Brandon's Notepad

March 24, 2017

What Does “Catholic” Mean Anyway?


My recent post covering the five Epistles of Ignatius 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.

May 20, 2014

Athenagoras’ Apology

Home > My Research > Christianity > Early Church Fathers > Athenagoras’ Apology


This Apology (or Embassy, πρεσβεία), which is also often titled A Plea for the Christians (Legatio pro Christianis), was a letter written by Athenagoras of Athens to the Roman Emperors to explain the injustices inflicted upon the Christians in his city. The author explains why Christians behave differently than their pagan neighbors, and how certain accusations against them have been raised out of ignorance or hate.


Athenagoras of Athens was a philosopher and a convert to the faith. The date of authorship is around A.D. 177 based on the rule of co-Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.


I chose to summarize this text by rewriting it in condensed and simplified language. The bracketed numbers indicate the transition between chapters as defined in the English Translation found at New Advent.

To Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus & Lucius Aurelius Commodus,

[1] The nations of the Empire have been allowed to retain their local customs and laws without fear of punishment, for fear of any god promotes morality and is preferable to belief in no god at all. The Greeks worship and make sacrifices to their many deities and the Egyptians continue to recognize various animals as gods. They and all peoples of the Empire live in equality and peace. All, that is, except for we Christians who are openly harassed, robbed, and persecuted for our allegiance to the name of Christ. Not only is our property taken from us, but assaults are made upon both our bodies and our souls. We therefore wish to state our case against our accusers that we may see justice.

[2] If a Christian is convicted of a crime then he should accept punishment for his own actions, and in this regard we ask no special favors; but a man should not be punished simply for calling himself a Christian. That the name of the Christian religion has been marred by rumors and false accusations should not be tolerated by you, who are kind and just. As it stands, Christians are not judged as others are, based on proof of wrongdoing, but instead on the name alone. Christian people recognize the authority of the law, though some who falsely profess to be Christian may indeed be wicked men. Let equal justice be done then, taking the lives of the accused into account in their trials, and not permitting the reputation of the Christian name to be marred for the actions of only a few.

[3] Christians are commonly charged with three crimes: atheism, cannibalism, and incest. If these charges be true, then have us destroyed, but if the are empty accusations — and you have good reason to believe that this is the case — then let our lives be a testimony to the truth.

[4] Regarding the charge of atheism, unlike the infamous Diagoras, we Christians do recognize a God, a single deity who is eternal and uncreated, who is separate from the world and who made all things in this world by his Word; therefore, it is not reasonable that we should be called atheists. [5] The [Greek] poets are not accused of atheism, though they openly question the existence of God in their rhymes; nor are the playwrights, such as Sophocles who observed plainly that God must be one. [6] As I am sure you know already, the Philosophers, Platonists and Stoics alike, also agree that God must rationally be only one being, and yet they are not considered atheists either. [7] And though all of these have come to some understanding of God through their own reason, none of them have the testimony of witnesses that we Christians have. [8] While we agree that it is illogical that two (or more) gods should exist (e.g. what place would one have in the order created by the other?), [9] such arguments are the products of mens’ minds. God’s mind is known to us through the writings of the Prophets of old, with which you are certainly familiar (if not, examine them and see the grounds for our defense). [10] What sense does it make, therefore, that a charge of atheism be brought against those who speak of the mind and the reason and the radiance of God as being distinct and yet one in being? [11] We are assured that the Prophets speak the mind of God, for what other doctrine teaches that man should love and pray for those who commit all manner of unjust and wicked evils against them? [12] We choose to live moral lives, purging ourselves of evil, out of the belief that we must eventually give an account of our lives to God, lest we suffer punishment in the next life instead of enjoying an existence of joy beyond words.

Having proven, then, that Christians do believe in a God, let us examine the reasoning of our accusers. [13] First, they call us atheists because we do not offer burnt offerings. We, however, understand that the only sacrifice God needs from us is to know him. [14] Second, we do not conform to their ideas of religion. But why are we expected to do so when they cannot even agree amongst themselves? The various peoples of the Greek world (not to mention the Egyptians) have differing sets of deities to whom they pray and sacrifice, and yet they do not stand accused as we do. [15] Even if they did acknowledge and accept these things about us, there is also the fact that many of them worship idols, things that are created, whereas we praise instead the creator. [16] Likewise, we do not pay homage to the heavenly bodies, but to the one who set them in motion and established the harmony between them and the earth. [17] The names and genealogies of their gods were created by the poets, and the statues and reliefs they worship have been carved by artists in recent times. How is it their gods have not existed from the beginning? [18] The poets tell us that the gods originally came forth from the water. [19] If so, how then can the gods be greater than the pre-existent matter from whence they came, and what then caused them to move into existence? [20] The descriptions given for their physical bodies and the details of their behaviours and deeds make them sound far more like beasts than gods, [21] or at best like vulnerable men who are unable to abate their own emotions and desires. [22] Some even associate the gods with the natural elements, such as earth, wind, fire, and water, but again these things may be destroyed and cannot will themselves to move. [23] The philosophers divide the superior beings into categories such as gods, demons, and heroes based on their nature and origin, and then further classify them as spirit or matter and as good or bad, [24] though there is variance in their opinions regarding these matters as well. [28] Lastly, there is evidence in both written history and the testimony of Greek priests that the gods they worship were really men, for they are the very same god-kings elevated by the Egyptians as divine. [29] The poets agree with the historians on this point, and [30] have indeed elevated men of old, perhaps the first among men with the power of speech, to the rank of deity, and through their stories gained for them the veneration of many.

[24] We Christians, on the other hand, use language that distinctly separates God from matter. We acknowledge God, his Word which is his Son, and a Holy Spirit, all having different attributes but a single essence. We acknowledge other powers as well that exercise dominion over matter. These we call angels and each heeds the call by God to care for a part of his creation — all, that is, but one who stands opposed to God’s goodness and the other angels who follow him. It was these disobedient angels who fell into an impure love of women and begat the race of giants. [25] Both the fallen angels and the giants (who are demons) are governed by he who is opposed to all good, a ruling prince, and they influence men to behave likewise, both individually and in society. Things in this world do not happen by chance as some believe, for all things are ordered by God; thus, man does not transgress the law that is within him on his own accord, but is impelled to do so only by the prince and his demons. [26] It is the demons who move men toward idolatry, accepting sacrifices as gods and performing acts by their names. [27] Idols are fashioned first in spirit and then from materials by the souls of the artists who have either placed earthly things above heavenly things or have not given ample consideration to their creator, and always under the influence of demons eager to win for themselves the immortal souls of men.

[31] The charges of cannibalism and incest have been fabricated by our accusers either to scare us from living in piety or to rouse the rulers against us. If we did not believe, then we might live for the moment, but as it is, we abhor sin and live rightly so that we might live with God and not suffer punishment in the next life. [32] With great hypocrisy do they accuse us of incest, for such behaviour is common amongst the gods they love so, yet we are so far removed from this sin, because even a wanton look is condemned. [33] We despise this world and its pleasures, choosing to marry in accordance with our laws and only for the purpose of having children. Indulgence of carnal desires in both thought and deed separates us from God, and remarriage after the death of one’s wife is considered adultery. [34] Not only are the accusations false, but the accusers are hypocrites, for they themselves have unlawfully established marketplaces for all sorts of fornication, finding justification in the stories of their gods. [35] Similarly, they relish in the contests of the gladiators, yet they accuse us — a people who cannot even bear to see a man executed justly — of murder that we might feed upon the flesh of the dead. And it is we who call the woman who aborts her unborn child a murderer just as if the child had been born already. How can we who outrightly detest these things be thought of as a murderous people? [36] Making ourselves into tombs for the bodies of others would be a denial of the eventual resurrection of all mens’ bodies. I will save our reasons for believing in a resurrection for another time, though I will mention that it is something that even the philosophers have come to believe.

[37] Do you, worthy and benevolent rulers, understand our yearning for justice, now that I have disposed of the accusations and proved our gentleness and piety? Who deserves to have their request granted more than those who pray for your government and who ask only for the peace to live as God commands?


  • Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius and ruled as co-emperor for about three years preceding his father’s death.
  • The first three chapters are a general plea for justice. The false charges typically brought against the Christians — for which they are being persecuted and even tortured — are enumerated, setting the stage for the remainder of the explanation (apology).
  • It is noteworthy in chapter 2, that the belief of Christians in a god is evidenced by their mode of living (morality), and that love for neighbor (including their enemies) is most-compellingly expressed not only in words or even prayers (both of which could be simple lip service), but in their good works performed for one another.
  • Chapters 4 through 12 refute the charge of atheism, noting the hypocrisy of the accusers as well as the reliance on the teachings of the OT prophets.
  • Chapter 10 includes several interesting notions regarding the nature of God. The author writes about the Logos (the Word) of God, who was not made but existed with God the Father from the beginning. This, of course, echoes the beginning of John’s Gospel. He also writes of the Holy Spirit, which is the “effluence” that radiates from God. It is the Holy Spirit that operates through (or for those familiar with the old language, “spake by”) the prophets. By extension, since the teaching of the prophets had been captured and preserved in the Scriptures, this somewhat implies that the Scriptures themselves were created by the operation of the Spirit. This agrees with St. Paul’s claim that “all scripture is God-breathed” [2 Tim 3:16], as well as the later language that describes the authors of Holy Scripture as divinely inspired. He also states plainly that the three have “power in union and distinction in order”, which is the first statement in this letter resembling the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
  • Chapters 13 through 30 mean to explain the inferiority of the Greek gods in comparison to the One Almighty God as a further defense.
  • Chapters 24 through 27 have been moved herein to follow chapter 30 to improve continuity of thought. These chapters constitute a brief catechesis on Christian beliefs about God, Satan, and their angels (both faithful and fallen) and demons.
  • Chapter 24 sets forth a form of Trinitarian doctrine, stating that Father, Son, and Spirit are united in essence. Though the distinction is drawn between God and matter, the author does not mention Jesus’ humanity, much less expound on anything as deep as the Incarnation or hypostatic union (dual nature) of Christ.
  • From chapter 23 we learn that the Greek philosopher Thales theorized that demons are possessed beings and that heroes are the separated souls of good men. This definition of demon certainly fits what we read about in the NT, and the good souls of heroes that live on after death could be construed as a prefigurement of the saints. He goes on the say in chapter 25 that the fallen angels haunt the earth and the souls of the giants, which are their offspring (the Nephilim, Genesis 6), are the demons that wander the earth (supposedly possessing other people), and that neither can “rise to heavenly things”.
  • Chapter 25 introduces an interesting topic for theological debate. It seems to state that all things, man included, are well ordered insofar as they were created, and that man does not transgress by his own accord, but only under the influence of evil forces. On this point Catholics and Protestants differ in understanding. A Protestant will claim that the Original Sin permenantly changed the nature of man (to a ‘sin nature’; c.f. the doctrine of Total Depravity). For this reason, they claim that man can never attain a state of holiness. On the other hand, Catholics will recognize that man was not changed in Genesis 3, but was removed from God’s protection and left to fend for himself. This is why a baptized person who has been cleansed of the blemesh of Original Sin can indeed lead a holy life and can be made holy through the Sacraments.
  • Chapter 28 reveals that the Greek gods were considered to be the same as the gods of Egypt. Here is one explanation of this theory written in 2004.
  • In chapter 31, the author explains how the Christians not just avoid sin but “will not entertain even the thought of the slightest sin” so that they may remain “blameless and irreproachable” before God. Thus, though they believe, they understand that through sin they may forfeit eternal life.
  • Chapter 32 contains an interesting saying attributed to Jesus that warns against kissing a second time out of pleasure, for “the least defilement of thought…excludes us from eternal life”. This is in reference to the abuse of a salutatory kiss, a common practice in the Near East, and not a romantic kiss. I have not found a source for this quote.
  • Chapter 33 notes that matrimony, as the etymology of the word implies, is for the express purpose of procreation.
  • Remarriage, even after the death of a spouse, is elevated as a sin to the rank of adultery. Obviously, this is not (or at least is no longer) in accordance with Church teaching.
  • In chapter 34, the author identifies specific carnal activities performed by the pagans as “shocking abominations” that “[dishonor] the fair workmanship of God”. Though these acts are immoral and incommensurate with the Christian life, the author calls for a certain kind of tolerance, “for it is not enough to be just…but it is incumbent on us to be good and patient of evil.”
  • The charge of cannibalism is refuted in Chapter 35 based on two facts: there have been no (requisite) murders, and there are no witnesses to the alleged feasts.
  • I cannot help but wonder if the charge of cannibalism was linked with the Real Presence of the Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Many Protestants, and especially modern Christian Fundamentalists, use similar language to attack Catholicism by reducing the Lord’s Supper down to a simple symbol. The author doesn’t mention it here, though.
  • Chapter 35 states that the Christian community regarded abortion as murder.

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