Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church,
by Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D.,


Article IV
THE CHURCH'S CATHOLICITY


I. The Notion of Catholicity:

1. Etymological meaning.

2. As applied to the Church, the term may describe its:
a. doctrine
b. personnel
c. duration in time
d. geographical diffusion.

3. In strict, apologetic usage, catholicity may be defined as the diffusion of the one and undivided Church throughout the entire world.
a. catholicity by right: the Church's aptitude for world-wide diffusion.
b. catholicity in fact: the actual spread of the Church throughout the world.

II. Catholicity is an Essential Quality of Christ's Church:

Proposition 1: The Church is endowed with absolute catholicity: it will some day reach literally all nations.

Proof: 1. from the Messianic prophecies;
2. from the words of Christ.

Proposition 2: The Church is endowed with moral catholicity: Christ's Church, after its beginnings, should always be conspicuous for its morally universal diffusion.

Proof: 1. from the Messianic prophecies;
2. from the words of Christ and St. Paul.

Corollary: Large numbers alone do not satisfy the requirements for catholicity.

Proposition 3: The morally universal diffusion, characteristic of the Church in all ages, should be a progressive expansion.

Proof:
1. from the Messianic prophecies;
2. from Christ's own words.


Article IV
THE CHURCH'S CATHOLICITY

I. The Notion of Catholicity

1. The term catholic (kata holon = throughout a whole) means something complete, whole, or entire. Even etymologically, then, catholicity suggests some sort of universality.
2. As applied to the Church1 the term catholic may take on various shades of meaning since a number of facets in its makeup fit the notion of totality or universality. For example, it may be called catholic in reference to:
a) doctrine
b) personnel
c) time
d) place

The Church is catholic in doctrine because it teaches Christ's religion in its completeness or entirety; in personnel because it welcomes people of every sort of temperament and condition in life and erects no racial, national or social barriers; with reference to time because it covers the whole era from the time of Christ until the end of the world; with reference to place because it is spread throughout the entire world.

Even though the first three meanings do turn up occasionally in the writings of the fathers,* they occur far less frequently than the fourth, which is the correct usage and the best known. In the present discussion the term will be used exclusively in that sense.2

* As an example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem: The Church “is called catholic because it is diffused throughout the entire world from one extremity to the other; because it teaches everywhere in their completeness all the truths which men should learn, whether those truths be concerned with things visible or invisible, earthly or heavenly. Again [it is called catholic] because it brings men of all sorts to correct worship: princes and private citizens, learned and unlearned; and, finally, because it cures and heals every sort of sin that can he committed in body or soul. It possesses, in fact, all gifts of holiness, of whatever name, whether holiness in deeds, words, or spiritual gifts of any kind whatsoever” ( Catechesis 18. 23) .See St. Thomas, In symbolum opustolorum expositio, a. 9.


3. By the term catholicity, then, is meant the diffusion of the one and undivided Church throughout the entire world. Notice the phrase, one and undivided Church. Catholicity necessarily implies that the Church in its world-wide diffusion retains the triple unity (doctrinal, social, governmental) explained earlier (see nos. 101—109). Finally, it is customary to distinguish between what is called catholicity by right and catholicity in fact.

a. Catholicity by right (i.e., destined or intended to be such) means that the Church has the aptitude, right, and duty to spread throughout the world.

The Church has the aptitude to spread over the whole world because there is nothing in its structural principles which bind it to one nation or a few nations rather than to any other. The Church has both the right and the duty to spread throughout the world because its Founder endowed it with the power and the obligation of spreading to all regions.

These facts are clearly proven by Christ's words: “Go, therefore, and initiate all nations in discipleship.” 3.

The new-born Church possessed only catholicity by right; but that is, of course, the root and foundation for catholicity in fact.

b. Catholicity in fact.4
Catholicity in this sense means the actual spread of the Church throughout the world. If that diffusion actually extends to all people, it is called absolute catholicity; if it reaches only a great number of people, it is called moral catholicity.

II. Catholicity is an Essential Quality of Christ's Church

After its first beginnings, then, Christ's Church should always enjoy a morally universal and progressive diffusion until finally one day it reaches all nations. This is the genuine notion of the catholicity God promised His Church. Each part of this notion bears explaining. We begin with the last, the eventual, complete diffusion of the Church.

Proposition 1: The Church must finally one day reach literally all nations.

Proof:
1. From the Messianic prophecies: And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen. 22:18); Ask of me and I will give you the nations for an inheritance and the ends of the earth for your possession (Ps. 2:8); in him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed; all the nations shall proclaim his happiness (Ps. 71:17); All the nations you have made shall come and worship you, 0 Lord, and glorify your name (Ps. 85:9).

2. From the words of Christ: “Go, therefore, and initiate all nations in discipleship” (Matt. 28:19); “This gospel of the kingdom must be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations may have valid evidence. And then will come the end.” (Matt. 24:14); “This,” he said to them, “is the gist of the Scriptures: the Messias must suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. Furthermore, in his name the need of a change of heart and forgiveness of sins must be preached to all the nations” (Luke 24:46-48); “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

These texts should not be interpreted as meaning only a moral universality among some nations; there is no justification for restricting their meaning in such a fashion. Actually reason itself urges that if a Church is destined for all nations, and is supported by God's help for all time, it should one day actually reach all nations. The only sensible conclusion is, then, that Christ and His Church were promised an absolute universality: one which would embrace all nations. We say, “all nations,” or what amounts to the same thing, “all regions,” of the earth; we do not say all “individuals”; that is nowhere promised.5 Indeed a universal reign over all individuals is rather emphatically excluded by the prophecies about the continual persecutions of the Church and the great defection to take place near the end of the world.6 That is why Augustine observed in his own day:

For all nations were promised, but not all the individual men of all nations … for otherwise how would that other prophecy be fulfilled: “you shall be hated by all nations for my name's sake,” unless in all nations there would be found both those who hate and those who are hated.7

If it be asked “just when will the Church be spread throughout all the regions of the world?” we can only reply: sometime rather close to the end of the world: “This gospel of the kingdom must be preached throughout the entire world, And then will come the end.”8 The calendar date is a secret of God's providence.

Proposition 2: The Church is endowed with moral catholicity: Christ's Church, after its beginnings, should always be conspicuous for its morally universal diffusion.

In other words, the Church should always include in its membership a vast number of men from many different nations.

Proof:
1. From the Messianic prophecies. The Messianic prophecies constantly speak of the universality or diffusion of the Messianic kingdom among all peoples. Now a quality which is described, without any time-limitation, as an essential characteristic of the Church, must always belong to it in at least some degree. Since this quality could not always belong to it in an absolute degree, as should be obvious from what has been already discussed, it must belong to it in a more restricted degree. In other words, the Church should be morally everywhere in any given age and throughout all ages.

2. From the words of Christ and the testimony of St. Paul. Christ unconditionally willed His Church to spread among all nations. To attain this goal He promised it His perpetual assistance. The Church, then, must of necessity always actually fulfill its destiny at least in some measure. The conclusion is clear. Again, no one doubts that Christ's words: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and even to the very ends of the earth,” were to be fulfilled at least in some sense, though very imperfectly, even by the apostles themselves. As a matter of fact the events matched the prediction: according to St. Paul's testimony, the gospel, even in his day, was being preached and bearing fruit throughout the whole world 10 – morally speaking, that is to say.

Corollary

To satisfy the requirements of moral catholicity in fact — a quality belonging to Christ's Church perpetually and necessarily — we stated there was required: “a great number of men from many different nations.” For catholicity (which is directly opposed, not to fewness of numbers, but to nationalism or any other sort of provincialism) strictly implies diffusion throughout various regions of the world, and consequently diffusion among different peoples. Such diffusion, obviously, cannot be had without a really large number of adherents; but large numbers alone do not satisfy the requirements of catholicity. For example, if all the adherents, no matter how vast their number, were to belong to only one nation or one racial stock, they would still never constitute a church which was truly Catholic. Four hundred million Chinese converts would not make a Catholic Church.

Again, a merely successive diffusion in which the Church would spread around the world in such fashion as to gather in a new people only by relinquishing its former adherents, would never fulfill the requirements for the essential catholicity of the Church. Just suppose the Church were to have traveled around the whole world moving from new people to new people in the fashion just described — winning the Germans only at the expense of the Italians, or the Italians only at the expense of the English — at no one time would it ever have been actually Catholic.

Proposition 3: The morally universal diffusion, characteristic of the Church in all ages, should be a progressive expansion.

Proof:
The statement hardly needs proving. If the Church was designed to start from small beginnings and a short time thereafter to be quite widespread and finally was to reach literally all parts of the world; if, furthermore, the Church was destined to spread by God's help, but at the same time, dependently on human resources, it follows quite naturally that its diffusion was to be effected by continuous additions. As a matter of fact, both the Messianic prophecies and Christ's own words point to such a progressive expansion.

1. From the Messianic prophecies. For example: Enlarge the place of thy tent and stretch out the skins of thy tabernacles. Spare not: lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes. For thou shalt pass on to the right hand and to the left: and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and shall inhabit the desolate cities and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, shall be called the God of all the earth (Isai. 54:2-5).

2. From Christ's own words: “The kingdom of heaven reminds me of a mustard seed. This is the tiniest of all seeds; but the full-grown plant is larger than any garden herb and, in fact, becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and settle in its branches” (Matt. 13:31—32).

Please note, however, that the continuity of this progressive expansion should not be pressed too hard. The texts cited do not rule out the possibility of the Church's being notably decreased in this or that century due to schism or heresy (whose occurrence was foretold11 in the Sacred Scripture), without its being able to recoup immediately. Still, theologians usually reject the hypothesis that the Church might ever be so besieged with heresy that it would — even for a brief period — be restricted to just one region.12 Neither should one interpret the scriptural prophecies about the great defection at the end of the world in such a sense.13


Notes

1. The term catholic as applied to the Church appears for the first time in the writings of St. Ignatius Martyr Epistula ad Smyrnaeos 8. 2. Next, it is found in the Muratorian Fragment (ML, 3, 191) and in Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and in other fathers mentioned in The True Religion, p. 197.
2. For a theological analysis of the concept of catholicity, stressing especially the Church's catholicity of doctrine, see H. de Lubac, Catholicism (London, 1950).
3. Against the assertion of Harnack that Christ never gave a command to preach the gospel throughout the world, see, e.g., Der Katholik, I (1903), 240; Meindertz, Jesus und die Heidenmission (1908).
4. See Poulpiquet, “Essai sur la notion de catholicité,” RSPT (1909), p. 19.
5. Maldonatus, commenting on the words of Christ (John 10:16), “and there will be one flock, one shepherd,” has this to say:
The error that perhaps some time before the end of the world all men, both Gentiles and Jews, will become Christians and thus there will be one flock and one shepherd takes its origin from a bad and unscientific interpretation of this passage. For its meaning is not that all men will enter the Church; but rather, there will be no discrimination between those of Jewish origin who shall become believers, and those of Gentile origin who shall become believers; for the wall which formerly divided these two groups will have been broken down.

6. Ps. 2:1-4; Isai. 54:17; Zach. 12:3; Matt. 24:9; II Thess. 2:3.
7. Epistulae 199. 48.
8. Matt. 24:14; see 10:23, “you will not make the round of the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes.” See also Rom. 11:25.
9. See, for example, Dan. 2:35, 44-45; Mich. 4:1-2; Mal. 1:10-11.
10. Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:6, 28.
11. I Cor. 11:19.
12. Melchior Cano (De locis, IV, 6. ad 13) and Bellarmine (Dc ecclesia, IV, 7) were of the opinion that even in this hypothesis the Church could still be called catholic; namely, insofar as it could be clearly proved to be the same Church as that Church which was once diffused throughout the whole world. But the point at issue is whether the Church, if confined in that fashion, would still be catholic in the sense indicated by the Scriptures.
13. Luke 18:8, II Thess. 2:3; see St. Augustine [?] De unitate ecclesiae 15. 38.


(Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D., Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957. pp 141-149.)


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