Small ‘c’ catholic
Our Lord concludes His parables of the Kingdom with that of the dragnet: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind.” (Mt 13:47) This serves as a kind of bookend to the first parable of the Kingdom – the weeds among the wheat. Like the first, this last parable teaches that the imperfections of the Kingdom on earth will be sorted out (literally) at the end of the world.
But on its way to that lesson, the parable teaches us something else about the Kingdom and therefore about the Church. The net cast into the sea collects “fish of every kind.” Yes, this means good and bad, as we learn – but good and bad from fish of every kind. Which indicates the catholic character of the Kingdom, and of the Church.
People typically think of the word “Catholic” (capital “C”) as part of a brand name: the Catholic Church. So we might overlook the significance of the small-“c” catholic. The word “catholic” means universal. It indicates something whole and entire, bringing various parts into unity. We can understand the catholic nature of the Church by way of her threefold mission: to rule, to teach, and to sanctify.
First, the Church is catholic – universal – in the most common sense of that word: she is meant for all people. Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson observes that as our Lord attracted every sort of person – ignorant shepherds and wise men, poor and rich, sinners and saints, Jews and gentiles – so also does His Body, the Church.
The society that is the Church embraces people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues.” (Rev 7:9) She excludes no people and no kind of people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
In this sense, the Church is the most democratic institution in the world. She leaves no one outside her maternal solicitude and pastoral care. She has no class or caste system, no screening process or entrance exam. She requires (as her Lord did) only repentance and faith. At the same time, we cannot reduce her universal mission to something so trivial as “all are welcome in this place.” Which brings us to the second aspect of “catholic.”
The catholic mark of the Church does not mean merely that she welcomes all peoples. After all, Hell does the same. No, the Church not only welcomes all peoples but also brings them into unity. She unites all the disparate people of the earth in the truth. All become one because all profess the same faith. And without this principle of unity, the gathering of all people would be hellish indeed.
So we can also understand the Church as catholic because she possesses all truth. (By which is meant, of course, the truths about God, man, and salvation. The Church makes no claim to have the all the truths of science, politics, etc.)
Now, every religion possesses some aspect of the truth. They all see the truth somewhat, with varying degrees of clarity. But only the Church possesses and proclaims the fullness of the truth, of God’s revelation. This is a consequence of her being the Body, the continuing presence, of Him Who is the truth. (see Jn 14:6)
To be catholic, then, means to accept all the Church’s teachings, not just those we prefer. Likewise, it requires that we make known these truths “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), not just when convenient. The Church’s members have always encountered the temptation to restrict their acceptance or proclamation of the truth.
Some choose the merciful, gentle teachings, others the harsh and rigorous. If we do not allow the truth to shape us, then the faith inevitably becomes just an expression of our personality, temperament, or mood. Catholic truth should expand our hearts and minds, not be constricted by them.
Finally, the Church is catholic in that she bears within herself every grace necessary for sanctification and salvation. She has the power to forgive all sins and to sanctify all sinners: “[T]he ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father.” (CCC 1476) This treasury of the Church is necessary for her mission. All are called to be saints. So the Church must have the power to sanctify all.
All are called to be saints – which means no one is off the hook . . . or beyond reach. Here again, her children experience the temptation to restrict what Mother Church provides. In this case, it would be to say that either the demands of holiness or the power of grace do not apply to this group or that, to this person or that . . . or to me.
The rigorists of the ancient world would have restricted certain sinners from the Church’s power to forgive. Today, the restriction of grace takes a different form – in the thought that certain Gospel demands (usually of the sexual variety) are beyond people’s ability to live or do not apply to certain groups. Which means that certain groups are beyond the power of grace to redeem and sanctify.
Thus not everyone is called to holiness, or the Church lacks the grace to sanctify. Either way, God’s arm is shortened.
Every Catholic must be catholic. This means, first of all, to desire that all people come into the Church. All people, not just the ones we like, admire, or get along with.
It means also to receive the Church’s teachings as catholic – whole and entire – not picking and choosing what we like and leaving the rest. It means to strive for holiness, confident that Mother Church holds the graces needed for our forgiveness and sanctification.