By Joseph Justice
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the history of the Church — post the Protestant Reformation — is the term “catholic.” Indeed, it is no surprise that when we bandy about the word today we are most often referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but this was not always how Christians understood the term.
The root of the word comes from the Greek adverb kaqolou (katholou) which literally means something like “according to the whole,” or “completely.” The Greek word kaqolikos (katholikos) was first coined by the early 2nd century church father Ignatius of Antioch in his apostolic letter to the church of Smyrna. In Latin, the word renders as “catholic” which is the form we in the west are most used to seeing. Both the Greek and the Latin simply mean “universal.”
When Ignatius used the term, he was primarily concerned with combating gnostic heresies which were rapidly rising during the 2nd century. Thus the term rose out of a necessity to describe the true church from false gnostic churches. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans Ignatius 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.”
Much can be said about this simple line found in Ignatius’s writings and depending on one’s deeply held Christian traditions, it is very possible to see the term “Catholic Church” here in two very different ways.
Let me be forthright at this point. A devout Roman Catholic Christian will usually say that the church Ignatius deems Catholic in this instance is none other than the Roman Catholic Church, complete with all of her visible adornments (for example, the mass, grand cathedrals, holy images, incense, bishops, the Pope and others).
For a non-Roman Catholic Christian the term Catholic in this passage is seen not as referring to anything visible, rather the invisible, universal, corporate body of believers in Jesus Christ found across the entire world. Put differently, a Protestant Christian might say that the term Catholic here is to be seen in a strictly spiritual way, not literal.
To be sure, Roman Catholic Christians usually see the term with a double meaning, both the “universal” spiritual body of believers, but also the visible Roman Catholic Church as well. This leads to yet another very interesting point.
Body of Believers
As you may have noticed, throughout this discussion, I have written the term “Catholic” with both a capital “C” and a lower-case “c.” The reason for this is that Roman Catholics see the term as identifying the “true” Church of Christ; therefore it is capitalized to indicate its very specialized, unique and absolute nature.
A Protestant Christian however, is more apt to apply a lower case “c” when writing the word to make the point that when they use the term “catholic” they are not talking about the Roman Catholic Church, rather the universal, invisible body of believers.
I must make it very clear that this is a gross oversimplification of how the term is employed in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles and one might very well find a Protestant Christian who capitalizes the term to emphasize the grand scope of all believers that the word is aiming to achieve. Conversely, a Roman Catholic believer may not capitalize the term when using it outside of describing just the Roman Catholic Church. I have also said nothing about how Orthodox Christians use or spell the word.
One True Church
Suffice to say, the term Catholic has a very ancient and varied tradition in the history of the church of Jesus Christ, but no matter how one understands its varied meanings, all Christians should be united in its original meaning, which is simply the universal body of believers. To be sure, some Christians choose to avoid the term all together for the very fact that it may be a misleading identifier.
Indeed, I have stood in the midst of various Protestant congregations reciting the Apostle’s Creed only to find when arriving to the line “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” that the term “Catholic” had been replaced with “universal.” As I stated before, hesitancy by some Christians to use the word stems from a desire to disassociate from Roman Catholic terminology and custom, and honestly, I can understand this view point. As an Evangelical Christian, I am actually quite comfortable using the term “catholic” to describe the church universal, and I marvel at just how large the scope of the word truly is.
New Advent: The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans – http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm
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