Catholicism: The Scandal of Universality

Catholic. Once upon a time, the word simply meant ‘universal.’

In our culture, we face a two-front battle to recover the true meaning of this word. Outside the Catholic Church, we are called to assert our identity as the universal Church, both to nonbelievers and to other Christians who have yet to come to the fullness of faith. But, as Catholics, we also stand to gain a greater appreciation of what Catholic means, both to better live out our faith and to share it with others.

Again, we know that Catholic means universal but it is not synonymous with uniform. But beyond this, it has a rich, deep meaning.

As with many other primal terms of the faith, Catholic originates in ancient Greek. It is a composite of two words: kata, meaning according to, and holos, meaning whole—from which, incidentally we get our English word holistic. Catholic, then, has a more literal meaning of according to the whole.

This is close to but not quite the same thing that the word ‘universal’ connotes. We usually use universal to identify a sameness that is as broad as possible in scope. A universal remote works for all television sets. Noses, eyes, and ears are universal characteristics of human beings. Gravity is a universal force on earth: all things fall unless held up.

When we speak about the Catholic Church we do mean the Church that possesses universally valid truths applicable to all people in all parts of the world. But Catholic also means something more than this, something richer.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discerns a deeper, twofold meaning, both stemming from this built-in sense of the Catholic Church as something universal because of its relationship to a whole. The first is its relation to Christ:

First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.” In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him “the fullness of the means of salvation” which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession.

Quite simply, the Church is universal because she has Christ as her head. His fullness thus becomes hers, as Ephesians 1:22, which is in the footnotes to the above passage, makes clear.

Reading this verse in context helps us to appreciate what an astonishing truth this is. It begins around verse 17, where Paul says he prays that his audience comes to a greater knowledge of God the Father. He elaborates in verse 18 and 19,

May the eyes of [your] hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might.

Such ‘great might’ was on display in Christ:

[H]e worked in Christ, raising Him from the dead and seating Him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things beneath His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way (verses 20-23).

We have here a super-cosmic drama in which Christ is exalted above all things—all powers, all names in all times, even the time after this time. And then God gave us Christ ‘as head over all things’ to the Church. His extraordinary fullness then became the Church’s fullness. Or as the verse puts it so beautifully: the Church is His body ‘the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.’

Some speak of the ‘scandal of particularity’ in reference to the Catholic Church being Roman. Here, we might speak of the ‘scandal of universality’—that the Church could possess such universal fullness. In other words, that the Catholic Church could be so catholic.

It is this first relation that now explains the second sense in which the Church is related to a whole. Because it is united to Christ, God made fully man—that is universal man—the Church’s mission is to the entire human race. Just as Christ experienced the fullness of the human experience, save the commission of any sin, so the Church speaks to all people in all circumstances and stations of life.

This is reflected in many ways. One thinks of the Church’s many devotions. There is seemingly a devotion for every possible schedule, disposition, and intellectual background. For those who prefer to engage in the life of the Church on a deeper intellectual level, there are the Liturgy of the Hours and the practice of lectio divina. Some of us pray before icons. Others, maybe more of us, pray holding a rosary, eyes firmly shut. For those with over-scheduled lives, there is the wonderful tradition of exclamatory prayers.

So it goes for the Church’s public worship. The same Catholic Church that offers somber Masses in Latin also has made room for the more exuberant style of the charismatic movement. (Though this does not necessarily mean the charismatic style should be fully permitted at Mass, which, in a way only serves to reinforce my point.)

Or again: We have popes shod in fancy red slippers and friars who shuffle about in sandals. One lives in a palace. The other lives in poverty. Some of our churches are cornucopias of glittering gold. Some are bare stone. Some churches are cathedrals that soar to the sky. And yet some remain among the subterranean catacombs. Both witness to Christ: the Christ who had no place to lay His head and the Christ who shone forth in glory atop the mountain.

Such is the scandal of universality.

The Catholic Church then is not simply the universal Church. It is truly the Catholic Church. Praise be to God!

image: Renata Sedmakova /

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on and A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at

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