Delio breathes new life into term 'catholic'


By Ilia Delio
Published by Orbis Books, $25

In the introduction to her 2011 book, The Emergent Christ, Franciscan Sr. Ilia Delio enthusiastically tells her readers that she has discovered "a fresh, new meaning" for the word catholic. She found it in the book Where Is Knowing Going?, in which the author, Jesuit Fr. John Haughey, explained that term catholic comes from the Greek katholikos.

Kata, a preposition meaning "through," and holou, a noun meaning "the whole," when coupled become kath' holou, an adverb meaning wholly. "Katholikos, a substantive that is best rendered 'catholicity' in English, ... connotes movement towards universality or wholeness," Haughey wrote.

The parsing of katholikos planted a seed in Delio's consciousness. "Haughey's insights into catholic liberate this word from layers of history that have enclosed it in a sealed-tight container, opening it up to its truest meaning as the very inner dynamic of an evolutionary universe," she wrote in The Emergent Christ.

Catholicity continued to germinate in Delio's subsequent book, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being (2013). And now in her latest work, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness, the word bears its first fruits.

"The early Greeks coined the word catholic to describe attunement to the physical order. ... To live in catholicity was to have a sense of the cosmos or the whole order of things," Delio explains in the introduction.

The early Christians adopted the word catholic to describe the church because, for them, Jesus was a "whole-maker," whose love, mercy and compassion healed a fragmented humanity. Jesus signified a new creation, and for the early church "to have a sense of the whole was to have a consciousness of Christ and to gather into community as one in Christ."

Unfortunately, as the church became an intellectual and cultural force with the rise of Constantine, the meaning of catholicity was detached from wholeness, and the cosmos and was conflated with orthodoxy, the pope and the institutional church.

Delio spends the first section of the book charting the decline of catholicity throughout Christian history. The downward spiral began in the fourth century with the development of the Nicene Creed -- a confessional prayer that was intended to "consolidate the Christian faith in the empire" -- when the Greek katholikos was translated into Latin as universalis, which means "to turn as one."

Though the Council of Nicea quelled the raging battle over the nature of Jesus' divinity, the result was that Christians forgot how to "see God amid the stars" and instead focused on defending doctrine.

"Catholicity was no longer a function of cosmology but orthodoxy," Delio writes.

Though the theology of Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas reintegrated the cosmos, God and the human person, the subsequent rise of Scholasticism in the 12th century subjected God and the cosmos to logic and analytical reasoning. Theology became dominated by left-brain thinking.

Scientific study only exacerbated the problem. When Copernicus proved, in the 16th century, that the Earth revolved around the sun, the resulting heliocentrism relegated "the human person to the margins of a spinning planet." Humans were disconnected from cosmos, and God no longer gave creation its meaning and purpose.

By the late 19th century, catholicity devolved into a set of rules and instructions. "Like Newton's world, the Church was governed by law and order; a mechanistic church in a mechanistic world," Delio writes. The systematization of grace and personal salvation left "the natural world bereft of any sacred meaning other than its usefulness in serving humanity."

"We have become the most unnatural of species, disconnected from nature and from one another," Delio writes. This artificial separation between human beings and the cosmos may be the greatest contributor to the ecological degradation that now threatens our very existence.

Followers of Delio's work will not be surprised to discover that she reaches out to the Teilhard de Chardin for hope. "By bringing together evolution and Christianity in a single vision, Teilhard restored catholicity to its original meaning: consciousness of belonging to a whole and making new wholes by thinking and acting toward wholeness."

But religion has a long way to go before it becomes a place where catholicity can thrive, Delio says. Though most world religions are united in their concern for justice, peace, care for the poor, and stewardship of the Earth, they still remain deeply divided on theological and moral issues. None of them has integrated the cosmos and evolution into their religious code.

"World religions are basically united on the level of human welfare, but divided on human destiny," she writes.

Delio offers up both Pope Francis and the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious as models of catholicity in our times, but argues that the institutional church to which they are attached will need to transform into an "open system" in order to recover its own catholicity.

Using insights from systems theory, she suggests that the church currently operates as a "closed system" because it does not allow its external environment to affect the way it functions. Instead, it "runs according to law and order."

Delio envisions an "open-systems church" that would be grounded in openness to God and the newness of life, and willing to accept itself as an organic body that is part of an evolutionary process. Its leaders should act as "designers, stewards, and teachers," rather than monarchs who rule over a powerless people.

"In a self-organizing world of open systems, all change is local," Delio writes. "Universal change is virtually impossible." This, she argues, is the key reason why Vatican II struggled to implement universal changes. An open-systems church would have to be open to allowing change on the local level.

The church, obviously, is not there yet, and Delio sees catholicity and whole-making bursting with far more life in the world outside of religious institutions. She reflects on the crowds she witnessed at a recent jazz festival and at a Nationals baseball game. "I had an experience of what a 'christified' world might look like, a world of many different persons, nationalities, cultures, and religions, sharing the earth, joining together in the rhythm of life."

What makes Delio unique among contemporary Catholic spiritual writers is her interest in futuristic technology and her willingness to contemplate its impact on the evolution of human consciousness. She devotes significant reflection to the predictions of "transhumanists," those who "look to a postbiological future where superinformational beings will flourish and biological limits such as disease, aging, and death will be overcome."

Though she warns that our increasing dependence on machines threatens to depersonalize and isolate us, she holds out hope that we can harness technology for a transcendent and unified goal. "We are created for wholeness, and thus we are created for community. Technology can enhance or deepen life, but it depends on how we use it," she writes.

Those who are new to Delio's work should feel comfortable starting with this book since, throughout its pages, she summarizes many of the fundamental lessons and ideas of her earlier work. Making All Things builds upon many of Delio's previous insights, but its greatest contribution is the new life that she breathes into the word catholic.

Her book may not help progressive Catholics reclaim their church, but it will greatly aid them in making sense of their ties to the Catholic tradition and in finding new reasons to claim their Catholic identity. It will also deepen the possibilities of those, especially among the millennial generation, who seek to realize the ideals of religion -- whole-making, community-building and spiritual practice -- outside of the institutional church.

[Jamie L. Manson is a columnist and books editor at NCR. Her email address is jman]

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