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Sister Cecily Boulding OP

I want to talk about catholicity – not surprisingly! But I am not claiming an exclusive position – as though this view were not shared by others. I am rather trying to express what I believe to be an authentic Roman Catholic view deriving from the Church’s actual doctrinal position, despite the deviations, hesitations or repetitions that have marred her history over the years.

The word catholic comes from the Greek kath ‘olon [according to the whole], so the Catholic faith, the true faith, is essentially the faith that is held by the whole Church. This was the understanding of that phrase for the first millennium and beyond. Moreover, that Catholic Faith, that orthodox belief (with a small o) was the vital bond of unity, surmounting and uniting wide variations in custom, culture, theology, ritual and law – again very obvious in the first millennium both in relation to the early Trinitarian and Christological heresies, and the shared faith of East and West until the schism of 1054.

So a further nuance of the word catholic is precisely that holding together in one faith of a wide diversity in the expression and the living out of that faith. Indeed, the twentieth century invention of ‘reconciled diversity’ is merely modern jargon for catholicity!

So for me catholicity is an essential aspect of real koinonia/communion. ARCIC I defined communion (from the bottom up, so to speak) as ‘the relationship which exists between those who participate in the same sacred reality’ . (1) Pope John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint (speaking from the top down) said: ‘For the Catholic Church the communion of Christians is none other than the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion, which is his eternal life.’ (2)

I see communion as a kind of living union, or relationship, which actually requires diversity and difference to establish its coherence; here the analogy with marriage is surely very obvious.

Martin [Reardon] referred to the divided state of our world; yet paradoxically globalisation, with all that that means, is one of today’s most prominent features and, I think, a generally unpleasant one. On the principle that ‘small is beautiful’, Catholic communion should present precisely the opposite phenomenon, a point well expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger, when he explained that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994, should be the source for locally-produced catechisms which ‘must give voice to the multiple gifts of the various churches who, while respecting the organic and hierarchical character of Christian truth, proclaim the assertions of faith in a way more attentive to the needs of those addressed; and in specific ways welcome, develop and complete what belongs to their distinctive character and tradition, using THEIR language, respecting THEIR socio-cultural characteristics and THEIR ecclesial character and tradition’. (3) Another Catholic ecumenist, Michael Richards, once said: ‘Communion is created by the recognition of the truth.’ (4) The problem is: how is real unity in faith to be recognised and secured in a world so much more complex than that in which the creeds were formulated?

Martin has summarised one aspect of this sad endeavour; let me add just a few more historical details. Even in the letters of St Paul, two emphases are discernable: communion of the body with its head – Christ – in Colossians and Ephesians; and communion of the members among themselves in Romans and I Corinthians. From the very earliest phase the first evidently did not guarantee the second in practice! Pope John Paul II referred to the manifestation of the grace of communion, and in patristic writings by the beginning of the third century the concept of communion does seem to have shifted to the institutional aspect of relations between local churches. In the Vulgate, the fourth century Latin translation of the Bible, communio and participatio are becoming more interchangeable with more ‘external’ terms like societas, collatio, communicatio [I Cor. 10:16 as Martin noted) and fifth century Latin liturgical usage again has a more ‘exterior’ sound with words like pax, fraternitas, consortium, concordia. Bishops are seen as the means of holding local churches in communion with each other, and regulatory norms for admission to eucharistic communion become increasingly detailed – travellers’ letters, diptychs, etc. What started out as a mystery is developing into a legal framework, if not indeed a legal concept.

An article written by Bishop Pierre Duprey (formerly Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome) (5) distinguished three levels of ecclesial communion: the first, spiritual or ontological, an objective reality which is the free gift of God to all who enjoy his favour. As St Augustine put it in reference to the fourth century Donatists, ‘We are brothers under the skin whether we like it or not!’ Of its nature spiritual (in the strong sense of that word), this is invisible, but tends towards at least a partial communion which is visible in such bonds as a common profession of faith, and shared sacraments and ministry. A third canonical or legal level is found in the articulation of commonly accepted and verifiable norms for communion, such as registered membership of a particular church. Just as the first is invisible without the second and third, so the third is meaningless without the first and second.

The current president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper (6), consciously writing in the context of twentieth century totalitarian regimes, reasserted that koinonia is not a structure but a mystery – the mystery of participation in divine life; a gift, mediated by word and sacrament, propagated from within the Church by the Holy Spirit. Consequently eucharistic communion is not just the reception of the sacrament but the community resulting among those who celebrate it. Local churches are essentially eucharistic communities, so the koinonia of the Church as such is actualised by koinonia between such local churches. The local and universal church are mutually inclusive and indwelling. Just as the Trinity neither generates nor abrogates the unity of the Godhead, so the unity of the Church is the very foundation of its universality and catholicity.

But the question remains: how in practice can we handle diversity so that it does not actually contradict the essential unity of faith? Martin [Reardon] quoted Professor Jimmy Dunn’s ‘co-ordinated diversity’, and others have spoken of the ‘contradictory opposition’ between Protestantism and Catholicism as ‘two ways of the Spirit’s action’, or of a ‘communion of opposites’ (7). He alluded to another famous Catholic ecumenist, the Dominican Jean Tillard (‘author’ of the kissy-kissy ecumenism to which Martin referred), who tried to take this problem further by raising the whole question of ‘denominationalism’. Tillard pointed out that Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, the most significant text of the ecumenical movement, has not been really received because the cost of this to virtually all denominations would be so great. It discerned a widespread convergence on baptism; we are in real communion at an infinitely deeper level than that of joint action; we are united by a faith that justifies and incorporates us into Christ. So, what is the relation between this Spirit of unity, surely effective, and our confessional divisions, which have nevertheless ‘not caused the wellspring of grace to dry up’? We need to pinpoint clearly the nature of that faith which transcends our differences and is truly common, even when our statements of faith conflict.

Since there is still surprising vitality in the communities of the baptised in both East and West, we need a theological evaluation of the denominations (using that as a generic term for all those groups who took cognisance of Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry) in relation to visible koinonia. What is the status and function of those tenets of faith which divide us and are not just a matter of a hierarchy of truths? A hermeneutic of confessionality should examine the real intentions which lie beneath such affirmations, in function of their context – analogous to the hermeneutical studies which have made possible recent Christological agreements with the pre-Chalcedonian Churches, which accepted that both parties do hold the same faith even though they cannot achieve a common formula of words to express it. The reality of our partial communion comes from the Spirit of God; its imperfect character seems to come precisely from the anxious desire of all churches to be fully faithful to the Gospel as they perceive it.

What is ‘tolerable diversity’ cannot, it seems, be agreed until this phenomenon of ‘denominationalism’ or ‘confessionality’ is more fully understood (8).


  1. ARCIC I, Final Report, 1982, Introduction.
  2. John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 1995, para. 9.
  3. J Ratzinger, "Catechismo e Inculturazione", quoted by J Komonchak in The Living Light, 1993 (USA).
  4. Michael Richards, "A Word with a Future", in The Times, 28 November 1988.
  5. Pierre Duprey, "A Catholic Perspective on Ecclesial Communion" in G R Evans, Christian Authority, Clarendon Press, 1988.
  6. Walter Kasper, "Church as Communio", in International Catholic Review, 1986.
  7. Harding Meyer, That All May Be One: Perspectives and Models of Ecumenicity, Grand Rapids, 1999.
  8. Jean Tillard, OP, "From Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry to Koinonia", unpublished paper read to the Faith and Order Commission meeting, Moshi, 1996.

Presentation to the Association of Interchurch Families’ annual conference at Swanwick, August 2001



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