Why Roman Catholic?

It is a well-documented historical fact that Christianity was a middle-Eastern religion that eventually spread to the West. The Jesus Movement, or “The Way,” as it was first called, began in Galilee and later was centered in Jerusalem because it was there that Jesus did most of His preaching and where He died. Many of His first disciples were thus Jewish. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus gave to His Apostles the command to go out and teach the Good News to all the nations (Matthew 28: 19-20). It is thus clear that Christ meant that the whole world should know about Him and come to salvation. This would of course mean that the Christian faith (which would later be called “catholic”) would eventually have to move far beyond the borders of Israel and the Jewish faith, where it had begun.

Among the Jews during this time, were two groups that were at odds with each other, the conservative Aramaic-speaking Jews and the more liberal-minded Greek-speaking Jews. Many of these Greek-speaking Jews accepted the new “way” and became believers in Jesus. This caused the tensions between the two groups to intensify, which eventually resulted in the conservative Jews driving the more liberal Greek-speaking Jewish followers of Jesus out of Jerusalem. They fled to Antioch and it was from here that Christianity was launched into the entire Western and Eastern world. This was in large part due to the missionary activity of the Apostle Paul (Acts 13: 1-3). They were now called the Christians. Judaism receded more and more into the background. Much of the story of how the Christian faith spread and grew is found in the Acts of the Apostles.

The word “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholikos, which means “throughout the world” or “universal.” 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 (Matthew 16: 18) 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.” There are many examples of this usage and it shows how “Catholic” soon became the proper name of the Church founded by Christ.

How the Church came to be called “Roman Catholic” rests on the fact that Peter made his way to Rome and was later martyred there. It was clear to the followers of Christ that He had chosen Peter to be the leader or head of the Church. He had given to him “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16: 19) and had entrusted him with feeding His lambs (John 21: 15-17). In Scripture, only the Messiah and the Apostle Peter are spoken of as having this authority. Isaiah 22:22 reads, “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.” It is almost universally understood that the “key” is the symbol of authority. Thus, Christ's words were a promise that He would confer on Peter supreme power to govern the Church. Peter was to be His vicar, to rule in His place.

Peter was recognized, from the time of the early Church, as having a position of primacy. He was the first Bishop of Rome and his successors would inherit his supremacy over the Church. The term “Roman Catholic Church” is thus based upon the fact that Rome is the central place of the Bishop of Rome who is the head of the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ.

© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at grace@deargrace.com.

Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: grace@deargrace.com. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.

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