The Name “Catholic”

Dear Grace: I have always wanted to know where the title “Catholic” came from. Where in the Holy Bible do you find the name “catholic”?

© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon

This article taken from the book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith, coming in March 2003 from Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at or call 1-800-348-2440. Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit Grace online at

Thank you for your letter; it gives us a chance to answer a question that many are curious about. The word “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholikos, which means “throughout the world” or “universal.” Many Greek classic and early Christian writers used it in this general sense in order to contrast something that was merikos (partial) or idios (particular).

One example of this is found in the Bible in the ancient phrase “Catholic Epistles” as applied to those of Sts. Peter and Jude. They were so called because they were addressed not to particular local communities, but to the Church at large.

With time, the word “catholic,” as has happened with many other words, came to refer to something in particular because of the way it was used. There are many examples in the writings of the early Church Fathers that clearly show how the word very soon came to be used to describe the Church which Jesus Christ had founded on St. Peter and the apostles. Our first documented evidence comes from the letter of St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, written about the year 110. He writes: “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the [katholike] Church.”

Clement of Alexandria also 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.” There are many examples of this usage and it shows how “Catholic” soon became the proper name of the Church founded by Christ.

You ask where in the Bible the name “catholic” appears. The name does appear, as I mentioned above, but not as a proper name. However, it is not necessary for the Church to have been given her formal name in the Bible for it to be her name. After all, keep in mind that when Jesus left this earth in bodily form, the New Testament had not yet been written.

Let me repeat what I wrote in an earlier column. Jesus’ last command to His apostles before ascending to heaven was that they “go out and make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” He even added a promise — “I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matthew 28: 19-20). At that point, Jesus did not give them a book to follow. That “book,” which contained the New Law (the New Testament) did not even begin to be written until 50-100 AD.

Therefore, what Jesus left to complete His mission on this earth was the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit. And the Church was for everyone — universal — catholic! It was not until the year 393 that the canonical books of the New Testament were accepted and approved by the Catholic Church at the Council of Hippo. So, what or who did the Church (the followers of Christ) follow for those first four hundred years? It was the teaching of the apostles, whom Jesus had left in charge of His Church, telling them that He would be with them to the end.

When a baby is born and then given a name, it does not change anything about who the baby “was” before he was named. He or she simply has a name now, something to be called or to go by. Likewise, the Church was Catholic since the day she was born, on the cross, when water and blood flowed from Jesus’ side. The Church acquired her name with time, but this changes nothing about who or what she was from the beginning and still is today. The Church is Catholic — universal — and she wishes that all should enter and be saved. That is what Jesus wanted — One Body in Christ.

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