Friday, August 27, 2010

Ask a Catholic: Why the name "Catholic"?

St. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica
Today is the Memorial of St. Monica, who is perhaps best known as being the mother who unceasingly prayed that her son return to the Catholic Faith. Eventually, her fervent prayers were answered and her son, who we know as St. Augustine of Hippo, eventually returned to the Church and became one of the Church's greatest theologians and saints. St. Monica and her son were very familiar with divisions within Christianity because they lived in North Africa in a time during which the Church was rocked by schisms. Augustine himself spent many years as a follower of one quasi-Christian sect called Manichaeism.

In most areas of the modern Deep South, Catholics make up a very small percentage of the population. We are surrounded by many different "brands" of Christianity. So naturally, those of us who profess the Catholic faith are asked questions by our well-meaning friends and neighbors from other faith traditions. One question that comes up every now and then is "Why do y'all call yourselves "Catholic" instead of "Christian"?

Well, it's not a case of either/or but of both/and. That is why on this site, we often use the term "Catholic Christians." According to the New Testament, the earliest members of the Church referred to themselves as followers of "the Way." The term "Christian" was first used by non-believers to describe the believers at Antioch (Acts 11:26). "Catholic" was one of the first names that Christians gave to the Church - it came into use near the beginning of the second century and is simply derived from a Greek word katholikos which means "universal" and "whole" or "complete." This term - denoting both the scope of Christ's saving mission and the geographic dispersion of the Church - is fitting and was first applied to the Church by St. Ignatius (died 117 AD), the third bishop of Antioch after St. Peter. Writing on his way to Rome to be martyred for the faith, Ignatius encouraged his fellow Christians to "follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery [i.e. priests] as you would the Apostles. Wherever the bishop appears," he wrote, "let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8).

In truth, "Catholic" is less a denominational title, and more a description of Christ's Church (remember - "denominationalism," in the modern sense, didn't start until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century), for "there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him" (Dominus Iesus, 17).

My sister who lives on the Mississippi Coast (an area with a decenlty large number of Catholics, as Southern populations go) told me about an article in her local newspaper about an initiative called "See You at the Pole" where local teens were encouraged to gather at their high school's flag pole before the start of school for prayer on a particular day. One of the non-participating teens interviewed for the article said that she did not participate in the prayer service because "it's a Christian thing and I'm not Christian - I'm Catholic." Ouch. Sometimes we Catholics can be our own worst enemies. Remember: it's not a matter of being Catholic or Christian; we who profess the Faith are, by God's grace, Catholic Christians.