Part 5 – The Church – Week 3

Week 3:
The Catholicity (and unity) of the Church

For Ratzinger, the catholicity, or universality, of the Church is intrinsically linked to her unity. For she is called to be a unity in diversity: to combine many individuals and groups into the local Church, and then all the local Churches into the one universal Church. This also means respecting local autonomy: not only local practices and traditions like feasts and prayers but also differences in theologies and liturgical rites. The guardian of this unity at the local level is the bishop, and the guardian of unity among the bishops is the Pope. “In a world torn apart,” Ratzinger writes, the Church is thus called to “the sign and means of unity; she is to bridge nations, races, and classes and unite them.”


“This brings us to the other word applied to the Church by the Creed: it calls her “catholic”. The shades of meaning acquired by this word during the course of time are numerous, but one main idea can be shown to be decisive from the start. This word refers in a double way to the unity of the Church. It refers, first, to local unity—only the community united with the bishop is the “Catholic Church”, not the sectional groups that have broken away from her, for whatever reasons. Second, the term describes the unity formed by the combination of the many local Churches, which are not entitled to encapsulate themselves in isolation; they can only remain the Church by being open to one another, by forming one Church in their common testimony to the Word and in the communion of the eucharistic table, which is open to everyone everywhere. […]

Thus the word “catholic” expresses the episcopal structure of the Church and the necessity for the unity of all the bishops with one another; there is no allusion in the Creed to the crystallization of this unity in the bishopric of Rome. It would indubitably be a mistake to conclude from this that such a focal point was only a secondary development. In Rome, where our Creed arose, this idea was taken for granted from the start. But it is true enough that it is not to be counted as one of the primary elements in the concept of “Church” and certainly cannot be regarded as the point around which the concept was constructed. Rather, the basic elements of the Church appear as forgiveness, conversion, penance, eucharistic communion, and hence plurality and unity: plurality of the local Churches that yet remain “the Church” only through incorporation in the unity of the one Church. This unity is first and foremost the unity of Word and sacrament: the Church is one through the one Word and the one bread. The episcopal organization appears in the background as a means to this unity. [t is not there for its own sake but belongs to the category of means; its position is summed up by the phrase “in order to”: it serves to turn the unity of the local Churches in themselves and among themselves into a reality. The function of the Bishop of Rome would thus be to form the next stage in the category of means.

One thing is clear: the Church is not to be deduced from her organization; the organization is to be understood from the Church. But at the same time it is clear that for the visible Church visible unity is more than “organization”. The concrete unity of the common faith testifying to itself in the Word and of the common table of Jesus Christ is an essential part of the sign that the Church is to erect in the world. Only if she is “catholic”, that is, visibly one in spite of all her variety, does she correspond to the demand of the Creed. In a world torn apart, she is to be the sign and means of unity; she is to bridge nations, races, and classes and unite them. How often she has failed in this, we know: even in antiquity it was infinitely difficult for her to be simultaneously the Church of the barbarians and that of the Romans; in modern times she was unable to prevent strife between the Christian nations; and today she is still not succeeding in so uniting rich and poor that the excess of the former becomes the satisfaction of the latter—the ideal of sitting at a common table remains largely unfulfilled. Yet even so one must not forget all the imperatives that have issued from the claim of catholicity; above all, instead of reckoning up the past, we should face the challenge of the present and try in it not only to profess catholicity in the Creed but to make it a reality in the life of our torn world.”

  1. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 [1968], 345-347.



  1. What does it mean that the Church is catholic and that she is one?
  2. How can I better support the Pope and Bishops in their task of protecting the unity of the Church, and in helping her legitimate diversity within that unity to flourish, through my prayers and sacrifices?



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