The word Catholic (katholikos from katholou — throughout the whole, i.e., universal) occurs in the Greek classics, e.g., in Aristotle and Polybius, and was freely used by the earlier Christian writers in what we may call its primitive and non-ecclesiastical sense. Thus we meet such phrases as the “the catholic resurrection” (Justin Martyr), “the catholic goodness of God” (Tertullian), “the four catholic winds” (Irenaeus), where we should now speak of “the general resurrection”, “the absolute or universal goodness of God“, “the four principal winds”, etc. The word seems in this usage to be opposed to merikos (partial) or idios (particular), and one familiar example of this conception still survives in the ancient phrase “Catholic Epistles” as applied to those of St. Peter, St. Jude, etc., which were so called as being addressed not to particular local communities, but to the Church at large.

The combination “the Catholic Church” (he katholike ekklesia) is found for the first time in the letter of St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, written about the year 110. The words run: “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal [katholike] Church.” However, in view of the context, some difference of opinion prevails as to the precise connotation of the italicized word, and Kattenbusch, the Protestant professor of theology at Giessen, is prepared to interpret this earliest appearance of the phrase in the sense of mia mone, the “one and only” Church [Das apostolische Symbolum (1900), II, 922]. From this time forward the technical signification of the word Catholic meets us with increasing frequency both East and West, until by the beginning of the fourth century it seems to have almost entirely supplanted the primitive and more general meaning. The earlier examples have been collected by Caspari (Quellen zur Geschichte des Taufsymbols, etc., III, 149 sqq.). Many of them still admit the meaning “universal”. The reference (c. 155) to “the bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna” (Letter on the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, xvi), a phrase which necessarily presupposes a more technical use of the word, is due, some critics think, to interpolation. On the other hand this sense undoubtedly occurs more than once in the Muratorian Fragment (c. 180), where, for example, it is said of certain heretical writings that they “cannot be received in the Catholic Church”. A little later, Clement of Alexandria speaks very clearly. “We say”, he declares, “that both in substance and in seeming, both in origin and in development, the primitive and Catholic Church is the only one, agreeing as it does in the unity of one faith” (Stromata, VII, xvii; P.G., IX, 552). From this and other passages which might be quoted, the technical use seems to have been clearly established by the beginning of the third century. In this sense of the word it implies sound doctrine as opposed to heresy, and unity of organization as opposed to schism (Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, Part II, vol. I, 414 sqq. and 621 sqq.; II, 310-312). In fact Catholic soon became in many cases a mere appellative–the proper name, in other words, of the true Church founded by Christ, just as we now frequently speak of the Orthodox Church, when referring to the established religion of the Russian Empire, without adverting to the etymology of the title so used. It was probably in this sense that the Spaniards Pacian (Ep. i ad Sempron.) writes, about 370: “Christianus mihi nomen est, catholicus cognomen”, and it is noteworthy that in various early Latin expositions of the Creed, notably that of Nicetas of Remesiana, which dates from about 375 (ed. Burn, 1905, p. lxx), the word Catholic in the Creed, though undoubtedly coupled at that date with the words Holy Church, suggests no special comment. Even in St. Cyprian (c. 252) it is difficult to determine how far he uses the word Catholic significantly, and how far as a mere name. The title, for instance, of his longest work is “On the Unity of the Catholic Church”, and we frequently meet in his writings such phrases as catholica fides (Ep. xxv; ed. Hartel, II, 538); catholica unitas (Ep. xxv, p. 600); catholica regula (Ep. lxx, p. 767), etc. The one clear idea underlying all is orthodox as opposed to heretical, and Kattenbusch does not hesitate to admit that in Cyprian we first see how Catholic and Roman came eventually to be regarded as interchangeable terms. (Cf. Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, II, 149-168.) Moreover it should be noted that the word Catholica was sometimes used substantively as the equivalent of ecclesia Catholica. An example is to be found in the Muratorian Fragment, another seemingly in Tertullian (De Praescrip, xxx), and many more appear at a later date, particularly among African Writers.

Communion Host Christ Jesus Church Eucharist


Among the Greeks it was natural that while Catholic served as the distinctive description of the one Church, the etymological significance of the word was never quite lost sight of. Thus in the “Catechetical Discourses” of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 347) he insists on the one hand (sect. 26): “And if ever thou art sojourning in any city, inquire not simply where the Lord’s house is–for the 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 the holy body the mother of us all.” On the other hand when discussing the word Catholic, which already appears in his form of the baptismal creed, St. Cyril remarks: (sect. 23) “Now it [the Church] is called Catholic because it is throughout the world, from one end of the earth to the other.” But we shall have occasion to quote this passage more at length later on.

There can be no doubt, however, that it was the struggle with the Donatists which first drew out the full theological significance of the epithet Catholic and passed it on to the schoolmen as an abiding possession. When the Donatists claimed to represent the one true Church of Christ, and formulated certain marks of the Church, which they professed to find in their own body, it could not fail to strike their orthodox opponents that the title Catholic, by which the Church of Christ was universally known, afforded a far surer test, and that this was wholly inapplicable to a sect which was confined to one small corner of the world. The Donatists, unlike all previous heretics, had not gone wrong upon any Christological question. It was their conception of Church discipline and organization which was faulty. Hence, in refuting them, a more or less definite theory of the Church and its marks was gradually evolved by St. Optatus (c. 370) and St. Augustine (c. 400). These doctors particularly insisted upon the note of Catholicity, and they pointed out that both the Old and the New Testament represented the Church as spread over all the earth. (See Turmel, “Histoire de la théologie positive, 1904, I, 162-166, with references there given.) Moreover, St. Augustine insists upon the consensus of Christians in the use of the name Catholic. “Whether they wish or no”, he says, “heretics have to call the Catholic Church Catholic” (“De vera religione”, xii). “Although all heretics wish to be styled Catholic, yet if any one ask where is the Catholic place of worship none of them would venture to point out his own conventicle” (Contra Epistolam quam vocant Fundamenti, iv). Of later exponents of this same thesis the most famous is Vincent of Lérins (c. 434). His canon of Catholicity is “That which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” “This”, he adds, “is what is truly and properly Catholic” (Commonitorium, I, ii).

Although belief in the “holy Church” was included in the earliest form of the Roman Creed, the word Catholic does not seem to have been added to the Creed anywhere in the West until the fourth century. Kattenbusch believes that our existing form is first met with in the “Exhortatio” which he attributes to Gregorius of Eliberis (c. 360). It is possible, however, that the creed lately printed by Dom Morin (Revue Bénédictine, 1904, p. 3) is of still earlier date. In any case the phrase, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church” occurs in the form commented on by Nicetas of Remesiana (c. 375). With regard to the modern use of the word, Roman Catholic is the designation employed in the legislative enactments of Protestant England, but Catholic is that in ordinary use on the Continent of Europe, especially in Latin countries. Indeed, historians of all schools, at least for brevity’s sake, frequently contrast Catholic and Protestant, without any qualification. In England, since the middle of the sixteenth century, indignant protests have been constantly made against the “exclusive and arrogant usurpation” of the name Catholic by the Church of Rome. The Protestant, Archdeacon Philpot, who was put to death in 1555, was held to be very obstinate on this point (see the edition of his works published by the Parker Society); and among many similar controversies of a later date may be mentioned that between Dr. Bishop, subsequently vicar Apostolic, and Dr. Abbot, afterwards Bishop of Salisbury, regarding the “Catholicke Deformed”, which raged from 1599 to 1614. According to some, such combinations as Roman Catholic, or Anglo-Catholic, involve a contradiction in terms. (See the Anglican Bishop of Carlisle in “The Hibbert Journal”, January, 1908, p. 287.) From about the year 1580, besides the term papist, employed with opprobrious intent, the followers of the old religion were often called Romish or Roman Catholics. Sir William Harbert, in 1585, published a “Letter to a Roman pretended Catholique”, and in 1587 an Italian book by G.B. Aurellio was printed in London regarding the different doctrines “dei Protestanti veri e Cattolici Romani”. Neither do the Catholics always seem to have objected to the appellation, but sometimes used it themselves. On the other hand, Protestant writers often described their opponents simply as “Catholics”. A conspicuous instance is the “Pseudomartyr” of Dr. John Donne, printed in 1610. Moreover, if only for brevity’s sake, such burning questions as “Catholic Emancipation” have commonly been discussed by both sides without any qualifying prefix. In connection with this matter we may call attention to a common Anglican view represented in such a popular work of reference as Hook’s “Church Dictionary” (1854), s.v. “Catholic” — “Let the member of the Church of England assert his right to the name of Catholic, since he is the only person in England who has a right to that name. The English Romanist is a Roman Schismatic and not a Catholic.” The idea is further developed in Blunt’s “Dictionary of Sects and Heresies” (1874), where “Roman Catholics” are described as “a sect organized by the Jesuits out of the relics of the Marian party in the reign of Queen Elizabeth”. An earlier and less extreme view will be found in Newman’s “Essays Critical and Historical”, published by him as an Anglican (see No. 9, “The Catholicity of the Anglican Church”). The Cardinal’s own note on this essay, in the last revised edition, may be read with advantage.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

So far we have been considering only the history and meaning of the name Catholic. We turn to its theological import as it has been emphasized and formalized by later theologians. No doubt the enumeration of four precise “notes” by which the Church is marked off from the sects is of comparatively recent development, but the conception of some such external tests, as pointed out above, is based upon the language of St. Augustine, St. Optatus, and others, in their controversies with the heretics of their time. In a famous passage of St. Augustine’s treatise “Contra Epistolam quam vocant Fundamenti”, directed against the Donatists, the holy doctor declares that besides the intrinsic acceptability of her doctrine “there are many other things which most justly keep me within the bosom of the Church”, and after indicating the agreement in the faith among her members, or, as we should say, her Unity, as well as “the succession of priests from the installation of Peter the Apostle, to whom our Lord after His resurrection entrusted His sheep to be fed, down to the present episcopate”, in other words the quality which we call Apostolicity, St. Augustine continues in a passage previously cited in part, “Lastly there holds me the very name of Catholic which not without reason so closely attaches to the Church amid the heresies which surround it, that although all heretics would fain be called Catholics, still if any stranger should ask where the Catholic service is held, not one of these heretics would dare to point to his own conventicle” (Corpus Scrip. Eccles. Lat., XXV, Pt. I, 196). It was very natural that the situation created by the controversies of the sixteenth century should lead to a more exact determination of these “notes”. English theologians like Stapleton (Principiorum Fidei Doctrinalium Demonstratio, Bk. IV, cc. iii sqq.) and Sander (De Visibili Monarchia, Bk. VIII, cap. xl) were foremost in urging this aspect of the question between the Churches, and foreign scholars like Bellarmine, who engaged in the same debates, readily caught the tone from them. Sander distinguished six prerogatives of the Church instituted by Christ. Stapleton recognized two primary attributes as contained in Christ’s promises–to wit, universality in space and perpetuity in time–and from these he deduced the other visible marks. Bellarmine, starting with the name Catholic, enumerated fourteen other qualities verified in the external history of the institution which claimed this title (De Conciliis, Bk. IV, cap. iii). In all these varying schemes, it may be remarked, the universality of the Church was given a foremost place among her distinctive marks. However, already in the fifteenth century the theologian John Torquemada had set down the notes of the Church as four in number, and this more simple arrangement, founding upon the wording of the familiar Mass Creed (Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam), eventually won universal acceptance. It is adopted, for instance, in the “Catechismus ad Parochos”, which in accordance with a decree of the Council of Trent was drawn up and published in 1566 with the highest official sanction. In this authoritative document we read:

The third mark of the Church is that she is Catholic, that is, universal; and justly is she called Catholic, because, as St. Augustine says, ‘she is diffused by the splendour of one faith from the rising to the setting sun’. Unlike republics of human institution, or the conventicles of heretics, she is not circumscribed within the limits of any one kingdom, nor confined to the members of any one society of men, but embraces within the amplitude of her love, all mankind, whether barbarians or Scythians, slaves or freemen, male or female.

In confirmation of this, various prophetic utterances of Holy Scripture are quoted, after which the Catechism proceeds: “To this Church, built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Ephesians 2:20) belong all the faithful who have existed from Adam to the present day, or shall exist in the profession of the true faith to the end of time, all of whom are founded and raised upon the one cornerstone, Christ, who made both one, and announced peace to them that are near, and to them that are afar. She is also called universal, because all who desire eternal salvation must cling to and embrace her, like those who entered the ark to escape perishing in the flood. This, therefore, is to be taught as a most just criterion to distinguish the true from a false church.”

This multiplex and somewhat confused presentment of the note of Catholicity undoubtedly finds its warrant in the equally wide interpretation of some of the early Fathers. Thus, for example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: “The Church is called Catholic because she is diffused throughout the whole world [i.e. the habitable world, oikoumenes] from one end of the earth to the other, and because she teaches universally and without curtailment all the truths of faith which ought to be known to men whether they concern visible or invisible things, heavenly things or the things of earth; further because she brings under the yoke of God’s true service all races of men, the mighty and the lowly, the learned and the simple; and finally because she tends and heals every kind of sin committed by body or soul and because there is no form of virtue, whether in word or deed or in spiritual gifts of any kind whatever, which she does not possess as her own” (Cateches., xviii, 23; P.G., XXXIII, 1043). In similar terms speaks St. Isidore (De Offic., Bk. I), among the Fathers of the West, and a variety of other explanations might also, no doubt, be appealed to.

But of all these various interpretations, which, after all, are not inconsistent with one another, and which are probably only characteristic of a fashion of exegesis which delighted in multiplicity, one conception of Catholicity is almost invariably made prominent. This is the idea of the actual local diffusion of the Church, and this is also the aspect which, thanks no doubt to the influence of Protestant controversy, has been most insisted upon by the theologians of the last three centuries. Some heretical and schismatical teachers have practically refused to recognize Catholicity as an essential attribute of Christ’s Church, and in the Lutheran version of the Apostles’ Creed, for example, the word Catholic (“I believe in the holy Catholic Church”) is replaced by Christian. But in the majority of the Protestant professions of faith the wording of the original has been retained, and the representatives of these various shades of opinion have been at pains to find an interpretation of the phrase which is in any way consistent with geographical and historical facts. The majority, including most of the older Anglican divines (e.g. Pearson on the Creed), have contented themselves with laying stress in some shape or form upon the design of the Founder of the Church that His Gospel should be preached throughout the world. This diffusion de jure serves its purpose sufficiently as a justification for the retention of the word Catholic in the Creed, but the supporters of this view are of necessity led to admit that Catholicity so understood cannot serve as a visible criterion by which the true Church is to be distinguished from schismatical sects. Those Protestant bodies who do not altogether reject the idea of “notes” distinctive of the true Church consequently fall back for the most part upon the honest preaching of God’s word and the regular administration of the sacraments as the only criteria. (See the “Confession of Augsburg”, Art. 7, etc.) But such notes as these, which may be claimed by many different religious bodies with apparently equal right, are practically inoperative, and, as Catholic controversialists have commonly pointed out, the question only resolves itself into the discussion of the nature of the Unity of the Church under another form. The same must be said of that very large class of Protestant teachers who look upon all sincere Christian communions as branches of the one Catholic Church with Christ for its invisible head. Taken collectively, these various branches lay claim to worldwide diffusion de facto as well as de jure. But clearly, here again the question primarily involved is that concerning the nature of the Unity of the Church, and it is to the articles CHURCH and UNITY, that the reader who wishes to pursue the matter further must be referred.

As against these and other interpretations which have prevailed among Protestants from the Reformation until quite recent times, the scholastic theologians of the last three centuries have been wont to put forward the conception of the note of Catholicity in various formal propositions, of which the most essential elements are the following. The true Church of Christ, as it is revealed to us in prophecy, in the New Testament, and in the writings of the Fathers of the first six centuries, is a body which possesses the prerogative of Catholicity, i.e. of general diffusion, not only as a matter of right, but in actual fact. Moreover, this diffusion is not only successive–i.e. so that one part of the world after another should in course of ages be brought in contact with the Gospel– but it is such that the Church may be permanently described as spread throughout the world. Further, as this general diffusion is a property to which no other Christian association can justly lay claim, we are entitled to say that Catholicity is a distinctive mark of the true Church of Christ.

It will be seen from this that the point upon which stress is laid is that of actual local diffusion, and it can hardly be denied that both Scriptural and Patristic arguments adduced by Bellarmine, Thomassin, Alexander Natalis, Nicole, and others, to take but a few prominent names, afford strong justification for the claim. The Scriptural argument seems first to have been developed by St. Optatus of Mileve against the Donatists, and it was equally employed by St. Augustine when he took up the same controversy a few years later. Adducing a large number of passages in the Psalms (e.g. Pss. ii and lxxi), with Daniel (ch. ii), Isaiah (e.g. liv, 3), and other prophetic writers, the Fathers and modern theologians alike draw attention to the picture which is there afforded of the Kingdom of Christ the Messiah as something gloriously and conspicuously spread throughout the world, e.g. “I will give thee the Gentiles for thy inheritance and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession”, “He shall rule from sea to sea”, “All the nations shall serve Him”, etc., etc. Moreover, in combination with these we have to notice our Lord’s instructions and promises: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations”, “You shall be witnesses unto me . . . even to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8), or St. Paul’s words quoting Psalm 18, “Yes, verily, their sound went out over all the earth and their words unto the ends of the whole world” (Romans 10:18), etc. But the real strength of the argument lies in the patristic evidence, for such words of Scripture as those just quoted are cited and interpreted, not by one or two only, but by a large number of different Fathers, both of the East and of the West, and nearly always in such terms as are consistent only with the actual diffusion over regions which to them represented, morally speaking, the whole world. It is indeed particularly important to note that in many of these patristic passages the writer, while insisting upon the local extension of the Church, distinctly implies that this diffusion is relative and not absolute, that it is to be general indeed, but in a moral, not in a physical or mathematical sense. Thus St. Augustine (Epist. cxcix; P.L., XXXIII, 922, 923) explains that the nations which formed no part of the Roman Empire had already joined the Church, which was fructifying and increasing throughout the whole world. But he adds that there will be always need and room for it still to grow; and, after quoting Romans 10:14, he adds:

In those nations therefore among whom the Church is not yet known it has still to find a place [in quibus ergo gentibus nondum est ecclesia, oportet ut sit], not indeed in such a way that all who are there should become believers; for it is all nations that are promised, not all the men of all nations. . . . Otherwise how shall that prophesy be fulfilled, ‘Ye shall be hated by all for my name’s sake’, unless among all nations there are those who hate as well as those who are hated?

Lastly, it should be said that among some confused thinkers of the Anglican communion, as also among certain representatives of Modernist opinions, an interpretation of the Catholicity of the Church has lately come into fashion which has little connection with anything that has hitherto fallen under our notice. Starting with the conception familiar in such locutions as “a man of catholic tastes”, meaning a man who excludes no rational interest from his sympathies, these writers would persuade us that a catholic church either does or should mean a church endowed with unlimited comprehensiveness, i.e. which is prepared to welcome and assimilate all opinions honestly held, however contradictory. To this it may be answered that the idea is absolutely foreign to the connotation of the phrase Catholic Church as we can trace it in the writings of the Fathers. To take a term consecrated by centuries of usage and to attach a brand-new meaning to it, of which those who through the ages had it constantly on their lips never dreamed, is to say the least extremely misleading. If this comprehensiveness and elasticity of belief is regarded as a desirable quality, by all means let it have a new name of its own, but it is dishonest to leave the impression upon the ignorant or the credulous, that this is the idea which devout men in past ages have all along been groping for, and that it has been left to the religious thinkers of our own day to evolve from the name catholic its true and real significance. So far from the idea of a nebulous and absorbent substance imperceptibly shading off into the media which surround it, the conception of the Fathers was that the Catholic Church was cut off by the most clearly defined of lines from all that lay outside. Its primary function, we might also say, was to set itself in acute opposition to all that threatened its vital principle of unity and stability. It is true that patristic writers may sometimes play with the word catholic, and develop its etymological suggestiveness with an eye to erudition or edification, but the only connotation upon which they insist as a matter of serious import is the idea of diffusion throughout the world. St. Augustine, indeed, in his letter to Vincentius (Ep. xciii, in “Corpus Scrip. Eccles. Lat.”, XXXIV, p. 468) protests that he does not argue merely from the name. I do not maintain, he declares equivalently, that the Church must spread throughout all the world, simply because it is called Catholic. I base my proof of its diffusion upon the promises of God and upon the oracles of Holy Scripture. But the saint at the same time makes it clear that the suggestion, that the Church was called Catholic because it observed all God’s Commandments and administered all the sacraments, originated with the Donatists, and he implies that this was a view in which he did not himself concur. Here again the demonstration of the unity of the Church as built upon a dogmatic basis is fundamental, and the reader must be referred to the article CHURCH. The Anglican Bishop of Carlisle, in an article published in the Hibbert Journal for January, 1908, and entitled “The Catholic Church, What Is It?”, seems to carry the modern formula, Catholic = comprehensive, to its most extreme lengths. No principle of cohesion seems to be left except this, that the Catholic Church is that which bans nothing. The bishop conceives of it, apparently, as an institution invested by Christ with unlimited power to add to its numbers, but no power to expel. It must surely be plain that practical common sense pronounces against such a conception not less strongly than the plain words of our Lord in the Gospel or the consistent attitude of the Fathers.

By Herbert Thurston

This article is borrowed from


In addition to the references given in the course of this article, see WILHELM AND SCANNELL, Manual of Catholic Theology (1898), II, 351-4; KRAUS, Real-Encycklopadie der christlichen Alterthumer (Freiburg, 1882), s.v. Catholicus; MAZZELLA, De Religione et Ecclesia (Rome, 1885); SCHANZ, A Christian Apology (tr. Dublin, 1891); MOUREAU, in Dict. de theol, cath., s.v. Catholicite; BILLOT, De Sacra Traditione (Rome, 1904), 72-134; SEMERIA, Dogma, Gerarchia e Culto (Rome, 1902), 235-257; TURMEL, Histoire de théologie positive (Paris, 1906), II, 117; NEWMAN, Essays Historical and Critical, Essay ix, with note.
For the Protestant view see the latest (HAUCK) ed. of HERZOG, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche, s.v. Kirche; HARNACK, History of Dogma (tr. London, 1896), II; PEARSON, Exposition of the Creed; FAIRBAIRN, Catholicism, Roman and Anglican (London, 1899).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1908). Catholic. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 23, 2022 from New Advent:

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. “Catholic.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 23 Jul. 2022 <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gordon A. Jenness. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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