<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

What Does Catholic Mean?

Steve Ray

As a Protestant, I went to an Evangelical church that changed an important and historic word in the Apostle’s Creed. Instead of the “holy, catholic Church,” we were the “holy, Christian Church.” At the time, I thought nothing of it. There was certainly no evil intent but just a loathing of the Catholic Church and a desire to distance ourselves from its heresy and manmade traditions. I assumed that Catholics deviated early on from “biblical Christianity,” so they simply invented a new word to describe their new society. Since we Evangelicals were supposedly the ones faithful to the Bible, we had no interest in the word catholic, since it was found nowhere between the covers of the Bible. It was a biased word loaded with negative baggage, so we removed it from the Creed.

I should have asked myself, “Where did the word catholic come from, and what does it mean?” Was I right to assume that Roman Catholics invented the word to set themselves apart from biblical Christianity?

A short investigation will turn up some valuable information. Let’s start with an understanding of doctrinal development and the definition of catholic. Then let’s “interview” the very first Christians to see what they thought of the Church and the word catholic. Lastly, we will study the Bible itself.

How Doctrines and Words Develop

The development of doctrine is not just a Catholic phenomenon. It occurs also among Protestants and all religions or theological traditions. Over time, theological words develop to help explain the deeper understanding of the faith. As Christians ponder the revelation passed on by the apostles and deposited in the Church, the Church mulls over God’s word, thinking deeper and deeper.

Development of doctrine defines, sharpens, and interprets the deposit of faith. The Bible is not a theological textbook or a detailed church manual such as, say, a catechism or study guide. The Bible’s meaning is not always clear, as Peter tells us (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15?16). Thirty thousand competing Protestant denominations make this fact apparent as they fail to agree on what the Bible says. It takes the authority of a universal Church and the successors of the apostles to formulate the doctrines of the faith properly. As an Evangelical, I was naïve enough to think I could reinvent the theological wheel for myself.

To illustrate doctrinal development, let’s look at the word Trinity. It never appears in the Bible, nor does the Bible give explicit formulas for the nature of the Trinity as commonly used today, such as “one God in three persons,” or “three persons, one nature.” Yet the word Trinity, as developed within the Catholic Church, is an essential belief for nearly every Protestant denomination. The first recorded use of the word was in the writings of Theophilus of Antioch around A.D. 180. Although they are not found in the Bible, the early Church developed words such as Trinity that are used to define and explain an essential Christian doctrine.

While many Protestants object to the idea of development of doctrine within the Catholic Church, they have no problem with developments in their own camp—even novelties and inventions. Take for example the word Rapture, also not found in the Bible and not used in any theological circles until the nineteenth century.

It was the Catholic Church that defined the Blessed Trinity, the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in the one person of Jesus, salvation, baptism, the Eucharist, and all the other doctrines that have been the bedrock of the Christian faith. It is also the Catholic Church that gave birth to the New Testament—collecting, canonizing, preserving, distributing, and interpreting the books therein. As a Protestant, I was quite willing to accept unknowingly the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the closed canon of the New Testament, etc., but I willfully rejected the full teaching of the Catholic Church. I now realize that it is in the Catholic Church that we find the fullness of the faith and the visible, universal body of Christ.

The Word Catholic Defined

Catholic comes from the Greek katholikos, the combination of two words, kata (concerning), and holos (whole). According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the word catholic comes from a Greek word meaning “regarding the whole,” or, more simply, “universal” or “general.” The word church comes from the Greek ecclesia, which means “those called out,” as in those summoned out of the world at large to form a distinct society. So the Catholic Church is made up of those called out and gathered into the universal society founded by Christ.

For roughly its first decade of existence, the Church was made up exclusively of Jews in the area of Jerusalem. But as the Church grew and spread across the Roman Empire, it incorporated Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, Romans, freemen, and even slaves—men and women from every tribe and tongue. By the third century, one out of ten people in the Roman Empire was a Catholic. Just as the word Trinity was appropriated to describe the nature of God, so the term catholicwas appropriated to describe the nature of Christ’s mystical body, the Church.

But let’s get back to the history of the word catholic. The first recorded use of the word is found in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, who was a young man during the time of the apostles and was the second bishop of Antioch following Peter, who went on to become bishop of Rome. Ignatius was immersed in the living traditions of the local church in Antioch, where the believers in Christ were first called Christians (cf. Acts 11:26). He was taught and ordained directly by the apostles. From the apostles Ignatius learned what the Church was—how it was to function, grow, and be governed.

History informs us that Peter was the bishop of Antioch at the time; in fact, Church Fathers claim that Ignatius was ordained by Peter himself. Ignatius must have worshiped with Peter and Paul and John. He lived with or near them and was an understudy of these special apostles. Ignatius is known and revered as an authentic witness to the traditions and practice of the apostles.

In the existing documents that have come down to us, Ignatius is the first to use the word catholic in reference to the Church. On his way to Rome, under military escort to the Coliseum, where he would be devoured by lions for his faith, he wrote, “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8).

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 just as John was a disciple of Jesus. Like Ignatius, Polycarp suffered the martyr’s death in a coliseum in A.D. 155. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, written at the time of Polycarp’s death, we read, “The Church of God that sojourns in Smyrna, to the Church of God that sojourns in Philomelium, and to all the dioceses of the holy and Catholic Church in every place” (Epistle of the Church at Smyrna, preface).

Later in the same book it says that “Polycarp had finished his prayer, in which he remembered everyone with whom he had ever been acquainted . . . and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world.” They then gave him up to wild beasts, fire, and, finally, the sword. The epistle then concludes: “Now with the apostles and all the just, [Polycarp] is glorifying God and the Father Almighty, and he is blessing our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world” (8).

So we see that early in the second century, Christians regularly use the word catholic as an established description of the Church. From the second century on, we see the term being used consistently by the theologians and writers. One can conclude that catholic was a very early description of the Church

Augustine in the fourth century, relying on the tradition of the early Church, minces no words asserting the importance and widespread use of the term: “We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is Catholic, and is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies” (The True Religion 7, 12). And again, “The very name of Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called Catholic, when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house” (Against the Letter of Mani called “The Foundation” 4, 5).

The early usage and importance of the word also can be seen in both the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creeds. If you were a Christian in the first millennium, you were a Catholic, and if you were a Catholic you recited the Creeds affirming the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Unhappily, some people today try to make a distinction between Catholic with a capital C and catholic with a small c, but such a distinction is a recent development and unheard of in the early Church.

Biblical Understanding of the Word Catholic

Jesus commissioned his 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 lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20). As Frank Sheed reminds us, “Notice first the threefold ‘all’—all nations, all things, all days. Catholic, we say, means ‘universal.’ Examining the word universal, we see that it contains two ideas: the idea of all, the idea of 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, 284).

Jesus used the word church twice in the Gospels, both in Matthew. He said, “I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). He didn’t say “churches” as though he were building subdivisions, nor did he imply that it would be an invisible church made up of competing groups. He was going to build a visible, recognizable Church, as shown by the fact that he appointed Peter to lead it in his absence. And in Matthew 18:17, Jesus said that if one brother offends another they were to take it to “the Church.” Notice the article “the” referring to a specific entity. Not “churches” but one visible, recognizable Church that can be expected to have a recognizable leadership with universal authority.

One can see the sad state of “Christendom” today by comparing it to Jesus’ words about “the Church.” If a Methodist offends a Baptist, or a Presbyterian offends a Pentecostal, which church do they take it to for adjudication? This alone demonstrates the problem when 30,000 denominations exist outside the bounds of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Jesus intended there to be one universal, authoritative, visible—and, yes, Catholic—Church to represent him on earth until his return.

Just before he was crucified, Jesus prayed not only for the universality and catholicity of the Church but for its visible unity: “That they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given me I have given to them that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17:21?23, NASB).

The early Church understood Jesus’ words. What good was an invisible, theoretical, impractical unity? For the world to see a catholic unity, the oneness of the Church must be a visible, real, and physical reality. All of this the Catholic Church is. Since the earliest centuries Christians have confessed that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” One because there is only one, visible, organic, and unified Church; holy because it is called out of the world to be the Bride of Christ, righteous and sanctified; catholic because it is universal and unified; apostolic because Christ founded it through his apostles (cf. Matt. 16:18), and the apostles’ authority are carried on through the bishops. Through the centuries, this creed has been the statement of the Church.

Likewise today, Christians need to stand confident and obedient in the heart of the Catholic Church. It has been our mother, steadfastly carrying out the mandate of Jesus Christ for two thousand years. As an Evangelical Protestant, I thought I could ignore the creeds and councils of the Church. I was mistaken. I now understand that Jesus requires us to listen to his Church, the Church to which he gave the authority to bind and to loose (cf. Matt. 16:19; 18:18)—the Catholic Church, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15).

Related

Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate