Catholicity: Its Implications and Imperatives*

Although it is one of the constitutive elements of the church, catholicity has not been given a focal attention in bilateral theological dialogues and ecumenical discussion.1 Catholicity deserves serious consideration for three main reasons: first, it touches christological, pneumatological, ecclesiolo­gical and eschatological dimensions of Christian faith; second, being at the heart of the church’s ecclesiological and missiological self-understanding, it has clear implications for inter-religious dialogue; third, with its strong emphasis on universalism and interdependence, globalization challenges the church to address catholicity in the perspective of a new world context.

*) Lecture delivered at a symposium organized in honor of Dr. Bishop Wolfgang Huber, the former president of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), 2007.

a) Catholicity: the esse of the church

Catholicity is not a mere mark of the church; it is the very esse of the church. As Christ’s mystical body, the church is catholic by its nature, scope and purpose. Catholicity refers neither to geography nor to institution, neither to quantity nor to universality. It points to the wholeness, fullness and uniqueness of truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the church is catholic not because of its worldwide presence, but for the very truth it holds. Catholicity goes beyond the boundaries of the church to embrace the whole humanity and creation, time and space. Catholicity takes the church beyond itself. Hence, catholicity is much larger than the church in its historical expression, geographical extension and institutional form. Catholicity pertains to God’s universal plan of salvation in Christ. It is God’s continuous creation and re-creation, perfection and renewal of “all things” in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:17).

Catholicity is a gift of God, not a human achieve­ment. It is rooted in the mystery of the Triune God. Catholicity challenges the church’s perception that it is self-contained and self-sufficient; it calls for an ecclesiological self-understanding that considers the church not as an established institution or a frozen entity, but as a reality evolving towards the purpose for which it is destined.

Catholicity is essentially a qualitative reality, even though it has quantitative, institutional and functional aspects, manifestations and implications. Orthodox theology gives priority to qualitative catholicity. Church fathers have also referred to “catholicity in space” (St. Ignatius) and “catholicity in time” (St. Irenaeus), which are interwoven and must be taken as one whole. Catholicity incorporates all time and space within the all-embracing fullness and plenitude of Christ. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, catholicity invigorates and renews the church’s life and witness and ensures its continuity and growth in history. It makes the church the ferment and the anticipation of the Kingdom of God, which will reach its consummation with the second coming of Christ in parousia.

b) The locus and focus of catholicity

As a gift of God, catholicity permeates the life, thought and mission of the church. An excessive eschatological perception of catholicity may en­danger its givenness in Christ. Catholicity is not an abstract notion; its locus is the people of God, the eucharistic koinonia. The church does not create catholicity; catholicity creates and sustains the church. It is an ontological, not an institutional, a spaceless, not a geographical reality. A clear dis­tinction needs to be made between essence and form, substance and expression.

Catholicity is basically related to the church as a koinonia of people not to its institutional manifes­tation. It points to the fullness of Christ’s presence in the community of faith, not to the church’s geographical presence. This fullness of Christ is received, preserved and taken to the world by the community of men and women baptized in the name of the Triune God. Therefore, catholicity is not related to the size of church membership, but to the church’s obedient response to God’s call in Christ and commitment to missio Dei in the world. Catho­licity embraces not just the dues-paying members of the church, but the entire community of faith. Church membership is not a question of quantity, but one of koinonia of love, faith and hope, shared by all with the participation of all. The Orthodox churches place a special emphasis on the community character and inclusive nature of catholicity. This does not exclude the personal dimension. Each member of the church shares catholicity by being in communion with other members, and each member is called to articulate the imperatives of catholicity in his or her life.

As re-enactment of the Last Supper and parti­cipation in the forthcoming Messianic banquet, the eucharist is the locus of catholicity and its living expression. The memory of the past, the struggle of the present, and the vision of the future interact in and through the eucharist. The fullness of God’s salvific act in Christ and His transforming presence among the faithful are enfolded through the eucharist. Hence, the eucharist is the sacrament of catholicity. Through the eucharist, catholicity builds the community of faith and reaches out to the whole world as the fullness of God’s creating, restoring, reconciling and fulfilling act for the whole humanity and creation.

c) Catholicity and unity

Catholicity means unity of Spirit: “In one Spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12,13). It means the wholeness of believers united with the bond of love. Catholicity makes the church an integral part of the wholeness and fullness of truth revealed in Christ. It consolidates the church’s God-given unity in history, and protects it against the forces of division. It also fosters interaction and interdependence among the churches living in different places and deepens mutuality and the churches’ self-understanding of belonging to the one and same Christocentric koinonia.

Catholicity cannot be identified or possessed by one part of the church; it pertains to the whole church and embraces the historical experience of the church in time and space by creating inner unity with the past (apostolic continuity), with the present (missionary outreach) and with the future (escha­tological vision). This is catholicity in time. Catho­licity also calls for unity in faith manifested through the eucharistic gathering and conciliar communion among the local churches. This is catholicity in space. The brokenness within the institutional church does not reduce or distort catholicity on­tologically; it only slows down its process and hampers its fulfilment in history. The brokenness of the church is not a hindrance to sharing in the fullness of catholicity, which only belongs to God. Catholicity deals with the substance of faith, not its formulation, and it gives to churches a broader framework of unity in which to articulate their God-given unity in diverse forms.

The mutual recognition of baptism is the foundation of koinonia and the basis of its unity. The bishop, as the head of the local church with its sacramental authority and function, is the guardian of the church’s unity. Through the eucharistic and conciliar communion of bishops, the local churches share the catholic fullness and unity of the church beyond their concrete localities and time. Catho­licity challenges the churches to transcend the forms and norms, the limits and limitations imposed by history and to recognize each other as members of the one body of Christ. Through catholicity divi­sions are transformed and the essential oneness of the church is firmly maintained, even in the midst of doctrinal differences and ecclesiological diver­gences.

Catholicity does not aim for a monolithic vision of the church. It enhances God-given pluralism and strives for the whole without undermining the particular; it seeks reconciled diversity against unrelated pluralism; it safeguards the fullness and distinctiveness, diversity and coherence of God’s revelation against dualistic and monistic tendencies, fusion and confusion; it rejects the perception of self-sufficiency, and it calls for interdependence; it challenges the church’s self-imprisonment within local, confessional, cultural, ethnic and institutional confines – a temptation that surrounds the church at all times and in all places – and calls for a vigorous and critical interaction with its environment and the world at large. Through catholicity, the integrity, unity, specificity and vitality of the body of Christ is vividly maintained in the face of the destructive and polarizing forces of history.

Catholicity and unity are intimately intertwined. Unity of the church is underpinned by catholicity, and catholicity is strengthened and given more visibility by the unity of the church. Catholicity maintains a creative tension between the fullness and wholeness of the Christ-event and the bro­kenness of the church in the context of the historical process; it aims at healing all forms of the division within and without the church. The catholicity of the church is a constant reminder that the churches must go beyond the framework of ecclesial unity and endeavour for the unity of humankind2. God’s gift of unity and catholicity in Christ was a response to the broken world. The world is still – if not more – broken.

d) Catholicity and the local-universal

The church is a local reality: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). The words of St. Ignatius are well known: “Where Christ is, there is the catholic church.” This means that where there is a eucharistic community, there is also the catholic church. The church is not an institution or a community estab­lished by Christ; Christ Himself is the church. Any church, great or small, is fully catholic. Catholicity cannot be partial or incomplete. Each eucharistic community is the prefiguration of the fulfilment and telos of God’s catholicity. The church is catholic and is constantly in the process of becoming catholic by realizing itself in time and space, vertically and horizontally, qualitatively and quantitatively.

The local eucharistic community is an integral part of the whole oikumene. Catholicity expressed fully in a local eucharistic gathering must be shared with other local churches in each and in all places. The church must transcend its locality in the perspective of catholicity. The church’s local and universal manifestations are, at the same time, the local and universal manifestations of catholicity. The local and universal are closely interconnected within the framework of catholicity, conditioning and strengthening each other. Catholicity rejects unicentrism and fosters polycentrism. The Ortho­dox churches do not agree with the view that com­munion with an ecclesial centre is the criterion of catholicity; they maintain that communion between the local churches, based on unity of faith, is a sine qua non condition for catholicity. However, even in a state of division, the churches share in the catho­licity of the church, each expressing it in different ways and forms.

Catholicity does not seek to become a centralized universal church; it does seek to become a world­wide church by opposing geographical localism and ecclesiastical confessionalism, by challenging blind parochialism and triumphal universalism, by calling the local church to go beyond its boundaries and enter into ecclesial communion with other churches in all places, or by taking the church beyond the restrictions of time and opening it to eschaton.

Through catholicity, the local, universal, institu­tional and spiritual dimensions of the church, here and now, as they are and as they will be, come together as a coherent and integrated whole, completing, enriching, challenging and fulfilling each other within the purview of God’s cosmic plan of salvation. A genuine understanding of catholicity does not leave room for polarization or for any contradiction between its local and global articu­lations. The catholicity manifested in and through the local eucharistic community validates the true nature of catholicity; and catholicity expressed through the communion of local churches enfolds the global nature and scope of catholicity. This dynamic interplay between the local and universal dimensions of the church is assured and supported by the Holy Spirit, which constantly nurtures the catholic consciousness of the church and keeps vivid its eschatological vision.

In fact, by becoming the church in a place, the church has become, in the course of time, the church of a place, thus losing much of its inner awareness of catholicity. The church is always subject to the overpowering trends of parochialism and confes­sionalism. The church should therefore remain alert to the fact that total and uncritical identify-cation with a specific place, culture or nation may jeopardize its catholic nature.

The local church-centred concept of catholicity is in line with the ecclesiology of the early church. However, an isolated concept of locality and too much emphasis on the local may lead the church to localism in the geographical, cultural and ethnic sense. We need to re-assess and redefine the notion of ‘locality’ in the context of a globalized world and its ecclesiological implications. We need to develop an understanding of locality that is dynamic, open and inclusive.

Globalization and pluralism present both op­portunities and risks for catholicity. They revive and reactivate the church’s inner catholicity by opening the church to all places, nations and cultures. They also expose the church to “secular catholicities,”3 which may jeopardize the true nature and vision of God’s catholicity as revealed in history.

e) Catholicity and mission

Catholicity experienced in the local community cannot take place in isolation from the realities of the world. It is destined to recreate humanity and creation. Catholicity is a call to participate in the salvific-event of Christ (vertical catholicity) and missio Dei (horizontal catholicity). Through baptism we share catholicity, through eucharist we take part in it, and through mission we take it to the world. Catholicity is an event and a process, the in-going and out-going of the church, a gift and a task.

Catholicity reminds us that the Christ-event, as realized eschatology, cannot be conditioned by historical processes. It helps the church to move forward towards the eschatological fulfilment and reconciliation of humanity and creation in Christ to God. Catholicity makes the church, in the power of Holy Spirit, a missionary reality by sending it to the world to bear witness to the Gospel values. This mission is also a commission. The more the church goes beyond itself, the more it becomes truly itself; the more the church engages in missio Dei, the more catholicity acquires its genuine meaning and articulation. Indeed, catholicity is the sharing of God’s kenosis in Christ with others.

The church is the new creation begun at the incarnation, inaugurated by the resurrection and sent forth by Pentecost. Catholicity is the witness of the church, in deed and word, to the new creation. The church is catholic because its very purpose is the reconciliation of “all things” (Eph. 1:10) in Christ. The catholicity of the church’s mission is not simply Christianization of the world; the salvation or recreation of humanity and creation is the raison d’être and the ultimate purpose of the church’s God-given catholicity.

The church exists and acts within the sphere of cosmic salvation. This is the design of God in Christ for the church. Not only does the church proclaim Christ as the only Saviour of the world, it is also called to bring people of all times and places together under the sovereign reign of God. In this missionary engagement, Christ is with His church forever: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt. 28:20); and the Holy Spirit guides the church in its missionary struggle for the completion of God’s economy of cosmic salvation.

f) Some observations

1) Catholicity has become a mere mark of the church and a loose concept with no direct relevance to the life and witness of the church. How can we revive its crucial importance for the church’s ecclesiological self-understanding? How can we spell out its missiological relevance, imperatives and implications? How can we give a focal attention and a concrete expression to it in the church’s sacramental life, missionary outreach, evangelistic witness and diakonal action? This is a major task before the churches. The ecumenical movement has played a significant role in deepening the awareness of catholicity by enhancing the churches’ sense of belonging to each other and thus helping them to manifest in different ways their interconnectedness and inner catholicity. The ecumenical movement must continue its unique role with renewed impetus.

2) Because of dominant trends of confessionalism in Protestant churches, universalism in the Roman Catholic Church and ethno-centrism in the Ortho­dox churches, we have lost much of the meaning and importance of catholicity. Based on their res­pective ecclesiological perceptions and historical experience, the Roman Catholic Church gives a visible expression to catholicity through its uni­versal structure, the Orthodox churches stress the eucharistic communion and the Protestant churches underscore the centrality of the Word of God. These approaches complement each other and must be taken as an integrated whole. How can the churches transcend their doctrinal divisions and give more visibility to the church’s catholicity on local and global levels? This is a major challenge before the churches. We must rediscover the catholicity of the mind of the church and identify its implications in the context of the present world.

3) The inward-looking concept of catholicity, strongly held by the Orthodox churches, must be balanced by the outward-looking perspective of catholicity, which is firmly maintained by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. In other words, the ontological and functional, vertical and horizontal dimensions of catholicity must be taken in their intimate interrelatedness. Such a holistic approach may give a new vitality both to the inner evangelism and the missionary outreach of the church in a world in which the Gospel message is threatened by secularism, materialism and anthro­pocentrism. Furthermore, the backward-looking approach to catholicity, aimed at spelling out its importance within the historical process, needs to be completed by a forward-looking vision that will help the church to orient modern societies towards the Kingdom of God. Likewise, the Word-centred perception of catholicity, a basic trend in Protestant ecclesiology, needs to be balanced by the eucharistic vision of catholicity, a major focus in Orthodox theology. It is only within such a broad framework that we can develop an inclusive theology of catholicity.

4) Catholicity strives for God’s future, while globalization endeavours for humanity’s future.

Catholicity reminds us that the future of humanity can be built only within the universal plan of God. Hence, catholicity must become a critique of the ‘secular catholicities’ of globalization by combating “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12), which aim for an anthropocentric humanity and creation. Catholicity is God-given, God-centred and God-oriented, while globalization is human-made, human-centred and human-oriented. But the church cannot ignore the impact and implications of glo­balization. It must respond positively to those trends and opportunities provided by globalization that may help the church to articulate more effectively its catholicity.4

5) Churches need to shift from excessive church-centred catholicity to a Christ-centred catholicity. They have a model of an all-embracing and inclusive concept of catholicity to follow in the Logos theology of the early church. A Christo­centric approach to catholicity, in its turn, must be both strengthened and balanced by pneumato­logical and eschatological dimensions. This holistic understanding of catholicity may facilitate interfaith dialogue, which is integral to Christian life and witness.

6) By stressing the Christological, ecclesiological, missiological, pneumatological, eucharistic and eschatological dimensions of catholicity, and by bringing together the qualitative and quantitative, vertical and horizontal aspects and manifestations of catholicity in their dynamic interrelatedness, Orthodox theology has been able to develop a holistic concept and eschatological vision of catho­licity. Indeed, an all-inclusive view of catholicity is essential in a world in which interdependence has become a salient mark of human life. Orthodox churches may significantly enhance this process by redefining and re-articulating Logos Christology, eco-centred theology and all-embracing spirituality, aspects that are already dominant in the life and thought of Orthodox churches.

7) Catholicity is both a gift and a calling. We must obediently accept God’s gift and respond faithfully to God’s commission in Christ. Catholicity cannot be owned by any one church; it must be shared by all churches through spiritual and eucharistic communion and missionary action. We must resist confessionalism, because it could eventually reduce the church of Christ to self-centred local communities. And we must constantly deepen the churches’ consciousness of catholicity and its relevance to the issues and challenges of the present world.