During the medieval and modern times, additional distinctions arose regarding the use of the terms Western Catholic and Eastern Catholic. Before the East–West Schism, those terms had just the basic geographical meanings, since only one undivided Catholicity existed, uniting the Latin speaking Christians of West and the Greek speaking Christians of the East. After the split of 1054 terminology became much more complicated, resulting in the creation of parallel and conflicting terminological systems.
The Greek adjective katholikos, the origin of the term “catholic” means “universal”. Directly from the Greek, or via Late Latincatholicus, the term catholic entered many other languages, becoming the base for the creation of various theological terms such as catholicism and catholicity (Late Latin catholicismus, catholicitas).
The term “catholicism” is the English form of Late Latin catholicismus, an abstract noun based on the adjective “catholic”. The Modern Greek equivalent καθολικισμός (katholikismos) is back-formed and usually refers to the Catholic Church. The terms “catholic”, “catholicism” and “catholicity” is closely related to the use of the term Catholic Church. (See Catholic Church (disambiguation) for more uses.)
The earliest evidence of the use of that term is the Letter to the Smyrnaeans that Ignatius of Antioch wrote in about 108 to Christians in Smyrna. Exhorting Christians to remain closely united with their bishop, he wrote: “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 the second half of the second century, the word “catholic” began to be used to mean “orthodox” (non-heretical), “because Catholics claimed to teach the whole truth, and to represent the whole Church, while heresy arose out of the exaggeration of some one truth and was essentially partial and local”. In 380, Emperor Theodosius I limited use of the term “Catholic Christian” exclusively to those who followed the same faith as Pope Damasus I of Rome and Pope Peter of Alexandria. Numerous other early writers including Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386), Augustine of Hippo (354–430) further developed the use of the term “catholic” in relation to Christianity.
Ignatius of Antioch
The earliest recorded evidence of the use of the term “Catholic Church” is the Letter to the Smyrnaeans that Ignatius of Antioch wrote in about 107 to Christians in Smyrna. Exhorting Christians to remain closely united with their bishop, he wrote: “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.”
Of the meaning for Ignatius of this phrase J.H. Srawley wrote:
This is the earliest occurrence in Christian literature of the phrase ‘the Catholic Church’ (ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία). The original sense of the word is ‘universal’. Thus Justin Martyr (Dial. 82) speaks of the ‘universal or general resurrection‘, using the words ἡ καθολικὴ ἀνάστασις. Similarly here the Church universal is contrasted with the particular Church of Smyrna. Ignatius means by the Catholic Church ‘the aggregate of all the Christian congregations’ (Swete, Apostles Creed, p. 76). So too the letter of the Church of Smyrna is addressed to all the congregations of the Holy Catholic Church in every place. And this primitive sense of ‘universal’ the word has never lost, although in the latter part of the second century it began to receive the secondary sense of ‘orthodox‘ as opposed to ‘heretical‘. Thus it is used in an early Canon of Scripture, the Muratorian fragment (circa 170 A.D.), which refers to certain heretical writings as ‘not received in the Catholic Church’. So too Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, says that the Church is called Catholic not only ‘because it is spread throughout the world’, but also ‘because it teaches completely and without defect all the doctrines which ought to come to the knowledge of men’. This secondary sense arose out of the original meaning because Catholics claimed to teach the whole truth, and to represent the whole Church, while heresy arose out of the exaggeration of some one truth and was essentially partial and local.
By Catholic Church Ignatius designated the universal church. Ignatius considered that certain heretics of his time, who disavowed that Jesus was a material being who actually suffered and died, saying instead that “he only seemed to suffer” (Smyrnaeans, 2), were not really Christians.
Other second-century uses
The term is also used in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (155) and in the Muratorian fragment (about 177).
Cyril of Jerusalem
As mentioned in the above quotation from J.H. Srawley, Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315–386), who is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion, distinguished what he called the “Catholic Church” from other groups who could also refer to themselves as an ἐκκλησία (assembly or church):
Since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly (Acts 19:14), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, “And in one Holy Catholic Church”; that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated. And if ever you are 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).
Theodosius I, Emperor from 379 to 395, declared “Catholic” Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, declaring in the Edict of Thessalonica of 27 February 380:
It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one Deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title CatholicChristians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven, will decide to inflict. Theodosian Code XVI.i.2
Augustine of Hippo
Only slightly later, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) also used the term “Catholic” to distinguish the “true” church from heretical groups:
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 (354–430): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith.
- — St. Augustine (354–430): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith.
St Vincent of Lerins
A contemporary of Augustine, St. Vincent of Lerins, wrote in 434 (under the pseudonym Peregrinus) a work known as the Commonitoria (“Memoranda”). While insisting that, like the human body, church doctrine develops while truly keeping its identity (sections 54-59, chapter XXIII),he stated:
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. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.
— A Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, section 6, end of chapter II
Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church
During early centuries of Christian history, majority of Christians who followed doctrines represented in Nicene Creedwere bound by one common and undivided Catholicity that was uniting the Latin speaking Christians of West and the Greek speaking Christians of the East. In those days, terms “eastern Catholic” and “western Catholic” had their basic geographical meanings, generally corresponding to existing linguistic distinctions between Greek East and Latin West. In spite of various and quite frequent theological and ecclesiastical disagreements between major Christian sees, common Catholicity was preserved until the great disputes that arose between 9th and 11th century. After the East–West Schism, the notion of common Catholicity was broken and each side started to develop its own terminological practice.