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Catholic (literally meaning: according to (kata-) the whole (holos) or more generally "universal" in Greek) is a religious term with a number of meanings:

  • The term can refer to the notion that all Christians are part of one Church, regardless of denominational divisions. This "universal" interpretation is often used to understand the phrase "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" in the Nicene Creed, the phrase "the catholic faith" in the Athanasian Creed, and the phrase "holy catholic church" in the Apostles' Creed.
  • It can refer to the members, beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in all of its more than twenty rites. Most people think of Latin Rite when thinking of the Roman Catholic Church but there are other rites in union with Rome in addition to the Latin Rite.
  • It can be used to refer to those Christian churches who maintain a belief that their episcopate can be traced directly back to the Apostles, and that they are therefore part of a broad catholic (or universal) body of believers. Among those members who regard themselves as Catholic but not Roman Catholic are the various Orthodox churches (Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox), Anglo-Catholics (also known as High Anglicans) the Old, Ancient and Liberal Catholic Churchs and the Lutherans (though the latter prefer the lower-case "c.") The various churches that regard themselves as part of a broad Catholic Church are distinguished by their use of the Nicene Creed which prays for the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church". The Nicene Creed is also used by the Roman Catholic Church.
  • It is referred to the one church founded by Christ through Peter the Apostle, according to Matthew 16:18-19: "And I tell you, you are Cephas(which means rock), and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’"

Methodism and Presbyterianism, though Christians who believe themselves as owing their origins to the Apostles and the early Church, do not claim a descent from ancient church structures such as the episcopate. Neither of these churches, however, denies that they are a part of the catholic (meaning universal) church.

Early Christians used the term to describe the whole undivided Church, the word's literal meaning is universal or whole. When divisions arose within the Catholic Church, the Church fathers and the historic creeds used it to distinguish the mainstream body of orthodox Christian believers from those adhering to sects or heretical groups.


Present-day usage

Whilst the term is usually associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which forms the majority of Christians, other Christians also lay claim to the term "catholic", including the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestant churches possessing an episcopate (bishops).

In countries that have been traditionally Protestant, Catholic will often be included in the official name of a particular parish church, school, hospice or other institution belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, to distinguish it from those of other denominations. For example, the name "St. Mark's Catholic Church" makes it clear that it is not an Episcopal or Lutheran church.

This usage of the term "Catholic" has a long history. A millennium before the Protestant Reformation, Saint Augustine wrote:

"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 (AD 354430): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith[1]

Earlier still, St Cyril of Jerusalem (circa 315-386) urged those he was instructing in the Christian faith: "If ever thou art 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).[2]

Those who apply the term "Catholic Church" to all Christians indiscriminately find it objectionable that a term that they see as designating the whole Church as an invisible entity should be used to refer to one communion only. However, the Roman Catholic Church, which normally refers to itself simply as the Catholic Church, publishing in 1992 a "Catechism of the Catholic Church", can basically be traced historically to the original Catholic or universal Church, from which various groups broke away over the centuries. It holds that there can be no such thing as the Church as an "invisible entity" only. Since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Protestants (those who protest) have sought to restore a more primitive expression of the Church, with goals and beliefs that they believe to be more consonant with the early Church, based primarily on Scriptural texts. However, there was a more than a millennium between the "early Church" and the "Reformation", during which both Scripture and Christian teaching were maintained.

As well as the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches all see themselves as the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" of the Nicene Creed. Others too who do not recognize the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and rank him only as an equal among Patriarchs, such as the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, use the term Catholic to distinguish their own position from a Calvinist or Puritan form of Protestantism. They include "High Church" Anglicans, known also as "Anglo-Catholics". Although the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches in general do not view the Anglican Churches as truly "Catholic", Anglicans themselves claim to have all the qualifications needed to be Catholic. Reformed Churches also consider themselves to be part of the Holy Catholic Church.

Catholic Epistles

"Catholic Epistles" is another term for the General Epistles of the Christian New Testament in the Bible, which were addressed not to a particular city but to all in general. It is thus, strictly speaking, not an ecclesiastical term, being employed in the original broad sense of the Greek word from which "catholic" is derived. The epistles in question are James; First and Second Peter; First, Second, and Third Johnand Jude.


Capitalization is no sure guide to denominational affiliation. It may indicate formal affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church or it may not. Capitalization may merely indicate a wish to stress the holy and solemn nature of the spiritual body of believers and a desire for all Christians to be one.

It would be anachronistic to attribute significance to capitalization or lack of capitalization in printings of texts dating from before the last few centuries or in translations of those texts, since the originals were written in unmixed majuscule or minuscule letters. Translations even of modern texts into English often follow the usage of the original language. For instance, since French normally capitalizes only the first word of the title of an entity, the adjective "catholique", following the noun "Église", has a lower-case initial. Texts in Latin generally follow this usage, not the English practice.

Avoidance of usage

Some Protestant Christian Churches avoid using the term completely. The Orthodox Churches share some of the concerns about Roman Catholic claims, but disagree with Protestants about the nature of the Church as one body. For some, to use the word "Catholic" at all is to appear to give credence to papal claims.

See also

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