AskDefine | Define catholic

Dictionary Definition

Catholic adj
1 of or relating to or supporting Catholicism; "the Catholic Church"
2 free from provincial prejudices or attachments; "catholic in one's tastes" n : a member of a Catholic church

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From Latin catholicus < Greek katholikós < katà- (according to) + hólou (whole)


  1. All inclusive; pertaining to all mankind.
    He has catholic tastes.

Extensive Definition

Catholic is an adjective derived from the Greek adjective '' / 'katholikos', meaning "general" or "universal" (cf. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon).
In the context of Christian ecclesiology it has several usages:
  • Most Reformation and post-Reformation Churches use the term Catholic (sometimes with a lower-case c) to refer to the belief that all Christians are part of one church, regardless of denominational divisions. It is in line with this interpretation, which applies the word catholic (universal) to no one denomination, that they understand the phrase "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" in the Nicene Creed, the phrase the Catholic faith in the Athanasian Creed and the phrase holy catholic church in the Apostles' Creed.
  • The term can refer to the one (singular number) church that, according to Bible verse |Matthew|16:18-19, Jesus told the Apostle Peter he would build: "And I tell you, you are כיפא (Kepha) (Aramaic for "rock"), and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Methodists and Presbyterians believe their denominations owe their origins to the Apostles and the early Church, but do not claim descent from ancient Church structures such as the episcopate. Neither of these Churches, however, denies that they are a part of the catholic (universal) Church.

History of usage

A letter written by Ignatius to Christians in Smyrna around 106 A.D. is the earliest surviving witness to the use of the term Catholic Church (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8). By Catholic Church Ignatius designated the Christian Church in its universal aspect, excluding heretics, such as those who disavow "the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again" (Smyrnaeans, 7). He called such people "beasts in the shape of men, whom you must not only not receive, but, if it be possible, not even meet with" (Smyrnaeans, 4). The term is also used in the Martyrdom of Polycarp in 155 and in the Muratorian fragment, about 177.
St Cyril of Jerusalem (circa 315-386) urged those he was instructing in the Christian faith: "If ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God" (Catechetical Lectures, XVIII, 26).
The term Catholic Christians entered Roman Imperial law when Theodosius I, Emperor from 379 to 395, reserved that name for adherents of "that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff (Pope) Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria for the others, since in our judgement they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches." This law of 27 February 380 was included in Book 16 of the Codex Theodosianus. It established Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The use of the term Catholic to distinguish the "true" church from heretical groups is found also in Augustine who wrote:
"In the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep (Jn 21:15-19), down to the present episcopate.
"And so, lastly, does the very name of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.
"Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church, as it is right they should ... With you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me... No one shall move me from the faith which binds my mind with ties so many and so strong to the Christian religion... For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."
— St. Augustine (354–430): Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental, chapter 4: Proofs of the Catholic Faith.
A contemporary of Augustine, St. Vincent of Lerins, wrote in 434 under the pseudonym Peregrinus a work known as the Commonitoria ("Memoranda"). While insisting that, like the human body, church doctrine develops while truly keeping its identity (sections 54-59, chapter XXIII), he stated: "[I]n the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense 'Catholic,' which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors" (section 6, end of chapter II).

Present-day usage

The term Catholic Church is normally associated with the church that is led by the Roman Pontiff, currently Pope Benedict XVI, and whose over one billion adherents are about half of the estimated 2.1 billion Christians. Other Christian denominations also lay claim to the description Catholic, including the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Churches possessing the historic episcopate (bishops).
In some countries, Catholic is included in the official name of a particular parish church, school, hospice or other institution belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, to distinguish it from those of other denominations. For example, the name St. Mark's Catholic Church seeks to make clear that it is not an Anglican or Lutheran church. In other countries, such as England, it would be more usual to use Roman Catholic Church in this context.
Many of those, who apply the term Catholic Church to all Christians indiscriminately, object to this use of the term to designate what they view as only one denomination within what they see as the "whole" Catholic Church. However, the Roman Catholic Church considers itself to be The Catholic Church, with all others as non-Catholics, and regularly refers to itself as The Catholic Church. This practice is in application of the belief that not all who claim to be Christians are part of the Catholic Church - a belief that goes back to Ignatius of Antioch, the earliest known writer to use the term Catholic Church - and that communion with the Roman Pontiff is essential for membership. Though normally distinguishing itself from other churches by calling itself the Catholic Church, it accepts the description Roman Catholic Church in its relations with some of them. Even outside documents drawn up jointly with these churches, it has sometimes in view of the central position it attributes to the See of Rome, adopted the adjective "Roman", as in the papal encyclicals Divini illius Magistri and Humani generis. Another example is its self-description as the "Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church" in the 24 April 1870 Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith of the First Vatican Council. In all of these documents it refers to itself also simply as the Catholic Church.

Divergent usages

As noted, in addition to the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East all see themselves as "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" of the Nicene Creed. Anglicans and Old Catholics together see themselves as a communion within that one church, and Lutherans see themselves as "a reform movement within the greater Church catholic".
Roman Catholics view the Bishop of Rome as the "Successor of Peter" to serve as universal pastor to the entire Church. Eastern Orthodox Christians do recognize the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope) but only in the sense of a primacy of honour, not one of jurisdiction, among the Patriarchates of Constantintinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Anglicans and Old Catholics accept that the Bishop of Rome is primus inter pares among all primates, but they embrace Conciliarism as a necessary check on what they consider to be the "excesses" of Ultramontanism.
Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians (in general), and the Assyrian Church of the East each recognize the "validity" of each other's Eucharist (Mass or Divine Liturgy), and of the holy orders of their respective priesthoods and episcopate. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, considers Anglican Holy Orders to be "null and void," as declared by Pope Leo XIII in his Bull Apostolicae curae. Beginning with the Encyclical Letter Saepius officio of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in response to Apostolicae curae, Anglicans have steadfastly rejected this claim. At present, Old Catholics are in full communion with the worldwide Anglican Communion, including full exchange of clergy and participation in each other's ordinations (including episcopal consecrations), and many Lutheran Churches are in communion with some Anglican provinces. Although there were several statements made by a couple of Orthodox leaders in the early 20th century giving hope to Anglican clergy that their priestly orders would eventually be recognized as valid by the Orthodox, today there is little variance among Orthodox patriarchs and metropolitans on the validity of Anglican Orders. As with the Roman Catholic Church, today the Orthodox churches universally require ordination to the priesthood for Anglican clergy that convert to Orthodoxy, evidencing the prevailing Orthodox view that the Anglican liturgy is non-sacramental in nature. Recent decisions by various Anglican/Episcopal bishops to ordain women to the priesthood and to the episcopate have rendered any hope of formal ecclesiastical union with Orthodoxy (from the Orthodox point of view) a moot point.
Thus, for example, in an emergency, when no Roman Catholic priest is available, a Roman Catholic may, under canon law, receive the Holy Eucharist and receive absolution from an Orthodox priest, but not from an Anglican priest. This also means that if an Episcopal or an Anglican male priest converts to the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church confers ordination on him (in its view, for the first time) and excludes women from Holy Orders. This divergence of belief is a considerable block to greater unity, in spite of substantial progress in ecumenical dialogues between Anglicans and Roman Catholics since the Second Vatican Council.
Recent historic ecumenical efforts on the part of Roman Catholic Church have focused on healing the rupture between the Western (Latin or Catholic) Christian Church and the main body of the Eastern ("Greek" or "Orthodox") Christian Church. Before he was incapacitated with a degenerative illness, Pope John Paul II often spoke of his great desire that the Catholic Church "once again breathe with both lungs," thus emphasizing that the Catholic Church seeks to restore full communion with the separated "Eastern" and "Oriental" Christian Churches.
After the rupture in the Catholic Church in 1054 between East and West, a brief reunification took place in the mid-15th century at the Council of Florence. The present Pope (Benedict XVI) has stated his intentions in restoring full unity with the Orthodox. From the Roman Catholic standpoint, almost all of the ancient theological differences have been satisfactorily addressed (the Filioque clause, the nature of purgatory, etc.), and the experience of the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome has shown that the eventual reunion will not mean a "Latinization" of the Eastern Churches.

Avoidance of usage

Some Protestant Churches avoid using the term completely, to the extent among many Lutherans of reciting the Creed with the word Christian in place of Catholic. The Orthodox Churches share some of the concerns about Roman Catholic papal claims, but disagree with some Protestants about the nature of the Church as one body. For some, to use the word "Catholic" at all is to appear to give credence to papal claims.


catholic in Czech: Katolictví
catholic in German: Katholisch
catholic in Persian: کاتولیک
catholic in French: Catholique
catholic in Korean: 보편적 교회
catholic in Russian: Кафоличность церкви
catholic in Serbian: Католичност
catholic in Tagalog: Katoliko
catholic in Thai: คาทอลิก

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

all-comprehending, all-comprehensive, all-covering, all-embracing, all-encompassing, all-filling, all-including, all-inclusive, all-pervading, allover, broad, broad-gauged, broad-minded, catholicon, comprehensive, cosmic, cosmopolitan, country-wide, cure-all, eclectic, ecumenic, ecumenical, ecumenistic, elixir, extensive, galactic, general, generic, global, heaven-wide, inclusive, indeterminate, international, large-scale, liberal, national, nondenominational, noninsular, nonsectarian, nostrum, planetary, spacious of mind, total, unbigoted, unfanatical, unhidebound, universal, unparochial, unprovincial, wide, wide-minded, widespread, world-wide, worldwide
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