Brandon's Notepad

March 24, 2017

What Does “Catholic” Mean Anyway?


My recent post covering the five Epistles of Ignatious of Antioch to the Churches in Asia gave rise to some interesting discussions online, including one about the origin of the word “Catholic”. I knew the general answer, that the word means “universal” and that Ignatius was indeed the earliest author to use it, but I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to dig deeper. Here is the result of my research.

Ignatius of Antioch

A discourse on the meaning of the word ‘catholic’ would hardly be complete without some mention of Saint Ignatius of Antioch who used it to describe the Church in his letter to the Smyrnæans in approximately A.D. 108. His message to the believers in Smyrna was clear: be subject to your bishop in all things concerning belief. This is the earliest known writing in which the Church is referred to as ‘universal’ and that leads many people to the conclusion that Ignatius was the first to give the Church her name, or at least the first to coin the phrase. Nothing in the text, however, supports the hypothesis that Ignatius was trying to do either. It appears more likely that he was using a common adjective to describe the whole body of believers everywhere, and that the phrase caught on amongst early Christian writers.

Here is an excerpt taken from the eighth chapter of Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnæans (taken from The key line of interest has been emphasized and the phrase Catholic Church rendered in bold:

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. [Smyrnæans 8]

Here is the emphasized line in Greek (from TextExcavation), again with Catholic Church in bold:

οπου αν φανη ο επισκοπος, εκει το πληθος εστω, ωσπερ οπου αν η Χριστος Ιησους, εκει η καθολικη εκκλησια.

I would take the time to provide a word-for-word translation of the entire excerpt, but it’s not really necessary for this discussion. There are online lexicons and translators for that purpose, so if you are not familar with Greek, now might be a good time to check out some of these tools.


Let’s start with the noun in this phrase. This is the less controversial of the two words. Almost always rendered in English as ‘church’, the word ekklēsía really just means assembly or gathering, as in a group of people assembled together. It was the term used to refer to the principal assembly of the Athenian democracy over 400 years before Christ walked the Earth. So, which assembly of believers Ignatius is talking about? Since the letter was written for the Chirstians in Smyrna, is he only referring to that assembly? Obviously, no. Ignatius clarified his message by modifying this noun with the adjective καθολικη.


This adjective is actually a combination of two root words: κατά (katá) + ὅλος (hólos). According to Strong’s Concordance, κατά (2596) is a preposition that can have various meanings, such as “down from”, “throughout”, and “according to”. Likewise, ὅλος (3650) is an adjective that means “all”, “whole”, or “entire”. Note how the words are combined into a single adjective, καθολικη. When used to modify the word ekklēsía, one might read the phrase as “according to the entire assembly” or “throughout the whole church”. It requires no stretch of thought to see why the word “universal” is used in translation.

To take this one step further, please note the spelling of the word. The suffix identifies the word’s declension, which is a fancy way of saying number, case, and gender in a single word. Taking a glance at the Wiktionary entry for καθολικός, we can easily determine that for three grammatical cases, this variant of the word modifies a female noun (which εκκλησια is) and is singluar. Ignatius is talking about one church. This implies a level of unity beyond that of the local church and her bishop. Ignatius did not consider the Christian communities to be a loose federation of independent congregations, at least when it came to matters of faith.

Another Look

Now that we have examined the key words in question, let’s reconstruct the line in English based on the Greek above. Again, I am not going to explain every word as they can easily be referenced online. I used the Greek Dictionary Headword Search engine in the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University to translate the line as follows:

The place where lights the bishop, there the multitude is one; even as, where is Christ Jesus, there is the whole assembly throughout.

Ignatius is clearly drawing an analogy that makes perfect sense in his plea for the Churches in Asia to remain in unity with their respective bishops who are, themselves, in unity insofar as the teaching of the faith is concerned. What’s more, this concept of the whole assembly of believers being ever-present with Christ is an expression of what Mircea Eliade would call sacred time and space, though whether Ignatius intended to convey this idea or if it was a product of divine inspiration will be left for discussion at another time.

Word Usage

Some make the argument that Ignatius coined the word καθολικη, based primarily on the observation that the word is not used in the Bible to describe the Church…in fact, it doesn’t appear at all in the Bible. (Such people also tend to be Fundamentalist Christians who only know the word “Catholic” as a proper name and who want to prove that the Church’s universal authority is illegitimate by claiming that Ignatius invented the word after the age of the Apostles and therefore it isn’t “Biblical”.) However, if the word καθολικη (or more properly, καθολικός) existed prior to the time of Christ and the Apostles (and was even found to be commonly used), then there should be instances of it in other Greek texts that predate the New Testament. Whether or not these texts are part of Sacred Scripture is, of course, immaterial, but it never hurts to start there.

The words κατά (2596) and ὅλος (3739) both appear numerous times in the New Testament (480 and 1411 respectively). The word καθό (2526), which means “according to”, is found four times (Rom 8:26, twice in 2 Cor 8:12, and 1 Peter 4:13). The word καθόλου (2527), which is an adverb meaning “entirely” or “at all”, is found once, in Acts 4:18: they instructed them not to teach at all in the name of Jesus. Browsing through Hatch & Redpath’s 1897 Concordance to the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), a similar pattern emerges: many references to the root words, a handful to καθό and καθόλου, and none for καθολικός. So, the root words and some similar words appear in the Bible, but the specific usage we are seeking here is not present.

A search of other Greek texts proves to be more fruitful. Again, using the Greek Dictionary Headword Search engine in the Perseus Digital Library, a search for words starting with καθολ resulted in over sixty hits across eleven works. Nine instances were found in the Histories of Polybius (200-118 B.C.), two of which concern making a “general assertion” (καθολικῆς ἀποφάσεως). The geopgrapher Strabo (63 B.C.-A.D.24; thus immediately prior to Jesus’ public ministry) used it in his work on Geography. The excerpt …ὥστ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἔνεστι καθολικῶς εἰπεῖν ἐπὶ τῶν ἀπεριλήπτων τὸ πλῆθος… [Strab. 17.3] is translated in the accompanying English translation as “…so that it cannot be asserted generally of places indefinite in number…”, but could probably be reduced to “…it cannot be generally said…” So much for the notion that Ignatius was the original inventor of this word.

There are examples of the word being used by writers contemporary to Ignatius as well. The Stoic Philosopher Epictetus (A.D. 50-135) used the word six times in his Discourses. One sample drawn from that work is καθολικοῦ μέμνησο [book2, chapter 2], which is rendered in the accompanying English version as “Remember, then, the general rule…” but which could probably be simplified as “Remember generally…”. In a work called Tetrabiblos by Claudius Ptolemy (A.D. 100-170; yes, the same Ptolemy famous for his geocentric model of the universe), there can be found thirteen separate instances of the word with usages similar to those found in Polybius, such as to describe a calling, a custom, etc. Two more instances can be found in M. Antonius Imperator Ad Se Ipsum by Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180). And so on and so forth. Even if the Perseus Digital Library contains a complete collection of ancient Greek texts, there is proof enough that the compound word καθολικός was common in ancient Greek texts, making Ignatius’ single use of it even less extraordinary.

Incidentally, the largest number of search hits (21 occurences) arose from the Church History according to Eusebius (~A.D. 260-341), six modifing the “assembly” (same usage as Ignatius), four in reference to letters or letter writers (i.e. epistles, as in the Catholic Epistles of Peter, Jude, James, and John), and the remainder modifying various other words to describe general knowledge, direction, order, etc. So, while this adjective was starting to grow in usage, it was still not used to refer exclusively to the Church, even in the Fourth Centruy writings of the Church Fathers.


Ignatius was not attempting to give a name to a universal church, or to coin a new phrase, but was simply using a common adjective to describe the collective of all Christian believers everywhere. In the long run, of course, that is what eventually happened. “Catholic Church” is a proper name that, today, specifically identifies an assembly of people around the world that is rooted in a common belief, and whose “headquarters” (if you want to call it that) is located in Rome. It is slightly more complicated than that, of course, because the Roman Church is just one of many that belong to this more universal collection of Churches, but then, this makes Ignatius’ message even more understandable for modern Catholics.

Addendum: New Questions

Doing this research has brought to mind two additional questions that will make for some interesting study in the future.

First, at what point in history did the word ‘Catholic’ become part of the proper name of the Church, and thus an adjective that exclusively associates whatever it modifies as belonging to the same? One might expect to find this usage prevailent in the writings of the Protestant Reformers and possibly even in Catholic writings in the years leading up to the Reformation. I have seen some claims online that explain how the Church didn’t have to qualify itself as Catholic until Protestant thought became widespread and uncontrollable. Perhaps this was the same reason καθολικός became so popular amongst the Church Fathers, as they were often combating the early heresies and wrote about how these strange beliefs contradicted the Church’s universal teachings.

Second, why does καθολικός not appear in Sacred Scripture? This may be much harder to answer, as it requires a deep understanding of ancient Greek and how the language evolved over time. It may have to do with the level of sophistication with which the various authors wrote. All of the examples given above where the word appears are from works written by scholars, philosophers, scientists, and even an Emperor! Their education, and thus their, command of the Greek language was undoubtedly superior to those common men who roughly incribed the stories of the Apostles while in hiding for fear of Roman persecution. Likewise, translation of ancient Hebrew writings, most of which had already been passed from age to age as oral traditions, into Greek may have dictated the use of simple language.

Perhaps these questions have already been answered in some scholarly works just waiting for me to discover.


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