One of the most important defining traits of the Catholic religion is its universality. In fact, the very word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ so the Catholic Church is in fact the Universal Church. Even Protestants profess belief in the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.’ This is a significant consideration, in light of the fact that, before the Catholic/Christian faith was preached by the Apostles, religions had generally been specific to particular cultures. This was true even of the one religion that had been Divinely revealed and contained positive Divine precepts.
In the ancient world, every culture had a religion, as discussed in a previous post. However, each culture’s religion was different, and was generally inseparable from the particular culture as a whole. Oftentimes the ancients did not stop to rationally consider whether the gods they worshipped were real, or whether their beliefs about the gods were objectively true, more so than another people’s. It was simply part of the culture that had been handed down. And over the years, as different cultures interacted, intermarried, and intertwined, they inevitably adopted many of each other’s customs, including worshipping each other’s gods, without worrying about whether it was proper to do so.
The Israelite people were an exception insofar as they worshipped only one God, Whom they knew had directly revealed Himself to them as the sole Creator of heaven and earth, and had insisted that they worship Him alone. It’s not entirely clear whether they fully understood that the gods of all other nations were simply false, or whether they merely believed that their LORD was ‘a great king above all gods’ and that it was their special charism to worship Him exclusively. Most likely, their understanding of this developed over time, especially through the preaching of the various Prophets. At any rate, however, they still possessed a surprising similarity to any other ancient people.
The Israelites, later known as the Jews, still regarded their own religion as being unique to their particular culture, for they alone were the LORD’s chosen people. He revealed to them through Moses many particular laws about what and how to eat and drink, what to wear, how to approach marital relations, when and how to wash their bodies and various items, and how to segregate persons in conditions deemed ‘unclean’ in various ways. Such laws would seem quite micromanaging by our modern standards. But it is understood that God made the Jewish ceremonial law in His Infinite Wisdom, because He knew that such standards were exactly what this particular people needed to remind them that they were peculiarly His own, separate from the pagan peoples surrounding them. For them, Mosaic Law became their own version of a particular cultural religious practice, one and the same with the single proper way to worship the true God.
This is also intimately connected with the realization that the Israelites had very little of a charism for preaching the true God to any other people or nation. The ‘micromanaging’ Mosaic Law contained many precepts that were not at all necessitated by the natural law, and could not have been at all well received by any other culture. They were custom-designed, as it were, to suit the needs of the one people God had chosen. And as the singular Chosen People, the Jews were not endowed with bringing other nations to the worship of the true God. Of course, there were prophecies throughout the Old Testament of the other nations coming to worship the true God, such as in Isaiah 66:18-24 and in Psalm 72:8-11. But these prophecies were fulfilled only in the New Testament, when Christ commissioned the Apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)
Then the Apostles began preaching the Gospel to all the world, both Jews and pagans, even being given a miraculous ability to speak languages they had never learned so that their message could spread to all peoples. People of many lands received the Gospel truth, came to believe, and were baptized. Thus, God’s revelation of His truth was now given to all peoples. Jewish converts recognized that the Gospel fulfilled what had been revealed until then, while Gentile converts abandoned their worship of many gods in favor of the One True God Who was preached to them. The Mosaic Law passed away and did not bind Gentile Christians, for its purpose of setting the Jews apart had been fulfilled and was no more. Instead, for the first time in history, people of many cultures began to profess one Lord, one faith, and one truth; and many different cultural expressions grew up that were all meant to express belief in the one truth, one faith, and one Lord.