One of the chief marks of the Church is universality. Is this true of the Church today?
In our profession of faith each Sunday, we recite “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” In this statement are the four marks of the Church: that it is one—in unity of faith; it is holy—it is God’s own; it is catholic—the faith that the Church lives and proclaims is the whole and universal Truth; and that it apostolic—founded by Christ, rooted in the teaching of his apostles.
These four marks of the Church are truly timeless, though clarification has been needed at times throughout the life of the Church. A very good example of this is in our question for today—is the Church still universal. Indeed, the notion that the Church is “catholic” is meant to state that it is universal. However, the way we use the word “catholic” has been modified through the centuries.
In the first millennium of Christianity, the Church was understood as “catholic” not in the way of an official title, but as that Church wherein the whole truth of Christ was (and is) to be found. However, beginning in 1058, the Eastern Christians (those whom we know as the “Orthodox Church,” who held Constantinople as the place of importance) split from the West (Rome), primarily over differences regarding the authority of the Pope. Later, in the 1500's, beginning with Luther, the Protestant Reformation took place, leading to the use of the terms “Protestant” and “denomination” in our ways of speaking of Christians. It was only after the beginning of Protestantism that the word “catholic” became applied to the Church of Rome as an official title. Meanwhile, the faith and teaching of the Church itself has remained unchanged.
More to the question of universality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 830-831, speaks of several details: the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her; it is the fullness of the Body of Christ united with its head, having the fullness of means of salvation; and because her mission is to the whole human race. These realities are seen in every parish, in every diocese—in all particular churches that are in communion with the Church of Rome. In this way, universality is not a total as in a number. Rather, universality exists in the complete union of faith and life among all Churches that profess the true faith, which subsists in the Catholic Church.
In these ways, the Church’s universality is seen in the midst of the world and all religions. For, as the Church within which is found the fullness of the Body of Christ and all the means for salvation, it is through the Church that Christ is the salvation of all people—whether they are Catholic or not. Thus, those who are not familiar with the Church or the true faith, through no fault of their own, may also achieve salvation.
On the other hand, those in the Church are called to bring the truth of our faith to all corners of the world, for all to hear the Good News. In this way, even those who are not Catholic can hear the Gospel, and hopefully, through God’s grace, believe the truth of Jesus Christ.