The early church fathers and the roman catholic church

A protestant is asking this question about the catholic church.



I dont know how to answer.

It can’t mean the Roman Catholic Church specially because the Church is much larger then just Rome.

Kata + Holon = “Pertaining to the whole; fullness”. As used by Ignatius of Antioch, the term “Katholike Ekklesia” meant the “fullness of the Church”. There was no notion of universality, but rather the notion that through the Eucharist the totality of the Church was present wherever the Eucharist was being celebrated. The universal dimension of the Church was manifested by the communion of all rightly ordained bishops with each other, not with one particular bishop.



Quite right. If this is a Protestant asking you this, his angle may be that he is trying to say something like, “see, in the beginning there was just the original, primal church, neither Catholic nor Orthodox. Just a pure, unbridled basic church.” And he may even think that whatever protestant church he belongs to is like that original church. This is a common way of arguing for protestants. They tend to think that the unfolding and development of the church over time was not a good thing. They think this development was rather the accumulation of so many various traditions that obscured and corrupted the once pure church in the beginning.

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No, it doesn’t refer to the Roman Catholic church any more than it means the Roman Catholic church today. The Roman (Latin) church is only one of 24 Catholic churches.

“Catholic” in the quoted context was used to refer to the orthodox church versus the heretics.

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It also might be helpful to point out to your protestant friend that in that particular time there was the one universal catholic (and Catholic) church and outside of that Jewish people and nonCatholics. There weren’t any Muslims until the 7th centuries. The Orthodox Church did not split completely away until the 12th century (prior to that there was, after Constantine, the ONE Catholic Church with one headquarters in Rome to serve the Western portions of the Roman Empire, and one headquarters in the new city of Constantinople to serve the EASTERN portions of the Roman Empire. Outside of this, there were in the 4th and 5th centuries Catholics who veered into heresy (just as CINO can often do today, claiming, “I’m Catholic but I believe in womynpriests” for example), Catholics who followed certain charismatic leaders who taught against some Catholic doctrines, continuing to claim they were Catholic but adding labels like “Marcionian”, “Nestorian” or “Arian” as they bent to the heresies these men taught’.

What there were NOT at the time of the Fathers were 'Protestant Christians". No early Baptists, Presbyterians, ‘bible-believing Christians’ or non-denoms. Nothing like that. No Trail of Tears, no hidden pure clear apostolic churches running parallel and keeping the ‘real teachings’ while the Catholic Church drifted off into heresy and make-believe.

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At the time of the early Church fathers, there was only one Christian Church all across the known world, so it is a logical impossibility for them to refer to any type of ‘denomination’ as such did not exist.


The burden is upon the accuser.

There were 5 patriarchal sees; Rome (in the west), Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (all in the east).


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Anglican patristics scholars of the last century, such as J. H. Srawley, in his 1900 translation of The Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, page 97, and, if I remember correctly, J. N. D. Kelly, in his 1958 book, Early Christian Doctrines, were of the opinion that by the latter part of the second century the word ‘catholic’ was used in two senses: the primitive sense of ‘universal’ and a secondary sense of ‘orthodox’ as opposed to ‘heretical.’

J. H. Srawley, in his footnote commentary on his translation of Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter VIII, said, in part:

This is the earliest occurrence in Christian literature of the phrase ‘the Catholic Church’ (η καθολικη εκκλησια). The original sense of the word is ‘universal.’ Thus Justin Martyr (Dial. 82) speaks of the ‘universal or general resurrection,’ using the words η καθολικη αναστασις. 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 190-210 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.

If I remember correctly, J. N. D. Kelly cited The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a late-second-century example where the word ‘catholic’ was used in the secondary sense of ‘orthodox’ as opposed to ‘heretical.’

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I’m still chugging thru the 37-volume set of the Church Fathers (in Jerome right now), and that is the sense that I get – one word, two meanings, depending on the context.


it refered to the whole church , catholic just means universal.

now i think he is trying to argue , that the universal (catholic ) church is not the catholic church we know today.

now did the church evolve over time and add some traditions over the centuries? , i personaly belive so do to many reasons

but as of now we need more evidince to say this a fact , and not just a strong evidence hypotesis

Of course you can back this up with documentation of the Catholic Church Fathers correct?

For example:

"They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils."

According to Ignatius the Catholic Church believes it is truly the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist, and those who don’t are not but heretics.

Further in the next paragraph he says :

"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 or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. "

In 1 John he speaks against the gnostics, Does he consider them part of the “universal church”? Does Peter in 2 Peter? Does Jude? Does St. Paul in various letter such as Hymaneus, Philetus, Alexander? Are they all part of this universal church in the bible?

We also find the valid bishop succession in Timothy and Acts.

Can you offer patristic evidence that anyone declared, as you just did, regarding the “universal church”

Peace and God Bless

edit: bolding for easier reading


what @ziapueblo said

It was the papal legate, not the Orthodox, that initiated the schism . . .

where in the world did you get this idea? It has no basis in history or theology. Aside from what @ziapuelo replied, the west was unique in being a single patriarchy.

Again, you’re directly contradicting what the RCC teaches on this! Aside from the dialogs of the last century or so that basically blushed and said, “uhm, err, we were saying the same thing with different words,”, the RCC has formal agreements for mutual care of faithful with churches you just presumed to label heretical . . .

Disciples> brethren> Christians> Catholics

That’s how followers of Christ were described as time went on. Then the schisms resulted in others descriptive names/labels.

Highly debatable, as some Eastern Clergy stepped on Eucharist… I would not point fingers on East either, but pointing finger at Papal Legate can be done if you are talking about escalating the schism, not about initiating it. Photius directly tried anathemizing Latins, which was in my opinion what “initiated” the Schism… or perhaps Council of Toledo did… perhaps crowning of Charlemagne… highly debatable.

Actually, Alexandria was considered “Western” See in that age (geographically that was correct). Nowadays it is not, as it’s Rite is much closer to East and as such is in Eastern Rite family, but it was not considered such way all history. However, Pentarchy was the system, not Rome-Constantinople duality, not East-West duality. East-West/Roman-Constantinople duality is what actually escalated the Schism, when Emperor of Eastern Roman Empire and/or Patriarch of Constantinople held other Patriarchates under control, it did not go well. Even the whole “Ecumenical Patriarch” title actually raised more eyebrows than Pope St. Gregory’s claim to be able to annul entire Eastern synods with strike of a pen, which is actually very interesting.

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Yes and no. The Catholic Church of the first two centuries is very different in doctrine and in practice than the Roman Catholic Church of today. The development of the office of the papacy, Marian doctrines and practices, as the evolution of the mass the doctrines that undergird the divine service, etc., have developed over centuries. However, the term “catholic” originally was applied by Ignatius differentiating the true Church from the docetics and early gnostics who denied the humanity of Christ. In the sense of affirming the true teaching of who Christ is, and what he accomplished in salvation, the term catholic would apply to the Roman Catholic Church, but not exclusively to it.

Excuse me? Exactly what ‘churches’ did I label heretical? If you must know (rather than confusing people in the earlier post with references to various sects) I was thinking of Arians, Nestorians, Marcionians, etc. etc. and excuse the spelling because I am very rushed for time here) ETC. THOSE were the Catholics WHO (not 'churches") veered into heresy, not the Orthodox.

That doesn’t initiate a schism, even if true.

It’s hard to take your time period as anything other than the OO schism . . .

Excommunicating the head of another church does.

yes, what are now west, east, and orient were all Catholic and Orthodox prior to schism’s.

Again, that is escalating or finalizing the Schism. Photius did anathemize Latins anyway, so I guess that would also finalize the Schism in a way… yet that did not last, thankfully. Papal Legate and his anathema were not only invalid but also illicit. Same way, Photius was deposed because Patriarch Ignatius was rightful Patriarch and hence anathemas were invalid as well.

Historians generally agree that Schism was a lengthy process, and as such initiating the Schism can be hardly attributed to act that finalized it.

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Calling that bull “finalizing” is even overstating it . . . it took centuries more before schism was taken all that seriously, with intercommunion remaining the norm.

There are various arguments for when the split became “real”, with the failure of Florence certainly showing that the schism was now real, but earlier dates are offered.

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