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In the Creed, what does it mean when we say that the Church is “catholic”? Why isn’t it capitalized?

txt-24catholic-usccaThe word catholic means “universal.” The Catholic Church has lived and continues to live in a diversity of cultures and languages because she is led by the Spirit of Christ to bring the Gospel to all peoples. She has known how to accept what is true and good in all cultures and, at the same time, to infuse the truth and goodness of her tradition and life into them. The process of inculturation includes this dynamic.

The Church is also catholic because of her universal extension and her presence in local communities that are known as dioceses, or eparchies in the case of Eastern Churches, and are called “particular Churches.”

The Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized local groups of the faithful, which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also quite appropriately called Churches in the New Testament. . . . In them the faithful are gathered together through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. . . . In these communities, though they may often be small and poor, or existing in the diaspora, Christ is present, through whose power and influence the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is constituted. (CCC, no. 832)

These local communities are linked together through their communion with the Church of Rome and her bishop, the Pope.

In the Catholic Church, the word Church is also used to refer to those communities which have their own “ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, and theological and spiritual heritages” (cf. CCC, no. 835). Thus we speak of the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches. Several of these Eastern Churches have formal structures in the United States. In this country, there are eparchies or dioceses for Armenian Catholics, Melkite-Greek Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Byzantine Ruthenian Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Romanian Byzantine Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, and Syro-Malabar Catholics.

The Church is catholic also because of her relationship to all people. First of all, “the Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter” (CCC, no. 838, citing LG, no. 15). Thus there exists an imperfect communion between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches and faith communions.

The Catholic Church also acknowledges her special relationship to the Jewish people. The Second Vatican Council declared that “this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues” (LG, no. 16). When God called Abraham out of Ur, he promised to make of him a “great nation.” To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his Word, “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (CCC, no. 839, quoting Rom 9:4-5). At the same time, “remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she [the Church] deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews” (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions [Nostra Aetate; NA], no. 4).

The Church also recognizes that she has a unique relationship to Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (CCC, no. 841, citing LG, no. 16).

The Church engages in dialogue not only with Muslims but also with Hindus and Buddhists. “She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (NA, no. 2). These dialogues are conducted on the local level and also on the international level through the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Dialogue is a form of evangelization. It is a way of making Christ and his Gospel known to others, while at the same time respecting their freedom of conscience and adherence to their own religious tradition. The Church has received from Christ the mandate to make him known to all people. She does this in many ways. Dialogue is one way, but another way is the missionary activity of the Church. Through the work of missionaries (priests, consecrated men and women, and lay people) the Church makes Christ known as they teach the Gospel to others by word and deed, inviting them to respond to this proclamation by the commitment of faith.

You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder.