In today’s Gospel, our Lord likens the Kingdom of heaven to “a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind.” (Mt 13:44-52) This net, which gathers not just one kind of fish but fish of every kind, serves as a good description of what we confess every Sunday: the Church is catholic.
Now, most people probably think of “Catholic” as the brand name of a particular Christian denomination. Yes, we speak colloquially of the Catholic Church as distinct from the Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist churches, etc. But that’s a fairly recent designation, only since the Reformation. Before the Church was “Catholic” she was already “catholic.” It’s a truth we find expressed in the Church’s earliest years. The word “catholic” means universal, embracing and bringing all things together into a unity (from the Greek kata holos, “according to the whole).
Now, the distinction and relation of “Catholic” and “catholic” is important: one cannot be Catholic without also being catholic. To be a member of the Church means to share in her catholicity. So, what does that entail?
First, the Church is catholic – universal – in the most obvious sense: for all people. “Here comes everybody” is James Joyce’s famous description of the Church. She welcomes all comers, embraces and incorporates all people – “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, all peoples, of every race, nation, and country throughout the world.” (Rev 7:9) She leaves no group or kind of people beyond her mission and solicitude.
Now, catholic in this sense does not mean everyone thrown together willy-nilly, as you might toss all your clothes into the closet. Rather, it means all people brought together as one, as a unified whole. In the United States, we are now witnessing what happens to a society when its various peoples have lost their principle of unity. The Church, however – and, in the end, only the Church – is truly universal because she both embraces all people and makes them one body in Christ.
The implications of this universality should be clear. It means, first, that we welcome all people into the Church. Anyone who repents and believes is welcome regardless of any accidental qualities. Further, this catholicity requires that we actively seek to bring the Gospel to all peoples, and all peoples to the Church.
Second, the Church is catholic in the sense that she forgives all sins. This is a consequence of her being the continuing presence of Christ Himself in the world. Our Lord has authorized her to act and speak in His Name. He entrusted to her ministers His own power to forgive, a power limited only by a person’s desire to be forgiven.
Through the ministry of the Church, any of our sins, from the most trivial to the most severe, can be forgiven when we repent and ask forgiveness. Which also means that we should desire the extension of that forgiveness and reconciliation. Indeed, we should participate in the Church’s ministry of reconciliation. As such, our own personal forgiveness should extend as far as the Church’s, from the most trivial slight to the gravest sin against us. As regards forgiveness we can never say, “thus far and no further.”
Throughout her history, from Tertullian to Calvin, the Church has seen plenty of rigorists who would like to shorten the reach of her mercy. Like the slaves in the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt 13:24-43), they want a Church of saints not sinners. In the current “cancel culture,” the mobs of secular rigorists give us a sense of just how brutal a society is that desires pure justice (or what passes for it) and no mercy.
Finally, the Church is catholic in the sense that she possesses all truth. Everything necessary for salvation is found within her doctrine. All religions possess some aspects of the truth. Only Christ’s Church possesses the fullness of the truth.
Notice that the net in the parable brings in “all kinds of fish,” both the desired and the undesired. Similarly, the Church holds both pleasing truths (human dignity, forgiveness, heaven) and hard truths (sin, judgment, hell). To be Catholic means to assent to all that the Church teaches – not just to the parts we like.
The Church’s history is littered with heresies, a word that indicates the choosing of one truth to the exclusion of others (Greek again haerisis, not kata holos). Those who do so cease to be catholic, because they are embracing not the fullness of the truth but only the parts they like. If we call ourselves catholic, we must show ourselves to be truly catholic, embracing all truths — not just the convenient ones.
Mother Church’s children should bear a resemblance to her. So it is that we ought to strive to be catholic in our zeal for souls, in the reach of our mercy, and in our embrace of the truth.
*Image: He Sent Them Out Two by Two (Il les envoya deux à deux) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]