Catholicism is not Universalism

In a recent column, Maureen Dowd made a catchy attempt to idealize Catholicism using Joyce’s phrase from Finnegan’s Wake, “here comes everybody!”  But the suggested universalism is one of those fictions we have told ourselves.  It is simply not true.  It is not only contradicted by current Vatican attitudes, it belies the reality of Catholicism’s birth and history.  The Catholic Church, despite its enormous global nominal membership, is anything but universal, it is a local, Western European self-idolizing sectarian association — more of an ethnic-cultural than a religious phenomenon — and grossly intolerant.

The name “Catholic” comes from the adjectival form of an ancient Greek shorthand: kata holon, which literally means “according to the whole,” or “pertaining to the whole.”  It is traditionally translated “universal,” but while that is semantically defensible, from a religious point of view it is a complete distortion of the reality.  The label kat’holica was only applied to Christianity after it had become the official religion of the Roman EmpireThe significance of the new word “Catholic” was not religious, it referred to Christianity’s social role in the Empire.  Christianity was the Empire’s official religion — the only one permitted, all others were banned — and was therefore “obligatory for everyone,” kat’holica.

The word “Catholic” had dark implications for those who weren’t.  In the Roman Empire all other religions — and any but the official version of Christianity — were suppressed, and violently.  The Gnostics were closed down and their books all burned by order of the emperor.  The few writings of theirs that we have is the result of secretive action by monks, hiding their precious books in remote locations.  Arianism was actively persecuted by the Imperial authorities, and even though it took centuries to complete, was only eradicated by physical coercion.  Even the Jews, already dispersed throughout the empire for a millennium when Catholicism was spawned and familiar to all, suddenly became the object of persecution and could no longer count on state protection. “Catholic” meant that the official “orthodox” Christian dogmas and the authorities who guarded them were made the exclusive ideological agent of a narrow totalitarian vision — the policy of the Roman State.  The Imperial Church was the primary instrument for the complete homogenization of thought and guarantor of compliance within the empire.  The two — Church and State — became one flesh.  Rome was a theocracy, it ruled by divine right, and the Catholic Church made sure the “divine” part would fulfill its assignment.

The Church was also responsible for the narrowness, the sectarianism.  In August of 388, a mere eight years after Catholicism’s official establishment, a Jewish synagogue and a chapel of Valentinian Christians in Mesopotamia were burned down by Catholics at the instigation of the local bishop.  The emperor Theodosius’ spontaneous reaction was to punish the bishop and require that he rebuild the synagogue.  But he was publicly excoriated from the pulpit by Ambrose, the bishop of Milan where the emperor resided, and demanded he rescind his order.  The emperor acceded.  That Judaism, whose teachings were the source and inspiration for Jesus’ vision of universal love should have become the object of such opprobrium, is an indication of how narrowly sectarian the “Catholic Church” had become, and how pliant the State was in its service.  The way the events unfolded provided clear evidence that the violence was inspired and justified by Catholic sectarianism — the conviction that it was the one and only Church, kat’holica. 

Keep in mind how early this was.  Note too that it was not simply a case of anti-Semitism, for dissident Christians were included in the attack.  It was a violent affirmation of Catholic sectarian identity and an attempt to physically eliminate others.  Nor was this the only incident of its kind.  Within 20 years of that event, Augustine of Hippo prevailed upon the emperor Honorius to send Roman Legions to Africa to dislodge the Donatists from their churches.  This was a blatant suppression of a local sect of Berber lower class North Africans in favor of the Catholic sect, obedient to the emperor, comprised of the Roman residue of the occupiers following the Punic Wars.

Sectarian Christianity has always been violently intolerant, and it began with its promotion to being “Roman Catholic.”  Violent sectarianism has resurfaced again and again throughout the history of the lands ruled by Catholicism and its offshoots.  Persecution of heretics, slaughter and enslavement of “heathen,” crusades against Moslems, were accompanied by a perennial maltreatment of the Jews.  Neither Luther’s call for their extermination nor the genocide of the Nazis were disconnected isolated phenomena; they are whole cloth with the Catholic intolerance so clearly manifest in the fourth century.

There is nothing universal about Roman Catholicism, not now, not ever.  Totalitarianism is not universalism; it is quite the opposite.  It is the forced imposition of local custom and control on everybody.  The true Jewish universalism implied in Jesus’ message which the first Christian communities followed and fostered, esteems the efforts of “every nation to grope after ‘God’ in the hopes of finding him.”  The “good news” announced by the earliest Christians was that the Jewish “God’s” love for humankind, was neither a demand nor a condition, it was an invitation.  That it became a requirement for “salvation” under the control of upper-class authorities was a deviation that guaranteed Catholicism’s imperial favor leading to its selection as the Religion of the State.

These days there is great talk of reform.  A reform that does not include a return to true universalism is a sham.  Roman Catholic intolerance is bound up with a self-idolatry that must be acknowledged: the Church considers itself divine and it claims it was made so by Jesus himself; “divine foundation” is the ground of its sectarian intolerance and inevitable violence toward others.  Dealing with that horror is the first order of business.


In the ancient world political success — wealth and power — was considered in itself a proof of divine favor.  It is arguable that it still is.  It was a belief that was shared and promoted by Augustine of Hippo, the principal  ideologue of Roman Catholicism.  Augustine’s belief was completely consistent with a theological definition that made “God” into some kind of humanoid “person” who, like the godlings of the Mediterranean pantheon, dispensed “blessings” in the form of material success and punished with poverty and failure.  There was no difference in the kind of divinity imagined, only the size and level of its power: the “God” of Augustine’s imagination had no limits and no competitors.  Its providence embraced every detail of every event, natural or man-made.  The very success of the Roman Empire, despite its bloody and rapacious history, according to Augustine, was clear evidence of “God’s” providential design, for the Empire became the instrument for the diffusion of Christianity to the ends of the earth, giving the Romans a continuance of the divine permission for conquest.  Thus was “God” “paganized” and re-conceived as a god of war and the atavistic texts from the old testament supporting Hebrew expansionism suddenly came to life again in their literal sense.

This notion of a separate “God,” out there apart from us, to whom we are related by command and control and not by blood, is at variance with Paul’s and John’s “aboriginal LIFE in which we live and move and have our being.”  Once you project a “theist” anthropomorphic “God” who is not immanent in our humanity, who micromanages every occurrence of the natural world and makes use of the free choice of men to accomplish his purpose, you cannot challenge the way things are, nor appropriate the “divinity” necessary to change them … for the way things are must be the way “God” wants them.  You have nothing to say about it.  Wealth and power no matter how criminally obtained were “blessings” from “God.”  They had to be, or “he” would never have permitted them.  Internal consistency demands that you accept the status quo no matter how unjust it represents the “will of God.”  To Paul’s eternal discredit, this belief was enunciated clearly in Romans 13.  But it is not a museum piece, it is endemic to traditional “theist” Christianity and it is with us to this day.  It is exactly the attitude that only months ago prompted an American politician to affirm that if a pregnancy resulted from rape it had to be the will of “God.”  Events as recent and as unconnected as American Imperial prerogatives justifying the Iraq war, the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake have been explained similarly as the will of “God” by religious and political leaders.

It should not escape notice that Augustine’s “Christian” interpretation of history confirmed what the Romans had always claimed about themselves: that they were destined by the gods to rule the world.  This belief long preceded Christianity.  Even while Rome was still a Republic, the great “City” was called diva Roma, “divine Rome.”  Military victory, conquest and the enormous wealth and power that accrued were considered proof of the Empire’s divine status.  The emperor was called divine, but only by extension … the primary “divinity” belonged to the ascendant State.  The occasion for Augustine to write De Civitate Dei, “The City of God,” was the sack of Rome by Alaric’s Visigoths in 410.  That unprecedented humiliation prompted an outcry from the “pagans” that the old gods had abandoned Rome because Rome had thrown them off for Christianity.  Augustine’s book was written to assure them that Rome could count on the very same providence from the Christian “God” that they had always enjoyed under the gods of Rome.  Rome, “the City,” remained “of God,” but its destiny was now borne forward in intimate association with Church.  The sack of Rome was a punishment for failing to follow the commands of the true “God” and his Catholic Church.  The rape of Christian women by Alaric’s Christian troops was interpreted by Augustine as “God’s” punishment of those women for taking pride in their chastity.   ( sic ! The City of God, Bk 1, ch. 28)

Ultimately, Augustine’s work provided an ideological justification for the continuity of Roman theocracy.  By Augustine’s time, Rome had enjoyed “divinity” for a thousand years, long before Christianity was born.  That divinity, guaranteed by the providence of “God,” now passed to the Church as Rome’s intimate consort.  The Church was now “God’s” Rome — the “City” of “God.”  No less than the divinization of the emperor, the divinization of Catholicism was a derivative of the indisputable divinity of the Roman Empire and the canonization of its wealth and political  power.  If the Catholic Church considers itself divine, it’s because it was the co-regent of Rome.  It was Rome, not Jesus, that made the Catholic Church “divine.”  And it was ultimately Rome that defined for its own purposes what kind of “divinity” Jesus was to have — Pantocrator, “The All-Ruler,” homoousios, “as high a ‘God’ as the Father himself.”  The Church became divine by marriage, not by birth — the bride of the empire, not of Christ.  Bride?  The discernible inspiration behind its behavior and attitudes throughout history has prompted reformers to call it a whore — The Whore of Babylon.[1]

Please be advised: “bride,” like the “body of Christ” is only a metaphor.  And even if you claim it was more than a metaphor for Paul, he never intended it to be applied to a transnational corporation.  The Roman Catholic corporation is not Christ.  Even when poetically applicable, as in the case of small authentically Christian communities, the error arises from taking poetry literally.  It’s one of the many “doctrinal” deceptions keeping Catholics from assuming the universalist perspective implicit in Jesus’ message — a major element in true Church reform.  The Catholic Church is only one religion among many, Christian and non-Christian, all of whom are “groping” to find “God.”  Reform does not mean the mere forensic rehabilitation of an archaic self-serving institution which has lost moral credibility due to the ineptness of its managers.  It calls for nothing less than the radical re-appro­pria­tion of the message of Jesus and the public repudiation of those “dogmas” that divinize the Roman sect and its authorities.

[1] Identifying the pagan Rome referred to in the Book of Revelations with the Vatican was invoked in the past by reformers such as Savonarola, as well as by Luther and Calvin. … [It] is in the Smalcald Articles of Luther’s time and the 1646 Westminster Confession of Calvinists. It is still professed by churches who have embraced these documents … “ Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, “The Whore of Babylon.” Washington Post, May 20, 2008.

6 comments on “Catholicism is not Universalism

  1. Jim Casey says:

    Tony, Where then is the Christian Community today? Jim Casey

    • tonyequale says:

      Jim. hi,

      The Christian Community, as usual, must choose. Not to worry, Being “human” is not that hard to to do. We are predisposed to it.


  2. Brian Coyne says:

    Bravo, Tony. Yet another cutting insight into the core of the present institutional malaise and its decline into societal irrelevance.

    I loved your opening paragraph:

    “In a recent column, Maureen Dowd made a catchy attempt to idealize Catholicism using Joyce’s phrase from Finnegan’s Wake, “here comes everybody!” But the suggested universalism is one of those fictions we have told ourselves. It is simply not true. It is not only contradicted by current Vatican attitudes, it belies the reality of Catholicism’s birth and history. The Catholic Church, despite its enormous global nominal membership, is anything but universal, it is a local, Western European self-idolizing sectarian association — more of an ethnic-cultural than a religious phenomenon — and grossly intolerant.”

    And, more so, this one:

    “These days there is great talk of reform. A reform that does not include a return to true universalism is a sham. Roman Catholic intolerance is bound up with a self-idolatry that must be acknowledged: the Church considers itself divine and it claims it was made so by Jesus himself; “divine foundation” is the ground of its sectarian intolerance and inevitable violence toward others. Dealing with that horror is the first order of business.”

    You bring into a clearer focus a whole series of ideas that have been floating around in my mind for a very long time. The “true universalism” you are referring to in the paragraph above is what I have slowly discerned over my lifetime to be at the core of the Jesus-inspired vision. We have moved a long way from that though and become, in a sense, ‘institutional idolators’ worshipping our own institutional image and claim to primacy as something bestowed by none of than God himself. In choosing the name ‘Catholica’ for our endeavour — which I unapologetically adapted from Len Swidler’s ‘Katholica’ email list — I do think somewhere deep down I was drawn to what you label above as “a return to a true universalism”.

    If any group or institution in society wants to make some claim to ‘primacy’, or leadership, or universality, in human affairs it has be based on a notion of something conferred by the people who look to it as a source of wisdom and leadership, not because it claims such a position by Divine fiat or conferral. I think Benedict-Ratzinger’s vision of a “smaller, purer Church” — which does seem to be prophetic of the future shape of the institution as it presently perceives its role in the world — is intimately linked to the respect or, more accurately, loss of respect conferred on it by its own baptised constituency and by humanity as a whole. Catholicism, under the post-Vatican II vision conferred on it by the likes of Alfredo Ottaviani, Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger has been squandering its claim to be respected as ‘truly catholic and universal’. It has been reducing itself to some ‘rump religion’ or sect or cult that is virtually indistinguishable for the thirty thousand plus other Christian denominations which all basically claim that only they have access to the knowledge that provides a passport to eternal life and everlasting salvation.

    • tonyequale says:

      The claim that Catholicism ever was universalist is an illusion created by its status as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. The work of the three men you cited did not corrupt into sectarianism what was once a universalist Church, they simply insisted on maintaining the sectarian structures that have been there since the second century — against the universalist (“ecumenical”) tendencies encouraged by Vatican II. Ratzinger’s “smaller, purer church” was more than a prediction. It was his personal preference — a goal he aimed for — the logical result of maintaining the status quo … though at 1.2 billion and rising, it’s hard to imagine Catholicism ever getting smaller, even as it gets more sectarian.

  3. Frank Lawlor says:

    When I first read your analysis of this “sell-out” in “Religion” I thought, Yes ,of course, how could anybody not realize at the time that there would surely a price to pay! How could they not realize that such a plum was just too good to be true? It was surely the most obvious and odious “devil’s bargain” in all of history!

    This thought triggered another: why did the rest of us, reading of this ancient bit of church history take it in so naively? To go almost instantly from a persecuted minority religion to the one and only official religion of the greatest and richest empire at the request of a murderous scoundrel? Wow! We all were scammed big time! I wonder if there were some Christians who saw what was being done by the Clever emperor? In reality Constatine must be credited with the most brilliant stratagem in all of Western history.

    Thanks again Tony for sharing your clear-eyed insights.

    Frank Lawlor

    • tonyequale says:

      Frank, hi!

      Good point. The Diocletian persecution was 303. Constantine’s choice was 312. Hardly any warm-up. As far as I know there was no monasticism until after the ascendency. Who knows? Maybe the desert hermits were people who saw what was happening and were so appalled that they opted out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s