Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 21, 2012

The Joy of Catholicity

Ah, sweet catholicity … how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

Hoo-hum, you might be thinking, here’s another blog about the Catholic Church.  Perish the thought!  What you have before you is not a blog about Catholicism but a blog about catholicism.

Ask just about any parochial school kid about the definition of “catholic” and you’ll get the pat answer:  “catholic means universal.”  Yes, that will work.  But it means so much more than that.  As explained by my former mentor, theologian and educator Thomas H. Groome (author of What Makes Us Catholic?), the roots of the word are Greek and can be intepreted to mean something akin to “working together for the good of all.”  Everything in the natural order is catholic.  The cosmos itself is catholic.

Catholicism is a way of life.  It’s an attitude, a vision, a paradigm, and a way of being human.  It’s much more than a religion.  It’s too big, too rich, and too filled with grace to be limited to only one particular community of faith.  Even the bishops of the Catholic Church recognized this while gathered at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), considered by Catholics as an ecumenical council–the highest level of teaching authority found in the Catholic Church.  Boldly, the bishops proclaimed that “many elements of sanctification and truth” are to be found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church.  That proclamation, my dear reader, is truly an example of catholicity in action.

A review of history, however, suggests that Catholic leaders have not always been so generous in their understanding of divine grace.  The impulse toward catholicity has often been overshadowed by romanita’, an Italian word suggesting that Roman power and culture almost always have the upper hand.  Ideally, Rome should be the preserver of all that is truly catholic.  But it seems more accurate to suggest that there is an historical tug-of-war taking place between what is Roman and what is catholic in the church.  Rome usually wins, and we are reminded of this fact by the ancient maxim:  Roma locuta est, causa finita est (“Rome has spoken, the matter is closed”).

Before I am accused of all sorts of vile things regarding the Catholic Church (my church!) and the papacy, let me point out that even the church’s own tradition recognizes this tug-of-war.  On one hand, the Bishop of Rome holds powers in the church that are nearly absolute (executive, judicial, and legislative), yet one of the most basic of doctrines and canonical principles for the Catholic Church is that of subsidiarity (the belief that issues and problems should be dealt with on the most local level possible).  Furthermore, though I have characterized the two impulses as being engaged in a form of competition, that is not a bad thing.  The tension that arises from the sometimes combative relationship of the two can be a source of tremendous creativity and vitality.

Catholicity calls for openness, expansion of limits, recognition of the universal horizon that marks divine grace, and allowance for the Spirit to maneuver as she wills.  Romanness calls for decisions to be made, limits to be set, ecclesiastical offices to be filled, and lists to be made of those who are approved or excluded.  I realize we can’t be a community without some form of order.  But we can’t be Christian if we don’t pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Balance is needed.  The name of this blog should indicate to you whether or not I believe we’ve found it.

Welcome to the journey.  I’m eager to walk with you and I look forward to your comments along the way.


  1. Amen!
    Two blogs to update, a graduate programs to run, classes to teach, a restaurant to manage, and a family to support–I marvel at your time management skills! I cannot wait to read more, John!

  2. […] it means so much more than that. You can revisit the etymological background of the word in my original post to this blog. Catholicity functions as the complete opposite of egocentrism, even when that […]

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