Catholic--The word comes from the Greek meaning "through the whole," that is "universal," "world-wide," "all inclusive." This is the meaning when the word starts with a lower-case c as in "We need to become more catholic in our attitudes." In talking about the "Catholic church" (Catholic with a capital C), members often mean "the pope and the bishops" or "the Vatican." But Vatican Council II, in its Constitution on the Church, used several other terms with inclusive meanings like "the People of God."
People in the West refer to the Catholic church, meaning the Roman Catholic church. But that western usage is not entirely accurate because there are other branches of the Catholic church that are not Roman, but eastern; and they have their own rites of worship, their own theology, and their own church law. This fact was dramatized at Vatican II every time Maximos IV Saigh (1878-1967), the Melkite patriarch of Antioch in Syria, spoke. He kept reminding the bishops about this Catholic diversity and--refusing to use Latin, the official language of the Council--always delivered his remarks in French.
So the word Catholic can be ambiguous. Some people, when they hear the word, think "thought control" or "one-issue myopia." Even if there is some justification for their attitude, they are probably operating with little more than a news-media knowledge of Catholicism, with no sense of the rich and diverse Catholic intellectual tradition, the artistic tradition accompanying it, the Catholic social justice tradition since 1891, or the witness of heroic lives lived in the past and especially in our own time.
For us in Jesuit education, the question is often "Are we maintaining and enhancing our 'Catholic Identity'?" Despite the fact that there are entire books devoted to the question, the answer is not easy to come by. A careful reading of the various essays on "The Issue of Catholic Identity" in A Jesuit Education Reader seems to indicate both that much is being done and that more needs to be done.
After the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and 16th-century Catholic reform, for centuries prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), there was a homogeneity to Catholic belief, theology, and practice in most of Europe and North America. That kind of unity now feels long-gone, for there is currently such a broad spectrum--one might almost say polarization--of Catholic theologies and spiritualities that some Catholics feel "closer" to some Protestants than they do to other Catholics. It seems likely that the Catholic unity of the future will be far from uniformity, but rather will incorporate some of present-day pluralism within its unity.
Sometimes the controversy surrounding the word Catholic comes from using it to enforce a narrow version of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, of course, is part of the word's meaning. But when "Catholic" becomes a weapon to denounce people as "heretics," it contributes to a climate of fear that inhibits "faith seeking understanding," the theologizing necessary for a healthy church.
Over against those who may be giving exclusive attention to Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy, many of today's Latin American Catholic theologians emphasize "orthopraxis"--living the demands of Catholic faith (rather than just having the right ideas or formulations). Many martyrs of our time, they would say, are powerful exemplars of Catholic orthopraxis.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996), archbishop of Cincinnati and then of Chicago, taught a Catholic pro-life morality of the "seamless garment." By it, he challenged Catholics who while apparently opposing abortion also opposed the kind of government help that would enable a poor woman to bring her baby to term and raise the child. And by the same token, he challenged other Catholics who while favoring government aid for the poor were apparently pro-abortion. The call was to be pro-life "from womb to tomb."