The term “Catholic” (Greek: katholikos = universal) was initially applied to the Christian Church by St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 CE) in a letter to the Church at Smyrna:
Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church.
The term became widely used to denote both clergy and lay members of the Christian Church. In the 4th-century CE St. Pacianus writes
Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname.
Today it refers to any member of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the following shows some of the complications around this term.
The Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Methodists believe that their churches are “Catholic” in the sense that they are in continuity with the original universal church founded by the Apostles. However, each church defines the scope of the “Catholic Church” differently. For instance, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches each maintain that their own denomination is identical with the original universal church, from which all other denominations broke away.¹
Some materialistic psychologists and sociologists view this in terms of a kind of individual and cultural relativity. In other words, all the churches are both right and wrong in that their supremacist claims give adherents a sense of personal meaning and social belonging (each person and group according to their unique profiles). But all the churches are essentially wrong because God and the afterlife don’t exist. And even if God did exist, such a being wouldn’t favor one path over others.
Others believe that God surely does exist, and God’s truth doesn’t stoop to psychological or postmodern style theories. So one Church is right and all the others are wrong.
A third way of looking at the problem sees some spiritual truth in each Church but also cultural biases. These spiritual truths are not necessarily the same, conceptually or experientially. For instance, a Catholic entering an Orthodox church might intellectually balk at theological differences over, say, the filioque.² They may also feel a spiritual presence, but the numinosity might not be of the same quality as experienced within the Catholic Church (and vice versa, with the Orthodox believer entering into a Catholic church). In this way of understanding, one path is right for one type of person, while another path is right for another type of person. Accordingly, one path to salvation is not necessarily better than another. Just as a frog likes a pond, a bird likes the air.
And yet a fourth way of seeing the issue is to say that one path is, in fact, closer to ultimate truth than the others but still contains cultural bias and is, therefore, imperfect.
This last way seems to be the way of the Catholic Church in the 21st century. Catholics are taught that other religions may contain elements of truth, but the Catholic Church is the best expression of God’s mysterious being, creation and plan of salvation—even if the Catholic Church’s articulation of belief remains imperfect by virtue of our human limitations.
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