Q. When did Catholics begin calling themselves “Catholics” instead of simply “Christians”?
A. The word English “Catholic” comes from the Greek term catholikos, meaning “universal.” The first use of the phrase “Catholic Church” in surviving historical records comes from around the year a.d. 110, only a few years after the death of the Apostle John.
In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, wrote, “Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (8). The usage of “Catholic” here seems to connote “one and only.”
The casual way in which Ignatius says “Catholic Church,” without explanation, suggests it was familiar to his audience. If that’s true, then it must have been in circulation well before he used the term, perhaps even in the time of the Apostles. According to ancient tradition, St. Ignatius knew both the Apostles Peter and John.
By the beginning of the third century, the word “Catholic” as applied to the Church denoted that community which held sound doctrine in contrast to heresy, and which was united in organization in contrast to schismatic groups. The word also connoted wholeness in contrast to the partial.
The word “Catholic” does mean literally “universal,” but it means much more. It implies the fullness of the Faith. Early heretical and schismatic groups distorted the Faith by clinging to some part of it as if it were the whole. The Catholic Church alone proclaimed the fullness of God’s revelation. In fact, it was while addressing the issue of schism that St. Ignatius used the term “Catholic” to distinguish the Church from those who had broken away.
That designation is still true today. The word “Catholic” connotes wholeness. Catholics call themselves “Christians,” as they always have, and rightly so. But the additional term “Catholic” distinguishes their Church from those thousands of denominations who are also Christian but lack the fullness of her faith. PT