How Did the Catholic Church Get Her Name?
by Kenneth D. Whitehead
The Creed which we recite on Sundays and holy days speaks of one, holy, catholic and
apostolic Church. As everybody knows, however, the Church referred to in this Creed is
more commonly called just the Catholic Church. It is not, by the way, properly
called the Roman Catholic Church, but simply the Catholic Church.
The term Roman Catholic is not used by the Church herself; it is a relatively modern
term, and one, moreover, that is confined largely to the English language. The
English-speaking bishops at the First Vatican Council in 1870, in fact, conducted a
vigorous and successful campaign to insure that the term Roman Catholic was nowhere
included in any of the Council's official documents about the Church herself, and the term
was not included.
Similarly, nowhere in the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council will you find the
term Roman Catholic. Pope Paul VI signed all the documents of the Second Vatican Council
as "I, Paul. Bishop of the Catholic Church." Simply that -- Catholic Church.
There are references to the Roman curia, the Roman missal, the Roman rite, etc., but when
the adjective Roman is applied to the Church herself, it refers to the Diocese of Rome!
Cardinals, for example, are called cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, but that
designation means that when they are named to be cardinals they have thereby become
honorary clergy of the Holy Father's home diocese, the Diocese of Rome. Each cardinal is
given a titular church in Rome, and when the cardinals participate in the election of a
new pope. they are participating in a process that in ancient times was carried out by the
clergy of the Diocese of Rome.
Although the Diocese of Rome is central to the Catholic Church, this does not
mean that the Roman rite, or, as is sometimes said, the Latin rite, is co-terminus with
the Church as a whole; that would mean neglecting the Byzantine, Chaldean, Maronite or
other Oriental rites which are all very much part of the Catholic Church today, as in the
In our day, much greater emphasis has been given to these "non-Roman" rites
of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council devoted a special document, Orientalium
Ecclesiarum (Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches), to the Eastern rites which belong
to the Catholic Church, and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church similarly gives
considerable attention to the distinctive traditions and spirituality of these Eastern
So the proper name for the universal Church is not the Roman Catholic Church.
Far from it. That term caught on mostly in English-speaking countries; it was promoted
mostly by Anglicans, supporters of the "branch theory" of the Church, namely,
that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the creed was supposed to consist of
three major branches, the Anglican, the Orthodox and the so-called Roman Catholic. It was
to avoid that kind of interpretation that the English-speaking bishops at Vatican I
succeeded in warning the Church away from ever using the term officially herself: It too
easily could be misunderstood.
Today in an era of widespread dissent in the Church, and of equally widespread
confusion regarding what authentic Catholic identity is supposed to consist of, many loyal
Catholics have recently taken to using the term Roman Catholic in order to affirm their
understanding that the Catholic Church of the Sunday creed is the same Church that is
united with the Vicar of Christ in Rome, the Pope. This understanding of theirs is
correct, but such Catholics should nevertheless beware of using the term, not only because
of its dubious origins in Anglican circles intending to suggest that there just might be
some other Catholic Church around somewhere besides the Roman one: but also because it
often still is used today to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is something other and
lesser than the Catholic Church of the creed. It is commonly used by some dissenting
theologians, for example, who appear to be attempting to categorize the Roman Catholic
Church as just another contemporary "Christian denomination"--not the body that
is identical with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the creed.
The proper name of the Church, then, is the Catholic Church. It is not ever called
"the Christian Church," either. Although the prestigious Oxford University Press
currently publishes a learned and rather useful reference book called "The Oxford
Book of the Christian Church," the fact is that there has never been a major entity
in history called by that name; the Oxford University Press has adopted a misnomer, for
the Church of Christ has never been called the Christian Church.
There is, of course, a Protestant denomination in the United States which does call
itself by that name, but that particular denomination is hardly what the Oxford University
Press had in mind when assigning to its reference book the title that it did. The
assignment of the title in question appears to have been one more method, of which there
have been so many down through history, of declining to admit that there is, in fact,
one--and only one--entity existing in the world today to which the designation "the
Catholic Church" in the Creed might possibly apply.
The entity in question, of course, is just that: the very visible, worldwide Catholic
Church, in which the 263rd successor of the Apostle Peter, Pope John Paul II, teaches,
governs and sanctifies, along with some 3,000 other bishops around the world, who are
successors of the apostles of Jesus Christ.
As mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, it is true that the followers of Christ early
became known as "Christians" (cf. Acts 11:26). The name Christian, however, was
never commonly applied to the Church herself. In the New Testament itself, the Church is
simply called "the Church." There was only one. In that early time there were
not yet any break-away bodies substantial enough to be rival claimants of the name and
from which the Church might ever have to distinguish herself.
Very early in post-apostolic times, however. the Church did acquire a proper name--and
precisely in order to distinguish herself from rival bodies which by then were already
beginning to form. The name that the Church acquired when it became necessary for her to
have a proper name was the name by which she has been known ever since-the Catholic
The name appears in Christian literature for the first time around the end of the first
century. By the time it was written down, it had certainly already been in use, for the
indications are that everybody understood exactly what was meant by the name when it was
Around the year A.D. 107, a bishop, St. Ignatius of Antioch in the Near East, was
arrested, brought to Rome by armed guards and eventually martyred there in the arena. In a
farewell letter which this early bishop and martyr wrote to his fellow Christians in
Smyrna (today Izmir in modern Turkey), he made the first written mention in history of
"the Catholic Church." He wrote, "Where the bishop is present, there is the
Catholic Church" (To the Smyrnaeans 8:2). Thus, the second century of Christianity
had scarcely begun when the name of the Catholic Church was already in use.
Thereafter, mention of the name became more and more frequent in the written record. It
appears in the oldest written account we possess outside the New Testament of the
martyrdom of a Christian for his faith, the "Martyrdom of St. Polycarp," bishop
of the same Church of Smyrna to which St. Ignatius of Antioch had written. St. Polycarp
was martyred around 155, and the account of his sufferings dates back to that time. The
narrator informs us that in his final prayers before giving up his life for Christ, St.
Polycarp "remembered all who had met with him at any time, both small and great, both
those with and those without renown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the
We know that St. Polycarp, at the time of his death in 155, had been a Christian for 86
years. He could not, therefore, have been born much later than 69 or 70. Yet it appears to
have been a normal part of the vocabulary of a man of this era to be able to speak of
"the whole Catholic Church throughout the world."
The name had caught on, and no doubt for good reasons.
The term "catholic" simply means "universal," and when employing it
in those early days, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna were referring to
the Church that was already "everywhere," as distinguished from whatever sects,
schisms or splinter groups might have grown up here and there, in opposition to the
The term was already understood even then to be an especially fitting name because the
Catholic Church was for everyone, not just for adepts, enthusiasts or the specially
initiated who might have been attracted to her.
Again, it was already understood that the Church was "catholic" because -- to
adopt a modern expression -- she possessed the fullness of the means of salvation. She
also was destined to be "universal" in time as well as in space, and it was to
her that applied the promise of Christ to Peter and the other apostles that "the
powers of death shall not prevail" against her (Mt 16:18).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in our own day has concisely summed up all the
reasons why the name of the Church of Christ has been the Catholic Church: "The
Church is catholic," the Catechism teaches, "[because] she proclaims the
fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of
salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all
times. She is 'missionary of her very nature'" (no. 868).
So the name became attached to her for good. By the time of the first ecumenical
council of the Church, held at Nicaea in Asia Minor in the year 325 A.D., the bishops of
that council were legislating quite naturally in the name of the universal body they
called in the Council of Nicaea's official documents "the Catholic Church." As
most people know, it was that same council which formulated the basic Creed in which the
term "catholic" was retained as one of the four marks of the true Church of
Christ. And it is the same name which is to be found in all 16 documents of the
twenty-first ecumenical council of the Church, Vatican Council II.
It was still back in the fourth century that St. Cyril of Jerusalem aptly wrote,
"Inquire not simply where the Lord's house is, for the sects of the profane also make
an attempt to call their own dens the houses of the Lord; nor inquire merely where the
church is, but where the Catholic Church is. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy
Body, the Mother of all, which is the Spouse of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (Catecheses,
The same inquiry needs to be made in exactly the same way today, for the name of the
true Church of Christ has in no way been changed. It was inevitable that the Catechism of
the Catholic Church would adopt the same name today that the Church has had throughout the
whole of her very long history.
From The Catholic Answer, May/June 1996?
Published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750,