Catholic or catholic? Or, so that’s what catholic means!

Catholic or catholic? Or, so that’s what catholic means! February 26, 2013

A religion writer passed along this piece from the Wall Street Journal with the instruction to pay attention to the 4th paragraph. So let’s do that:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he was praying a lot as he prepared to travel to Rome to participate in the selection of a new pope, but he also has made time to exchange travel tips with his colleague Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“Cardinal George told me to make sure to bring some peanut butter because you can’t get it in the conclave,” Cardinal Dolan said Wednesday following an event at the Carmel Richmond Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center on Staten Island.

It will be Cardinal Dolan’s first time voting in the conclave, the gathering of Roman Catholic cardinals expected to cast ballots next month to pick a successor to Pope Benedict XVI following the pontiff’s announcement earlier this month he would step down. The cardinals head to Rome amid speculation they may defy tradition and name a pope from outside Europe.

“The Holy Spirit knows no boundaries and the church by her nature is Catholic, it’s international, it’s world-wide,” said Cardinal Dolan. “So the prospect of a pope from Latin America, from Asia, is phenomenal and could happen, who knows?”


So let’s have a brief discussion about the difference between catholic and Catholic. The definition for the adjective “catholic” is:

1. broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal.

2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.

3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.

And for the adjective “Catholic”:

1. of or pertaining to a Catholic church, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

2. Theology.

a. (among Roman Catholics) claiming to possess exclusively the notes or characteristics of the one, only, true, and universal church having unity, visibility, indefectibility, apostolic succession, universality, and sanctity: used in this sense, with these qualifications, only by the Church of Rome, as applicable only to itself and its adherents and to their faith and organization; often qualified, especially by those not acknowledging these claims, by prefixing the word Roman.

b. (among Anglo-Catholics) noting or pertaining to the conception of the church as the body representing the ancient undivided Christian witness, comprising all the orthodox churches that have kept the apostolic succession of bishops, and including the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Church of Sweden, the Old Catholic Church (in the Netherlands and elsewhere), etc.

3. pertaining to the Western Church.

The Roman Catholic Church claims catholicity. As it relates to the 4th paragraph above, this is what Dolan’s statement was referring to. He was saying his church is catholic as opposed to saying that the Roman Catholic Church is the Roman Catholic Church.

This entry from Britannica might further clarify:

(from Greek katholikos, “universal”), the characteristic that, according to ecclesiastical writers since the 2nd century, distinguished the Christian Church at large from local communities or from heretical and schismatic sects. A notable exposition of the term as it had developed during the first three centuries of Christianity was given by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catecheses (348): the church is called catholic on the ground of its worldwide extension, its doctrinal completeness, its adaptation to the needs of men of every kind, and its moral and spiritual perfection.

While I would have imagined that such a post explaining the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and catholicity would have been provoked by a non-Catholic use of the term, this distinction is important for reporters to understand.

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19 responses to “Catholic or catholic? Or, so that’s what catholic means!”

  1. Mollie – Whatever they pay you it isn’t enough. Thank you for stating the simple reality that a frightening percentage of main-stream media reporters are not reporters at all, but out and out liberal bigots who attack religion at every turn. I appreciated very much your comments regarding WPost attitude about traditional marriage. Thank you. You are addressing the growing scourge of today’s media-no news, just bias and opinion.

  2. Then there are the people who claim to be “small-c catholic”. Whenever I have asked exactly WHAT this means (“Smells and bells”? Trinitarian?), I have been greeted by earsplitting silence.

    • From the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer catechism:
      The Church is the community of the New Covenant.
      The Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
      The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.
      (This is in line with Mollie’s highlighted item 2(b) and the Britannica paragraph.)

  3. The term is used in the historic Creeds of Christianity:

    The Nicene Creed:
    “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

    The Apostles Creed:
    “the holy catholic church,”

    These are used in most every Christian church (Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic) to acknowledge the basic truths and doctrine of the faith.

    The only difference is that the Orthodox do not use the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed:
    “who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]”

  4. I know it’s a small error and a light-hearted post, but this is what I love about GetReligion – the work you all do day in and day out finding the things that creep into news coverage when the people doing the coverage don’t have the basic background knowledge required. I see this as being parallel to media critics who focus on mishandling of science news: journalists who fail to do the requisite research will make errors, and the multitude of small (and sometimes large) errors lead to general misinformation among those readers who might not themselves have the education to catch those misstatements.

    So thank you. 🙂

  5. When the Pope writes about everybody in the world who is in communion with Rome he talks about the universal church – in Latin that is “catholic”. When the Vatican talks about “the church” it means the people all over the world in union with the Pope. To differentiate, there is the Western or Latin Church and there are the other churches of Eastern origin in union with the Pope whose official language is not Latin – they are sometimes known as the Greek church. You will not catch anybody in Vatican City using the term “Roman Catholic”.
    The on-line dictionary sure puts a lot into its 2a definition of Catholic – as if Catholics use the term “Catholic” to claim all that stuff. No, we don’t. It’s people around the world being in communion with the Pope – the other stuff folows from that. Check out what St Augustine has to say in the following:
    Here’s the Catholic encyclopedia entry on “Catholic”.
    Note the following regarding the English history of the term “Roman Catholic”.
    Hook’s “Church Dictionary” (1854), s.v. “Catholic” — “Let the member of the Church of England assert his right to the name of Catholic, since he is the only person in England who has a right to that name. The English Romanist is a Roman Schismatic and not a Catholic.” The idea is further developed in Blunt’s “Dictionary of Sects and Heresies” (1874), where “Roman Catholics” are described as “a sect organized by the Jesuits out of the relics of the Marian party in the reign of Queen Elizabeth”. An earlier and less extreme view will be found in Newman’s “Essays Critical and Historical”, published by him as an Anglican (see No. 9, “The Catholicity of the Anglican Church”). The Cardinal’s own note on this essay, in the last revised edition, may be read with advantage.

    BTW I’m not claiming anything for my church other than that “Catholic” is the name we ended up with for historical reasons – it meant and means the church universal – all those around the world who are in line with the doctrines of the church known as the Church of Rome, essentially those in communion with the Pope, East and West, North and South, wherever they live. Small “c” catholic is something else with an evolving meaning, evidently.

    • Denominations may change. I don’t think that changes the meaning of small “c” catholic; although there is no authority to say who can apply the term to themselves. Just like there is no authority to say who can self identify as Christian.

  6. My Church History professor, an Episcopalian, told me that “the Catholic Church” is a term that originated to designate those local churches in Communion with Rome. She got that from a text by a Baptist professor at Yale (blanking on his name at the moment). That’s all it is.

    only by the Church of Rome, as applicable only to itself

    That’s all well and good, but it should be noted that the “Church of Rome” believes the Orthodox communities to be “True Churches”, though not in communion with us. So next time you want to say that Catholics are the ONE true Church, remember we acknowledge others.

    And my diocese, at least, has no trouble with “Roman Catholic”:

      • The full quote here 🙂
        From Catholic Online:

        “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8”

        He is responsible for the first known use of the Greek word katholikos (?????????), meaning “universal”, “complete” and “whole” to describe the church

        It is from the word katholikos (“according to the whole”) that the word catholic comes. When Ignatius wrote the Letter to the Smyrnaeans in about the year 107 and used the word catholic, he used it as if it were a word already in use to describe the Church. This has led many scholars to conclude that the appellation Catholic Church with its ecclesial connotation may have been in use as early as the last quarter of the 1st century. On the Eucharist, he wrote in his letter to the Smyrnaeans:

        Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6

  7. Someone (I forget who) once claimed that if you want to know which church is the historic True Catholic Church, stand on a street-corner and ask anyone passing by where the nearest Catholic church is and they will ALWAYS point you to the nearest church that is in communion with the pope in Rome.

    • St. Cyril of Jerusalem said something similar in the Catechetical Lectures (mostly saying that you couldn’t just ask for the church in town, but you should ask for the Catholic church), but I think St. Augustine was the one who made the remark you’re thinking of, in “Against the Letter of Mani” and some other places.

  8. My course on the Lutheran confessions at an LCMS university featured two units “Evangelical Catholics” and “Catholic Evangelicals”. Once again, you’ve found a good term to flesh out and show that the term catholic has a history that goes back to early Christianity and extends through all denominations today. One of the simplest definitions I’ve heard for it is “according to the whole”. Thanks you.

  9. I was taught in Lutheran confirmation class that ‘catholic’ with a small ‘c’ means universal. My confirmation pastor always referred to the church in Rome as the Roman Catholic church. To this day, I do the same. However, I’ve seen R.C. church marquees that say for example, St. Joseph Catholic Church, leaving out Roman all together.

  10. Briefly, the most mis-reported aspect of secular reporting on this is to always conflate ‘Roman Catholic Church’ and Catholic Church.

    Simply put, the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church. It is not the only church that is catholic, nor is it the entire church catholic, but there is only one church called, officially, the Catholic Church., and it is the 1.1 billion member church in communion with Rome.

    Roman Catholic, at most, indicates only a part of the Catholic Church – one of the 23 sui iuris churches that make up the Catholic Church. Roman Catholic and Latin Catholic are basically synonymous. However, Roman Catholic Church and Catholic Church are not synonymous. A Ukranian-Greek Catholic, a Chaldean Catholic, or a Maronite Catholic are all Catholic, but none are Roman Catholic.

    More strictly, as i write from Rome, Roman Catholic means those Catholics who belong to the Church of Rome – that is, the Diocese of Rome. There are less than 3 million. Neither should the entire Catholic Church be referred to as the Roman Church – that would be like referring to the Anglican Communion as the Church of Canterbury.

    Yet, the AP style manual still insists on using Roman Catholic instead of simply Catholic… in the end, admitting that the Catholic Church is properly called Catholic and not Roman Catholic does not mean it is or thinks it is the only catholic church, or the entire church catholic, but it is ecumenically appropriate to call a Church what it calls itself.

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