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History of the term "Catholic"

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For the beliefs and history of the church led by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, see Catholic Church.
For the beliefs and practices other churches that use this term, see Catholicism.

The word catholic (with lowercase c; derived via Late Latin catholicus, from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning "universal"[1][2]) comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (katholou), meaning "on the whole", "according to the whole" or "in general", and is a combination of the Greek words κατά meaning "about" and ὅλος meaning "whole".[3][4] The word in English can mean either "including a wide variety of things; all-embracing" or "of the Roman Catholic faith" as "relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church.".[5] ("Catholicos, the title used for the head of some churches in Eastern Christian traditions, is derived from the same linguistic origin.)

The term Catholic (usually written with uppercase C in English) was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early 2nd century to emphasize its universal scope. In the context of Christian ecclesiology, it has a rich history and several usages. In non-ecclesiastical use, it derives its English meaning directly from its root, and is currently used to mean the following:

  • universal or of general interest;
  • liberal, having broad interests, or wide sympathies;[6] or
  • inclusive, inviting and containing strong evangelism.

The term has been incorporated into the name of the largest Christian communion, the Catholic Church (also called the Roman Catholic Church). However, many other Christians use the term "Catholic" (sometimes with a lower-case letter "c") to refer more broadly to the whole Christian Church or to all believers in Jesus Christ regardless of denominational affiliation.[7][8]

The Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Methodists believe that their churches are "Catholic" in the sense that they are in continuity with the original universal church founded by the Apostles. However, each church defines the scope of the "Catholic Church" differently. For instance, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches each maintain that their own denomination is identical with the original universal church, from which all other denominations broke away.

Almost all Christians who call themselves "Catholic" believe that bishops are considered the highest order of ministers within the Christian religion.[9] Along with unity, sanctity, and apostolicity, catholicity is considered one of Four Marks of the Church,[10] in line with the Nicene Creed of 381: "I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." This tradition within Christianity is broadly known as Catholicism.

History of ecclesiastical use of the term

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius of Antioch

The earliest recorded evidence of the use of the term "Catholic Church" is the Letter to the Smyrnaeans that Ignatius of Antioch wrote in about 107 to Christians in Smyrna. Exhorting Christians to remain closely united with their bishop, he wrote: "Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."[11][12][13]

Of the meaning for Ignatius of this phrase J.H. Srawley wrote:

This is the earliest occurrence in Christian literature of the phrase 'the Catholic Church' (ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία). The original sense of the word is 'universal'. Thus Justin Martyr (Dial. 82) speaks of the 'universal or general resurrection', using the words ἡ καθολικὴ ἀνάστασις. Similarly here the Church universal is contrasted with the particular Church of Smyrna. Ignatius means by the Catholic Church 'the aggregate of all the Christian congregations' (Swete, Apostles Creed, p. 76). So too the letter of the Church of Smyrna is addressed to all the congregations of the Holy Catholic Church in every place. And this primitive sense of 'universal' the word has never lost, although in the latter part of the second century it began to receive the secondary sense of 'orthodox' as opposed to 'heretical'. Thus it is used in an early Canon of Scripture, the Muratorian fragment (circa 170 A.D.), which refers to certain heretical writings as 'not received in the Catholic Church'. So too Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, says that the Church is called Catholic not only 'because it is spread throughout the world', but also 'because it teaches completely and without defect all the doctrines which ought to come to the knowledge of men'. This secondary sense arose out of the original meaning because Catholics claimed to teach the whole truth, and to represent the whole Church, while heresy arose out of the exaggeration of some one truth and was essentially partial and local.[14][15]

By Catholic Church Ignatius designated the universal church. Ignatius considered that certain heretics of his time, who disavowed that Jesus was a material being who actually suffered and died, saying instead that "he only seemed to suffer" (Smyrnaeans, 2), were not really Christians.[16]

Other second-century uses

The term is also used in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (155) and in the Muratorian fragment (about 177).

Cyril of Jerusalem

As mentioned in the above quotation from J.H. Srawley, Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386), who is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion, distinguished what he called the "Catholic Church" from other groups who could also refer to themselves as an ἐκκλησία (assembly or church):

Since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly (Acts 19:14), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, "And in one Holy Catholic Church"; that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated. And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God(Catechetical Lectures, XVIII, 26).[17]

Theodosius I

Theodosius I

Theodosius I, Emperor from 379 to 395, declared "Catholic" Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, declaring in the Edict of Thessalonica of 27 February 380:

It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one Deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven, will decide to inflict.[18] Theodosian Code XVI.i.2

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo

Only slightly later, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) also used the term "Catholic" to distinguish the "true" church from heretical groups:

In the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep (Jn 21:15–19), down to the present episcopate.

And so, lastly, does the very name of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.

Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should ... With you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me... No one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion... For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. —St. Augustine (354–430): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith.

— St. Augustine (354–430): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith.[19]

St Vincent of Lerins

A contemporary of Augustine, St. Vincent of Lerins, wrote in 434 (under the pseudonym Peregrinus) a work known as the Commonitoria ("Memoranda"). While insisting that, like the human body, church doctrine develops while truly keeping its identity (sections 54-59, chapter XXIII),[20] he stated:

"In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense 'catholic,' which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors" (section 6, end of chapter II).[21]

Divergent usages

Use by the Catholic Church

In the English language, the first known use of the term is in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, "He was a constant Catholic/All Lollard he hated and heretic."[22]

The term "Catholic" is commonly associated with the whole of the church led by the Roman Pontiff, the Catholic Church, and whose over one billion adherents are about half of the estimated 2.1 billion Christians. Other Christian churches also laying claim to the description "Catholic" include the Eastern Orthodox Church and those churches possessing the historic episcopate (bishops), such as those of the Anglican Communion. Some of them claim to be the one true Catholic Church from which, in their view, other Christians, including those in communion with the Pope, have fallen away.[23][24]

Many of those who apply the term "Catholic Church" to all Christians object to the use of the term to designate what they view as only one church within what they understand as the "whole" Catholic Church. However, the church in communion with the Bishop of Rome, both in its Western form and in that of the Eastern Catholic Churches, has always considered itself to be the historic Catholic Church, with all others as "non-Catholics" and regularly refers to itself as "the Catholic Church". This practice is an application of the belief that not all who claim to be Christians are part of the Catholic Church, as Ignatius of Antioch, the earliest known writer to use the term "Catholic Church", considered that certain heretics who called themselves Christians only seemed to be such.[25]

Though normally distinguishing itself from other churches by calling itself the "Catholic Church", it also uses the description "Roman Catholic Church". Even apart from documents drawn up jointly with other churches, it has sometimes, in view of the central position it attributes to the See of Rome, adopted the adjective "Roman" for the whole church, Eastern as well as Western, as in the papal encyclicals Divini illius Magistri and Humani generis. Another example is its self-description as "the holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church"[26] (or, by separating each adjective, as the "Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church"[27]) in the 24 April 1870 Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith of the First Vatican Council. In all of these documents it also refers to itself both simply as the Catholic Church and by other names. The Eastern Catholic Churches, while united with Rome in the faith, have their own traditions and laws, differing from those of the Latin Rite and those of other Eastern Catholic Churches.

Orthodox Christians

The Eastern Orthodox Church also identifies itself as Catholic, as in the title of The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church. So does the Coptic Church, which, being part of Oriental Orthodoxy, is not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox Church and considers itself "the True Church of the Lord Jesus Christ".[28]

After the East-West Schism, conventionally dated to 1054, a brief reunification was agreed to between the Pope and a number of Eastern Orthodox bishops at the Council of Florence. However, this agreement was denied by one of the Orthodox bishops present, namely Mark of Ephesus, and the common people of the Orthodox churches generally rejected the agreement as well. Pope Benedict XVI stated his wish to restore full unity with the Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church considers that almost all of the ancient theological differences have been satisfactorily addressed (the Filioque clause, the nature of purgatory, etc.), and has declared that differences in traditional customs, observances and discipline are no obstacle to unity.[29]

Recent historic ecumenical efforts on the part of the Catholic Church have focused on healing the rupture between the Western ("Catholic") and the Eastern ("Orthodox") churches. Pope John Paul II often spoke of his great desire that the Catholic Church "once again breathe with both lungs",[30][31] thus emphasizing that the Roman Catholic Church seeks to restore full communion with the separated Eastern churches.[32]

Anglican and Old Catholic

Anglicans and Old Catholics see themselves as a communion within the Catholic Church and Lutherans see themselves as "a reform movement within the greater church catholic".[citation needed]

Some Anglicans and Old Catholics accept that, among bishops, that of Rome is primus inter pares, and hold that conciliarism is a necessary check against ultramontanism.

Other Western Christians

  • The term is used also to mean those Christian churches that maintain that their episcopate can be traced unbrokenly back to the apostles and consider themselves part of a catholic (universal) body of believers. Among those who regard themselves as Catholic but not Roman Catholic are Anglicans and some Lutherans, who stress that they are both Reformed and Catholic. The Old Catholic Church and the various groups classified as Independent Catholic Churches also lay claim to the description Catholic. Traditionalist Catholics, even if they may not be in communion with Rome, consider themselves to be not only Catholics but the "true" Roman Catholics.

Methodists and Presbyterians believe their denominations owe their origins to the Apostles and the early church, but do not claim descent from ancient church structures such as the episcopate. However, both of these churches hold that they are a part of the catholic (universal) church. According to Harper's New Monthly Magazine:

The various Protestant sects can not constitute one church because they have no intercommunion...each Protestant Church, whether Methodist or Baptist or whatever, is in perfect communion with itself everywhere as the Roman Catholic; and in this respect, consequently, the Roman Catholic has no advantage or superiority, except in the point of numbers. As a further necessary consequence, it is plain that the Roman Church is no more Catholic in any sense than a Methodist or a Baptist.[33]

Henry Mills AldenHarper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 37, Issues 217-222

As such, according to one viewpoint, for those who "belong to the Church," the term Methodist Catholic, or Presbyterian Catholic, or Baptist Catholic, is as proper as the term Roman Catholic.[34] It simply means that body of Christian believers over the world who agree in their religious views, and accept the same ecclesiastical forms.[34]

Avoidance of usage

Some Protestant churches avoid using the term completely, to the extent among many Lutherans of reciting the Creed with the word "Christian" in place of "catholic".[35][36][37] The Orthodox churches share some of the concerns about Roman Catholic papal claims, but disagree with some Protestants about the nature of the church as one body.

See also


  1. ^ "Catholic". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. 
  2. ^ (cf. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon)
  3. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2011-09-16. 
  4. ^ "On Being Catholic," by Claire Anderson M.Div.
  5. ^ "catholic". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  6. ^ American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.). 
  7. ^ "Beliefs and Social Issues, FAQ". United Methodist Church. Retrieved December 2009. 
  8. ^ "ELCA Terminology". Evengelical Lutheran Church in America. Retrieved December 2009. 
  9. ^ F.L. Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1977:175.
  10. ^ Christliche Religion, Oskar Simmel Rudolf Stählin, 1960, 150
  11. ^ "Chapter VIII.—Let nothing be done without the bishop". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 21 November 2008. 
  12. ^ Angle, Paul T. (2007). The Mysterious Origins of Christianity. Wheatmark, Inc. ISBN 9781587368219. 
  13. ^ J. H. Srawley (1900). "Ignatius Epistle to the Smyrnaeans". Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  14. ^ [J.H. Srawley, The Epistles of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, vol. II,] pp. 41-42
  15. ^ another edition, p.97
  16. ^ "As certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians". Ignatius said these heretics did not believe in the reality of Christ's flesh, which did suffer and was raised up again: "They confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again" (Smyrnaeans, 7) and called them "beasts in the shape of men, whom you must not only not receive, but, if it be possible, not even meet with" (Smyrnaeans, 4).
  17. ^ "Catechetical Lecture 18 (Ezekiel xxxvii)". Retrieved 2012-03-31. 
  18. ^ Bettenson, Henry (1967). Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press US. p. 22. ISBN 9780195012934. 
  19. ^ "Chapter 5.—Against the Title of the Epistle of Manichæus". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 21 November 2008. 
  20. ^ Vincent of Lerins. "A Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies.". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2012-03-05. 
  21. ^ Vincent of Lerins. "A Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies.". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2012-03-05. 
  22. ^ "Catholic", in Oxford English Dictionary(1989), New York: Oxford University Press, [spelling modernized].
  23. ^ Steven Kovacevich, Apostolic Christianity and the 23,000 Western Churches, especially p. 15[dead link]
  24. ^ Basic Principles Of The Attitude of The Russian Orthodox Church toward the Other Christian Confessions, adopted by the Jubilee Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, 14 August 2000
  25. ^ Smyrnaeans, 2
  26. ^ English translation by Henry Edward Manning in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom: Volume II. The History of Creeds
  27. ^ Pope Pius IX; Vatican (1870-04-24). "First Vatican Council – Session 3: Dogmatic constitution on the Catholic faith". Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  28. ^ Characteristics of Our Coptic Church
  29. ^ Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism, 16
  30. ^ Encyciclical Ut unum sint, 54
  31. ^ Apostolic Constitution Sacri Canones
  32. ^ Obituary of Pope John Paul II
  33. ^ Alden, Henry Mills (1868). Harper's new monthly magazine, Volume 37, Issues 217-222. Harper's Magazine Co. Retrieved 2007-03-25. The various Protestant sects can not constitute one church because they have no intercommunion...each Protestant Church, whether Methodist or Baptist or whatever, is in perfect communion with itself everywhere as the Roman Catholic; and in this respect, consequently, the Roman Catholic has no advantage or superiority, except in the point of numbers. As a further necessary consequence, it is plain that the Roman Church is no more Catholic in any sense than a Methodist or a Baptist. 
  34. ^ a b Harper's magazine, Volume 37. Harper's Magazine Co. 1907. Retrieved 2007-03-25. For those who "belong to the Church," the term Methodist Catholic, or Presbyterian Catholic, or Baptist Catholic, is as proper as the term Roman Catholic. It simply means that body of Christian believers over the world who agree in their religious views, and accept the same ecclesiastical forms. 
  35. ^ "Nicene Creed". The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  36. ^ "Nicene Creed". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Retrieved 2007-06-24. 
  37. ^ "Nicene Creed". International Lutheran Fellowship. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-06-24. 

External links