"Catholic Church" first used in 325 at Nicea?

I recently attended a RCIA class in which it was proposed that the first use of the term “Catholic Church” was at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. This seems contrary to much of what I have learned and have shared with others. Granted, I am no scholar. I brought up the usage of “Catholic Church” in the patristic writings from the earlier centuries; and specifically focused on St. Ignatius’ letter to the Smyraeans.

One explanation I was provided was that the Council of Nicaea “ratified” its usage, making it official. I reviewed info on the council at Newadvent.org, but no mention of this ratification. I’m not sure if they equated the formulation of the Nicene Creed with a ratification of the usage of the words “Catholic Church” as a proper noun. I do not know much about the early Councils. Is this how the “Catholic Church” was first officially used by the Church? Are the letters of Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and so forth using the “Catholic Church” unofficially or not in the same sense as Nicaea did? Did the Council of Nicaea “ratify” its usage? :confused:
newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm

When I brought up the patristic writings, another team member asked if it was a translation I was using. And, that translators may have used the upper case “C” instead of the lower case “c”. This kind of threw me, because it sounds a lot like typical anti-Catholic, “Constantine started the Catholic Church” argumentation. :shrug: But, then I thought “maybe this guy knows something I don’t”. Is there any merit to this thinking… a biased translation? Aren’t the “Catholic Church” & “catholic church” one in the same? My source for ECF writings is the “Faith Database” software.

The RCIA team is made up of good folks. :thumbsup: They volunteer their time teaching others the faith; and do so with great charity. I’m not looking to challenge them or be critical of them. I would just like some clarification as the RCI lesson contradicted what I’ve learned elsewhere and what I share with others. I’d hate to be unwittingly sharing false info with others. :blush:

The word “Catholic” means whole or universal and was used early on to indicate that you were referring to whole Church throughout the world as opposed to just the local Church (ie the bishop and his flock–e.g. the Church of Corinth, the Church of Ephesus, the Church of Smyrna, the Church of Rome, etc.).

However, Catholic also came to be used to refer to the one true Church because heretical and schismatic groups were not part of the whole, universal Church.

So that may be what the person in RCIA meant by pointing to Nicea, where the Catholic Church was differentiated from the heretical Arian groups which were not of the Catholic Church.

Two answers in separate posts. The first you will be mostly familiar with, but the Protestant quote will be significant.

Earliest Use of the Name “Catholic Church”

The early Church - the Church founded by Christ as promised in Matthew 16:18 - was that which was originally known as “the Way” (cf. Acts 24:14). Later, those individuals who followed Christ began to be called “Christians” beginning at Antioch (cf. Acts 11:26).

As early as 107 A.D., those same individuals referred to themselves collectively as the “Catholic Church”. In a letter to the Church of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch wrote,

“You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery (priest) as you would the Apostles. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, A.D. 107, [8,1])

Notice that Ignatius does not introduce the term “Catholic Church”; instead he uses it in a manner suggesting that the name was already in use and familiar to his audience. This further suggests that the name, Catholic Church, had to have been coined much earlier in order to have achieved wide circulation by the time of this writing. In other words, the Christian assembly was calling itself the Catholic Church during the lifetime of the last Apostle, John, who died near the end of the first century. John, the beloved disciple, may have thought of himself as a member of the Catholic Church!

The Catholic Church began with Peter and the Apostles and continued without interruption or cessation through their disciples (Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Clement, Justin Martyr, etc.) down to the present day. As a side note, it appears that the believers in Antioch may have coined both terms still in use today: “Christian” and “Catholic Church” – terms they used to describe the one body of believers in Christ.

Protestant Scholar on the use of the Proper Name "Catholic"

One Protestant author who is honest about this history is the renowned Church historian, J. N. D. Kelly. Kelly dates the usage of the name “Catholic” after the death of the Apostle John, but he acknowledges that the original Church founded by Jesus called itself the “Catholic Church”.

“As regards ‘Catholic,’ its original meaning was ‘universal’ or ‘general’ … As applied to the Church, its primary significance was to underline its universality as opposed to the local character of the individual congregations. Very quickly, however, in the latter half of the second century at latest, we find it conveying the suggestion that the Catholic is the true Church as distinct from heretical congregations. . . . What these early Fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th ed. [San Francisco: Harper, 1978], 190f).

From Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong:

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 107-110) used the term catholic (Gk. katholikos) in his letter to the Christians of Smyrna in about 107 A.D.

I found a very helpful treatment of this topic in the Old Catholic Encyclopedia (c. 1910): available online (article, “Catholic”). It points out, however, that St. Ignatius’ use is not the technical meaning of the term as used today. For that specific usage it states (my bolding added):

[T]his sense undoubtedly occurs more than once in the Muratorian Fragment (c. 180), where, for example, it is said of certain heretical writings that they “cannot be received in the Catholic Church”. A little later, Clement of Alexandria [c. 150 - c. 215] speaks very clearly. “We say”, he declares, “that both in substance and in seeming, both in origin and in development, the primitive and Catholic Church is the only one, agreeing as it does in the unity of one faith” (Stromata, VII, xvii; P. G., IX, 552). From this and other passages which might be quoted, the technical use seems to have been clearly established by the beginning of the third century. In this sense of the word it implies sound doctrine as opposed to heresy, and unity of organization as opposed to schism (Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, Part II, vol. I, 414 sqq. and 621 sqq.; II, 310-312).

I looked up the Stromata, book VII. Here are the two occurrences of Catholic Church (chapter 17; color and bolding added):

For that the human assemblies which they held were posterior to the Catholic Church requires not many words to show.

For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius.

And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero. It was later, in the times of Adrian the king, that those who invented the heresies arose; and they extended to the age of Antoninus the eider, as, for instance, Basilides, though he claims (as they boast) for his master, Glaucias, the interpreter of Peter.

Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]. And after him Simon heard for a little the preaching of Peter.
Such being the case, it is evident, from the high antiquity and perfect truth of the Church, that these later heresies, and those yet subsequent to them in time, were new inventions falsified [from the truth].

From what has been said, then, it is my opinion that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God’s purpose are just, are enrolled. For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord one, that which is in the highest degree honourable is lauded in consequence of its singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the One, then, is associated in a joint heritage the one Church, which they strive to cut asunder into many sects.

Therefore in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith – which results from the peculiar Testaments, or rather the one Testament in different times by the will of the one God, through one Lord – those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous.

But the pre-eminence of the Church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself. But of this afterwards.

Since Clement died around 215, this use of the word was clearly established by that time, and quickly became widespread, and standard usage by the fourth century.

This makes sense. Thanks for the feed back!

This clears up a lot for me & helps me understand the context of its usage.

Protestant Scholar on the use of the Proper Name "Catholic"

This is a helpful apologetic resource. Thanks!!

Ok… so like any word, the usage will evolve somewhat over time to encompass more meaning. The technical meaning of the term as used today or in 325 does not take away from its use by Ignatius & other early Christians. Rather, it is an evolution, as a response to formation of heretical groups, in the understanding and use of the word “Catholic” to describe Christ’s Church.

Am I on track?

There are some really big problems with your leaders. Ignatius of Antioch who was born a less than 20 years after the death of Christ, provides a written record of the use of the term Catholic Church. The way that Ignatius uses it, it is clear that it was in common usage, as is the case with all terms, way before he provided a written record of it.

What I would say to them is that they need clarify their presentation so they don’t convey such a confused impression. The facts are well know an not in any dispute even by competent Protestant Scholars.


This was my initial understanding as well.

Perhaps, I missed something in the presentation. I’ve sat thru many of their classes and find them to be orthodox and on point with the subjects covered so far. I’d hate to write them off as bad leadership from one instance, in which I may not have fully understood what was being said. I’m opting to give them the benefit here. The most concerning thing I heard was the upper v/s lower case lettering. However, this wasn’t presented as a hard fact, but a personal opinion & attempt to help me reconcile my understanding on the usage of the word in earlier writings v/s later writings. Genesis & Randy have helped greatly with this. Perhaps, I described this experience too harshly in my OP. As stated in the OP, I’m not looking to challenge anyone or be critical. I’m only looking to advance my understanding here. Thanks for the input.

Yes, actually they didn’t use mixed case at the time. Majuscule script (written entirely in capital letters) commonly used by Latin and Greek scribes.

But, Ignatius says, “wherever jesus christ is, there is the catholic church”, How can there be any doubt that he is referring to The Catholic Church?

This is interesting. I did not know it was common to use all capital letters in Latin & Greek. With all capital letters (or all of any case), one would have to dig into the context of the writing to understand its usage.

I agree the letter is very clear. Even clearer when you take into account the surrounding section.

“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. 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. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize…”

I’ll have to look further into the Dave Armstrong resource provided earlier in the thread. It asserts that St. Ignatius’ use was not to the technical meaning we use today. <- this doesn’t really add up for me when looking at the text.

Isn’t the first use of “Catholic” in the Acts of the Apostles where the Greek is kat’ holos to refer to the “whole church”?

Here is another source for the word Catholic.

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=735293&page=7
Earliest Use of the Name “Catholic Church”

The early Church - the Church founded by Christ as promised in Matthew 16:18 - was that which was originally known as “the Way” (cf. Acts 24:14). Later, those individuals who followed Christ began to be called “Christians” beginning at Antioch (cf. Acts 11:26). As early as 107 A.D., those same individuals referred to themselves collectively as the “Catholic Church”. In a letter to the Church of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery (priest) as you would the Apostles. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, A.D. 107, [8,1])

Notice that Ignatius does not introduce the term “Catholic Church”; instead he uses it in a manner suggesting that the name was already in use and familiar to his audience. This further suggests that the name, Catholic Church, had to have been coined much earlier in order to have achieved wide circulation by the time of this writing. In other words, the Christian assembly was calling itself the Catholic Church during the lifetime of the last Apostle, John, who died near the end of the first century. John, the beloved disciple, may have thought of himself as a member of the Catholic Church!

The Catholic Church began with Peter and the Apostles and continued without interruption or cessation through their disciples (Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Clement, Justin Martyr, etc.) down to the present day. As a side note, it appears that the believers in Antioch may have coined both terms still in use today: “Christian” and “Catholic Church” – terms they used to describe the one body of believers in Christ.

Bonus: Protestant Scholar on the use of the Proper Name “Catholic”

One Protestant author who is honest about this history is the renowned Church historian, J. N. D. Kelly. Kelly dates the usage of the name “Catholic” after the death of the Apostle John, but he acknowledges that the original Church founded by Jesus called itself the “Catholic Church”.

“As regards ‘Catholic,’ its original meaning was ‘universal’ or ‘general’ … As applied to the Church, its primary significance was to underline its universality as opposed to the local character of the individual congregations. Very quickly, however, in the latter half of the second century at latest, we find it conveying the suggestion that the Catholic is the true Church as distinct from heretical congregations. . . . What these early Fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church” (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th ed. [San Francisco: Harper, 1978], 190f).

Yes! The earliest known use of the word to modify the Church founded by Christ is found in Act. 9:31

That’s and excellent point, very astute!
BTW (off topic), what is your signature, it looks like Gaelic.

That’s not really accurate.

“Αἱ μὲν οὖν ἐκκλησίαι καθ᾿ ὅλης τῆς Ἰουδαίας καὶ Γαλιλαίας καὶ Σαμαρείας”

“And in the Church through the whole of Judea, Galilee and Samaria.” It is really just describing location in this verse. St Ignatius used the term as an attribute for the Church.

The problem I have seen with some RCIA and Religious Ed programs is that leaders who themselves hold the Catholic Faith faithfully, sometimes innocently depend on written materials that intentionally are open to misinterpretation. This often is reflected in assigning dates later than they should be. For instance, some materials suggest the early Church was a generic, egalitarian Christian community, where the whole community celebrated liturgy, and that the Scriptures “emerged” out of this community; but that after 325 or so the “Catholic Church”, as a hierarchical institution, developed, with a separate priest class, and laymen - and women - who in this newly identified (or invented) institutional “Catholic Church” were a little demoted.

These kinds of materials will also hint that the papacy got going as an institution centuries after Peter. You will read things that suggest that many other Catholic beliefs and practices (the Eucharist, the Assumption, etc) began at some date when they were formally defined in response to a challenge, long after the beliefs and practices were in place - but they don’t tell you that part. I don’t think the leaders of your group have this bias, but be aware that bias is out there, and often indirect and subtle. Whenever someone wants to push an agenda to disagree with the Magisterium, they wrap it up in appearance as a restoration of the pure, original Christian community, supposedly untainted by dogmas or hierarchy.

Actually it was “catholica ecclesia” as opposed to a church building. It might have been when the Latin language became Christianized. As others have noted it was earlier used in Greek.

“Catholic Church” was later used by the Anglos.

That may be, but that is the etymology of “Catholic”, which is a good point when one gets the typical fundamentalist objection “Show me ‘Catholic’ in the Bible!”

WElcome home to the Catholic Church. We are happy to see you here on CAF. I think you will be a great asset to our faith and an excellent teacher at some future date!

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