On Your Marks: The Church is Catholic

June 23, 2014 | 1 comment

Note: This is the third installment in a blog series examining the four marks of the Church. In the first two posts I examined the marks of unity and holiness, which you can find here and here. In this post I would like to briefly examine the third defining mark or quality of the Church.

What does the word catholic mean?

The word catholic comes from the Greek katholikos, from kata ‘in respect of or concerning’ + holos ‘whole’, thus concerning the whole or universal. The word church comes from the Greek ekklesia, which means, “the called out ones,” as in those called out from the world and to God in order to form a distinct society. It can be said therefore that the Catholic Church is made up of those called out and gathered into the universal and visible society of believers founded by Christ.

Before Ascending to heaven, Jesus commissioned the apostles with the words:

“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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19, 20).

The late, great apologist Frank Sheed offers us the following insight into this verse as it relates to the name catholic:

"Notice first the threefold "all"—all nations, all things, all days. There has been plenty of disputation over the word "Catholic". But this one phrase of Our Lord’s should have prevented most of it. Catholic, we say, means universal; but that is merely to exchange a Greek word for a Latin one. Examining the word universal, we see that it contains two ideas, the idea of all, the idea of one: universal is some sort of unity embracing all, some way of having all in one. But all what? All nations, all teachings, all times. So Our Lord says. It is not an exaggerated description of the Catholic Church. Not by the wildest exaggeration could it be advanced as a description of any other" (Theology and Sanity, Ignatius Press).

Does the Bible anywhere use the term catholic?

The Bible does in fact employ the term catholic. Yet you wouldn't know that by reading your English translation. Remember that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. As I mentioned before, the word catholic comes from the Greek katholikos, from kata ‘in respect of or concerning’ + holos ‘whole’, thus concerning the whole or universal. There are several New Testament passages concerning the Church that employ various forms of these Greek words. Here is one such example.

"So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied" (Acts 9:31).

The following is a transliteration of this verse from the original Greek:

e men oun ekklesia kath oles tes ioudaias kai galilaias kai samareias eichen eirenen oikodomoumene kai poreuomene to phobo tou kuriou kai te paraklesei tou agiou pneumatos eplethuneto.

ekklesia kath'holes = churches throughout all (universal)

Hence the word Catholic can in fact be found in the Scriptures.

Did the early Church Fathers use the term Catholic?

The first recorded use of the phrase "Catholic Church" (ekklesia katholicos) dates back to the early second century and was already uderstood to be the defining appellation of the Church that Christ had founded. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the early followers of Jesus were initially identified as belonging to "the Way" (Acts 9:2, 19:19, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22). It was not long after that they became known as Christians (cf. 11:26). The name Christian, however, was never commonly applied to the Church herself. In the New Testament, the Church is simply called "the Church" (Mt 16:18, 18:17; Acts 5:11, 8:1, 8:3, 9:31, 11:19, 22, 26; 12:1, 5; 13:1, 14:23, 27; 15:3, 4, 22, 41;16:5; 18:22; 20:17, 28; Rom 16:1, 4). There was only one "Church". In that early period there were no break-away splinter groups substantial enough for the Church from which she would have to distinguish herself.

However, that quickly changed in the early post-apostolic age with the rise of the first sectarian groups, which forced the Church to acquire a proper name in order to distinguish herself from them and the heresies they were spreading. The name that was chosen is the name by which she has been known for the last 20 centuries - the Catholic Church.

Around the year A.D.107, Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple and successor of St. Peter, was brought to Rome to be martyred for the faith. In a farewell letter to the Church in Smyrna he writes:

"See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. 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" (Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2).

Another early instance of the word catholic is associated with Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who used the word many times. Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. Like Ignatius, Polycarp also suffered martyrdom. In A.D.155. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, written at the time of his death, we read,

“The Church of God which sojourns in Smyrna, to the Church of God which sojourns in Philomelium, and to all the dioceses of the holy and Catholic Church in every place” (Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrnam, Preface).

In A.D. 350, Cyril of Jerusalem writes,

"[The Church] is called catholic, then, because it extends over the whole world, from end to end of the earth, and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly, and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness, governors and governed, learned and unlearned, and because it universally treats and heals every class of sins, those committed with the soul and those with the body, and it possesses within itself every conceivable form of virtue, in deeds and in words and in the spiritual gifts of every description" (Catechetical Lectures 18:23). 

"And if you ever are visiting in cities, do not inquire simply where the house of the Lord is—for the others, sects of the impious, attempt to call their dens ‘houses of the Lord’—nor ask merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the name peculiar to this holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God" (ibid., 18:26). 

In the fourth century we have one of the most influential of the Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo, clearly asserting throughout his many writings, the traditional and wide-spread use of the term catholic.

"We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is catholic and which is called catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies. For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly they call her nothing else but Catholic. For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name which the whole world employs in her regard" (The True Religion 7:12 [A.D. 390]).

"We believe in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church; for heretics and schismatics call their own congregations churches. But heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God, and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor" (Faith and Creed 10:21 [A.D. 393]).

"For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual men attain in this life, so as to know it, in the scantiest measure, indeed, because they are but men, still without any uncertainty (since the rest of the multitude derive their entire security not from acuteness of intellect, but from simplicity of faith,)— not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be 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, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself 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, though from the slowness of our understanding, or the small attainment of our life, the truth may not yet fully disclose itself. But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church; but if there is only a promise without any fulfillment, no one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion. (Against the Letter of Mani called “The Foundation”, 4, 5 [A.D. 397]).

"But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." (ibid, 5:6). 

Finally, the early usage and importance of the word Catholic can also be seen by its inclusion in the the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which summarize the fundamental and unchangeable beliefs of Christians.

"[I believe in] the holy catholic Church" (The Apostles Creed)

"We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church" (The Nicene Creed)

In what way is the Church Catholic?

According to the Catechism, The Church is catholic or universal both because she possesses the fullness of Christ’s presence and the means of salvation, and because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race.

The word “catholic” means “universal,” in the sense of “according to the totality” or “in keeping with the whole.” The Church is catholic in a double sense:

First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. “Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church.” In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him “the fullness of the means of salvation” which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.

Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race: All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God’s will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one.... The character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit (CCC 830, 831).

In my next installment, we will examine the fourth and final mark of the Church, namely its apostolicity


Hector Molina is a dynamic lay Catholic speaker and apologist with over 20 years of experience in professional pastoral ministry and leadership in the Church. It was during his early years as a Youth Minister that Hector discerned his call to lay ecclesial ministry. He pursued his theological studies at...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

It was at a Chrism Mass at St. Pauls Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama that I realized just how Catholic the Church is. It was awesome to see so many Priests of so many nationalities. It was a great feeling and great example of our Lord sending His Apostles to preach the Gospel to the whole world.

July 1, 2014 at 8:25 pm PST

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