One thing I like to say when I teach the “four marks of the Church” — one, holy, catholic, apostolic — is that the word “catholic” is not the name of a denomination, but the very essence of what it means to be Christian. The word etymologically means “according to the whole,” and its antithesis is sectarian, which takes some part of the whole and makes it into the whole. Sectarians live in ideological clubs, religiously gated communities, ethical ghettos that separate the pure from the impure. They are bound together by strong sentiments of us-them superiority, wielding truth over-and-against others, not to liberate but to vitiate the radical demands of love latent in all truth.
To be catholic is an act of striving to believe, receive, profess, worship, live and witness to the whole of all things found in Christ, who is the whole of God and the whole of humanity joined in a brutally reconciled unity. I say brutally, as the cross is the stark symbol of the manner in which the “whole” is found in Christ. Christ includes in himself not only all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, but also all that is diametrically opposed to these things. On the cross, Christ revealed the truest nature of God and man as mercy, as love raining down on the good and the wicked. On the cross, Christ the Scapegoat “became sin” in a catholic act of stooping-down-to-our-level solidarity. From the cross, the catholic Christ calls his disciples to follow him into forbidden zones, out of comfort zones, and by way of innumerable crossroads where estranged humans love to hate, and where their only rite is being right.
Yet it was this anti-sectarian and catholic Christ who dined in the home of unclean sinners and outcasts, only to then step outside the house, debasing himself by pleading with the self-righteous to come in and join him in risking some contamination. The highest cost of discipleship is mostly found learning to love the other disciples he has also called in. And I have always imagined that if Jesus had ever been successful at getting an angry elder brother or two inside the house, he would then have to convince the sinners to welcome the righteous inside their house to sit at the same table.
Here’s something we must always remind ourselves: the catholic Christ loves both the loathsome self-righteous and the loathsome sinners. He can always be found hanging between their rival camps, inviting them to de-camp, join him for dinner and become friends. Only a catholic Christ can rescue us from our schisms and factions, our camps and cliques because only in Jesus are truth and love one. There is no harder feat in all creation than this kind of love, as we humans tend to prefer truth without love or love without truth. Or neither, preferring instead ourselves as the measure of all things.
It was this anti-sectarian catholic Christ who chose to stay connected with all the wildly ideologically diverse ethno-religious sects of his day, e.g. Zealots, Sadducees, Scribes, Pharisees, Samaritans, Essenes, Herodians, Romans, Greeks, Canaanites, Pagans. He brought these, and many other irreconciled groups near to each other, loved them all hard, commanded impossible forgiveness, limitless patience, and indiscriminate mercy. By inviting this motley crew into an extremely awkward, fragile, tenuous, volatile reconciled com-unity, Jesus revealed to the world his truest masterpiece — a Church built firmly on rock in a perpetual state of earthquake.
Only such a Church could be the human and God-worthy Way to deconstruct those high, ancient walls of hostility and contempt we humans artfully attempt to reconstruct in every age. Only a catholic love commanded by, bleeding from, and lived out in Christ crucified is able to make real catholics out of us children of sectarian Babel. While loving all of humanity from the cross, Jesus anathemized, once and for all, the Church to My Liking. Which, by the way, I still favor worshipping at many Sundays of the year.
Look, it’s really really hard to be catholic. As my first spiritual director used to say to me, “Being holy would be easy if it weren’t for all these other people around.” They aren’t an obstacle, they’re the point, the curriculum.
And let’s be clear, the only possible way to be this kind of a holy catholic is to stay really close to the real Christ, whose Real Presence, every Sunday, gathers together a living Body of unchosen neighbors, i.e. neighbors he has chosen for us. These neighbors are the unchosen Jesus seeking mercy, begging for love. By them our Final Judgment will be measured. These neighbors relentlessly threaten to demolish our divisive, derisive, competitive, sectarian Catholic culture and replace it with a reconciled community of love; with a catholic Church.
Pope Francis spoke stunningly against this un-catholic Church last Pentecost Sunday:
Can the world today say of Christians, of them: “see how they love one another” or can they say with truth, “see how they hate one another,” or “see how they fight?”
What has happened to us? We have sinned against God and against our brothers. We are divided, we have broken into a thousand pieces what God has made with so much love, compassion, and tenderness. We all, all of us, need to ask for forgiveness, to the Father of all, and we also need to forgive ourselves.
I shared this vision I had of what “catholic” means with my wife several years ago. But now, any time I gleefully pour contempt on some person or group in the Church in her presence, she says to me with a wry smile: “Are you catholic today or are you sectarian?”
You know, I really should refrain from sharing my ideas with her in the future.