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For many people today, non-Christians and (low church) Christians alike, when they hear the word “Catholic”, certain images spring to mind: the Pope, the rosery, Catholic school, big old churches buildings, choirboys, maybe monks or statues of Mary even; and sadly more recently, sex abuse scandals.

But, generally speaking, all of these are actually aspects of Roman Catholicism — a particular branch of Christianity, and not what the word “catholic” truly means as we’ll see when examining how the early church used the word and what the original Greek word means.

καθολικός (katholikos)


The Greek word where we get the English word “catholic” from is καθολικός (katholikos) meaning “universal”, which comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (katholou), meaning “on the whole”, “according to the whole” or “in general” (catholicus in Latin). In non-ecclesiastical use, it still retained its root meaning in English in some literature from the 1800s, though that usage has fallen out of common use in modern times.

The first Biblical[1] reference to the word is found in Acts 9:31 when speaking about “the church throughout [all] Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…”. The words “throughout” and “all” are καθ (κατά) and ὅλης (ὅλος) respectively in Greek, which together come to form the word καθολικός.

The earliest historical use of the word, in the context of the Church, is found in one of the letters of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, written around A.D. 107, where he writes:

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.

From here on we begin to see that the word “catholic” was used in reference to mean “orthodoxy” (the word “orthodox” means “right belief”) as opposed to the non-orthodox heretics who were then by definition not catholic as they were not ‘according to the whole’ which was, as Jude wrote, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Catholic Church, in its original and Apostolic sense, would have meant the entirety of the Body of Christ across the world, i.e., all the believers wherever they may be, rather than it being “universal” in the physical sense that the institution of “church” should be all encompassing (like as an official, global institution that all must attend). The difference may be subtle, but it’s an important one.


The development of doctrine about Jesus after Paul’s death, with all its commonalities and unifying features, is seen as an early form of “Catholicism” by modern scholars, which really begins in Ignatius (outside of the New Testament) and continues to grow and spread as time goes on, with the definition becoming more refined.

Historical Use of the Term

As we saw above, Ignatius was the earliest Christian writer we have who applied the word katholikos to the Church. Some people object to using Ignatius as evidence of this, as some of the letters attributed to him are considered spurious (not authentic), though scholarly opinion on this is fairly universal in which are genuine letters, as neither Eusebius nor Jerome makes any reference to the eight spurious epistles.

Justo L. Gonzalez explains in his book, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation, Volume One:

The original meaning of Catholic church referred to this episcopal collegiality, as well as with the multiform witness to the gospel in several canonical gospels. … It was the church “according to the whole,” that is, according to the total witness of all the apostles and all the evangelists. The various Gnostic groups were not “Catholic” because they could not claim this broad foundation. … Only the Church Catholic, the church “according to the whole,” could lay claim to the entire apostolic witness. (pp.81,82).


The other early uses that appear after Ignatius are in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (around AD 150), “…and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place…”, and then also in the earliest New Testament list from around the second century,[2] the Muratorian fragment the phrase is found three times: “…in the esteem of the Church catholic …. received into the catholic Church … used in the catholic Church …”.

From here on we see the phrase occurring in more and more writers from the second century onward, such as Tertullian A.D. 200 (The Prescription Against Heretics XXX), Clement of Alexandria A.D. 202 (The Stromata 7:17), Cyril of Jerusalem A.D. 315–386 (Catechetical Lectures, XVIII, 26), Jerome A.D. 418 (writing to Augustine), and Augustine of Hippo A.D. 354–430 (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, ch. IV). Then we have Vincent of Lérins, who famously wrote in A.D. 434:

…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. (Commonitorium, ch. II)

Another interesting use of term appears in the Edict of Thessalonica, Theodosian Code XVI.i.2 (A.D. 380), where Theodosius I, emperor from 379 to 395, declared “Catholic” Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire for those who “believe in the one Deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity” and that they should “assume the title Catholic Christians”. All others will be “branded with the ignominious name of heretics”.

Overall, from the earliest writers to the emperor in the fourth century, the phrase “church catholic” referred only to those Christians and Churches who held to the ancient traditions passed on by the Apostles and evangelists (Gospels), and to those doctrines which were known as having apostolic origin. This view was more formally solidified by the words added to the end of the original Nicene Creed of A.D. 325 (“And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not … the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.”) and also its revision in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed of A.D. 381 (“And we believe in one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church.”), where you could call Nicene Christianity the “catholic faith”.

Donatist Controversy


During the fourth century, a controversy appeared bringing schism with it in Carthage, when two bishops appeared, one in competition and opposition to the other. The Donatists, named after Donatus, were unlike any other group or heresy which had come before, as their error was not in the nature of Christ or some other aspect of Christology, but rather about ecclesiology.[3] Donatists claimed to represent the true Church and took for themselves the title of “catholic”. This struck against the historical, orthodox Church, which had been universally known as “the catholic church” (ἡ καθολική ἐκκλησία). The Donatists set about to create marks upon which catholicity could be tested—marks that were obviously only found within their congregations (such as the integrity of the believers, and purity and holiness of the community). This forced the historic Church to respond and find an answer to the question “What and where is the one Church?”. Optatus, the legitimate bishop of Carthage, refuted Donatus, interestingly, by using as his defence the fact that their churches were all in communion with the See of Rome. The Donatists were confined to a small area of North Africa and not in communion with Rome, which meant a breakaway from the chair of Peter and therefore unable to claim the name “catholic” as they were anything but. After this, Augustine came on the scene and was a relentless critic of the Donatists, building upon Optatus’ refutations, explaining that the true Church is the one Vine, whose branches are over all the earth. Eventually, this all lead to the schism being quashed in 410.

How the Roman Catholic Church Came to Be

In contemporary usage, the phrase “Catholic Church” (usually capitalised) brings to mind, for many, the Roman Catholic Church specifically. How did this perception shift from meaning the whole Church body to one particular branch of Christianity?

In the early days of Christianity, “Catholicism” was a broad term which encompassed both the Eastern and Western empire of the Greeks and Latins, respectively. The Western Church had its capital in Rome, while the Eastern in Constantinople, and the whole body of believers had the five main Bishops of the following regions, who were known as Patriarchs, overseeing them: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Despite disagreements, catholicity, or unity, was somewhat kept across both Eastern and Western churches until rising tensions beginning around the 9th century finally came to a head in the 11th century resulting in what is now known as The Great Schism, traditionally dated A.D. 1054[4] (sometimes called the East-West Schism).

There were a variety of doctrinal factors leading up to this point mainly consisting of: the procession of the Holy Spirit (also known as the filioque controversy), if leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the prominence of the See of Constantinople in the “Pentarchy”[5] and, a major sticking point, the claim to universal jurisdiction by the Bishop of Rome. Out of the five Patriarchs (or “sees”[6]), Rome was considered “first among equals” for the prominence and pre-eminence of Rome both within the Empire and within Christianity as a place of the Apostle Peter’s bishopric.


After the Great Schism, both Eastern and Western churches regarded themselves as “catholic”, but the West recognised only the Pope in Rome as their sole leader, whereas the East continued with their historically recognised Patriarchs, and both sides thought of the other as “not catholic” or “schismatics” for various theological reasons mostly related to the Filioque.

Due to the split, the two sides of the Church came to be known under different names to differentiate them: the Roman Catholic Church (as its centre was now officially only in Rome), and the Orthodox Catholic Church which is more commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church. Both claiming to be “catholic” and the true lineage of the ancient Apostolic Church  (usually in conjunction with Apostolic Succession[7]), yet both rejecting the others claims and doctrine and having no universal unity at all, which the name “Catholic” should imply.

Post-Reformation and Modern Times

Although, historically, a fair bit out of the scope of the title of this paper, it bears mentioning some modern usages to bring this case to a close with a more satisfying sense of completion. After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century when groups of churches, monks and bishops across Europe broke away from the church in Rome, some of the resulting groups have reclaimed the name “catholic”. Lutherans, Anglicans, and some Methodists claim to be “catholic” in the ancient sense, believing themselves to be in continuity with the original Apostolic and universal church and in keeping with the faith as defined by the Nicene Creed, yet despite this, the phrase “Catholic Church” has been pervasive in the minds of the general populace as meaning only the Roman or Western church and nothing more.


As we can see, the word and meaning of “Catholic” is not so simple or straight-forward. It has a very wide history with a lot of nuances, and although the Roman Church has laid claim to the name, it is certainly not it’s only meaning or definition. Some qualification of terms is often needed (or should be) when speaking to Christians of various denominational backgrounds, in order to help people to see the wider, and more historical context, of the “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church”.





[1] The Greek words which make up our English word “universal” in this sense, had been around as a concept in Greek long before Christianity. Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) wrote in this On Interpretation, 17a: “I call universal (καθόλου) that which is by its nature predicated of a number of things, and particular (καθ᾿ ἕκαστον) that which is not; man, for instance, is a universal, Callias a particular”

[2] The traditional second century date still holds the biggest following amongst scholars, though there are some who propose a fourth century date, claiming it would be more suited to that period when NT lists were quite common, which is appears to parallel. Still, others argue that the fragment isn’t a canon list at all, but an introduction to the New Testament, similar to the Marcionite prologues, which would suit the second century date better. The debate is still unsettled on this matter. (The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity, pp.175-177)


[3] The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the Diocletian persecution (A.D. 303–305).

[4] Even though there was a long period of time when the Eastern and Western churches had a resentful relationship, the date of 1054 is commonly taken as the beginning of the schism, as it is when Pope Leo IX and Michael Cerularius had major disagreements resulting in their mutual excommunication. The Crusades, eventual capture of Constantinople in 1204, and the establishment of a Latin Patriarchate replacing the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate, rendered all later efforts of unity between East and West by the Church Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439), of no effect.

[5] Pentarchy, in early Byzantine Christianity, the proposed government of universal Christendom by five patriarchal sees under the auspices of a single universal empire. (Britannica, Pentarchy)

[6] A diocese or territory over which a bishop rules. (Catholic Dictionary)


[7] The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholic, Swedish Lutheran, and Anglican churches accept the doctrine of apostolic succession and believe that the only valid ministry is based on bishops whose office has descended from the Apostles. (Britannica, Apostolic succession)


Further Reading / Sources

Find this article on too: (PDF) The origins and meaning of the word "catholic" in early Christianity | Luke J . Wilson -






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