equally so.
So, how catholic are we? The catholicity of our parishes, schools and other ecclesial communities has nothing to do with statues of Mary, pictures of the pope and “bums on seats”. It has everything to do with openness of mind, heart and embrace towards the world God loves and Christ renews by his life-giving Spirit.
Show me how wholeheartedly you accept the “other” in the “Wholly Other” become “One-with-us”, and I’ll show you how catholic you are.
Dr Drasko Dizdar is a member of the Emmaus monastic community, and a theologian with the Tasmanian Catholic Education Office.
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