CATHOLIC , a designation adopted in the 2nd century by the Christian Church to indicate Christendom as a whole, in contrast with individual churches. With this idea went the notions that Christianity had been diffused throughout the whole earth by the apostles, and that only what was found everywhere throughout the church could be true. The term thus in time became full of dogmatic and political meaning, connoting, when applied to the church, a universal authoritative and orthodox society, as opposed to Gnostic and other "sects" (cf. the famous canon of Vincent of Lerins a.d. 434; quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). The term "Catholic" does not occur in the old Roman symbol; but Professor Loofs includes it in his reconstruction, based on typical phrases in common use at the time of the ante-Nicene creeds of the East. In the original form of the Nicene creed itself it does not occur; but in the creed of Jerusalem (348), an amplification of the Nicene symbol, we find "one Holy Catholic Church," and in the revision by Cyril of Alexandria (362) "Catholic and Apostolic Church" (see Creeds). Thus, though the word "Catholic" was late in finding its way into the formal symbols of the church, it is clear that it had long been in use in the original sense defined above. It must be borne in mind, however, that the designation "Catholic" was equally claimed by all the warring parties within the church at various times; thus, the followers of Arius and Athanasius alike called themselves Catholics, and it was only the ultimate victory of the latter that has reserved for them in history the name of Catholic, and branded the former as Arian.
With the gradual development and stereotyping of the creed it was inevitable that the term "Catholic" should come to imply a more narrowly defined orthodoxy. In the Eastern churches, indeed, the conception of the church as the guardian of "the faith once delivered to the saints" soon overshadowed that of interpretation and development by catholic consent, and, though they have throughout claimed the title of Catholic, their chief glory is that conveyed in the name of the Holy Orthodox Church. In the West, meanwhile, the growth of the power of the papacy had tended more and more to the interpretation of the word "catholic" as implying communion with, and obedience to, the see of Rome (see Papacy); the churches of the East, no less than the heretical sects of the West, by repudiating this allegiance, had ceased to be Catholic. This identification of "Catholic" with "Roman" was accentuated by the progress of the Reformation. The Reformers themselves, indeed, like other dissidents and reformers before them, did not necessarily repudiate the name of Catholic; they believed, in fact, in Catholicism, i.e. the universal sanction of their beliefs, as firmly as did the adherents of "the old religion"; they included the Catholic creeds, definitions formulated by the universal church, in their service books; they too appealed, as the fathers of Basel and Constance had done, from the papal monarchy to the great ecclesiastical republic. The Church of England at least, emphasizing her own essential catholicity, retained in her translations of the ancient symbols the word "catholic" instead of replacing it by "universal." But the appeal to the verbally inspired Bible was stronger than that to a church hopelessly divided; the Bible, and not the consent of the universal church, became the touchstone of the reformed orthodoxy; in the nomenclature of the time, "evangelical" arose in contradistinction to "Catholic," while, in popular parlance, the "protest" of the Reformers against the "corruptions of Rome" led to the invention of the term "Protestant," which, though nowhere assumed in the official titles of the older reformed churches, was early used as a generic term to include them all.
"Catholic" and "Catholicism" thus again changed and narrowed their meaning; they became, by universal usage, identified definitely with "Romanist" and the creed and obedience of Rome. Even in England, where the church retained most strongly the Catholic tradition, this distinction of "Protestant" and "Catholic" was clearly maintained, at least till the "Catholic revival" in the Church of England of the 19th century. On the continent of Europe the equivalent words (e.g. Ger. Katholik, Katholizismus; Fr. catholique, catholicisme) are even more definitely associated with Rome; they have lost the sense which they still convey to a considerable school of Anglicans. The dissident "Catholic" churches are forced to qualify their titles: they are "Old Catholics" (Alt-Katholiken) or "German Catholics" (Deutsch-Katholiken). The Church of Rome alone, officially and in popular parlance, is "the Catholic Church" (katholische Kirche, église catholique), a title which she proudly claims as exclusively her own, by divine right, by the sanction of immemorial tradition, and by reason of her perpetual protest against the idea of "national" churches, consecrated by the Reformation (see Church History, and Roman Catholic Church). The additional qualification of "Roman" she tolerates, since it proclaims her doctrine of the see of Rome as the keystone of Catholicism; but to herself she is "the Catholic Church," and her members are "Catholics."
Yet to concede this claim and surrender without qualification the word "Catholic" to a connotation which is at best only universal in theory, is to beg several very weighty questions. The doctrine of the Catholic Church, i.e. the essential unity and interdependence of "all God's faithful people scattered throughout the world," is common to all sections of Christians. The creed is one; it is the interpretation that differs. In a somewhat narrower sense, too, the Church of England at least has never repudiated the conception of the Catholic Church as a divinely instituted organization for the safe-guarding and proclamation of the Christian revelation. She deliberately retained the Catholic creeds, the Catholic ministry and the appeal to Catholic antiquity (see England, Church of). A large section of her members, accordingly, laying stress on this side of her tradition, prefer to call themselves "Catholics." But, though the invention of the terms "Roman Catholic" and "Roman Catholicism" early implied the retention by the English Church of her Catholic claim, her members were never, after the Reformation, called Catholics; even the Caroline divines of the 17th century, for all their "popish practices," styled themselves Protestants, though they would have professed their adherence to "the Catholic faith" and their belief in "the Holy Catholic Church."
Clearly, then, the exact meaning of the term varies according to those who use it and those to whom it is applied. To the Romanist "Catholic" means "Roman Catholic"; to the high Anglican it means whatever is common to the three "historic" branches into which he conceives the church to be divided - Roman, Anglican and Orthodox; to the Protestant pure and simple it means either what it does to the Romanist, or, in expansive moments, simply what is "universal" to all Christians. In a yet broader sense it is used adjectivally of mere wideness or universality of view, as when we speak of a man as "of catholic sympathies" or "catholic in his tastes."
The name of Catholic Epistles is given to those letters (two of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude) incorporated in the New Testament which (except 2 and 3 John) are not, like those of St Paul, addressed to particular individuals or churches, but to a larger and more indefinite circle of readers. (See BIBLE: New Testament, Canon.)
The title of Catholicus seems to have been used under the Roman empire, though rarely, as the Greek equivalent of consularis and praefectus. Thus Eusebius (Hist. eccl. viii. 23) speaks of the catholicus of Africa . As an ecclesiastical title it was used to imply, not universal (ecumenical), but a great and widespread jurisdiction. Thus the bishop of the important see of Seleucia (Bagdad), though subordinate to the patriarch of Antioch, had the title of Catholicus and power to consecrate even archbishops; and on the division of the see there were two Catholici under the patriarch of Antioch. In Ethiopia, too, there were Catholici with less extensive powers, subject to the patriarch of Alexandria. The title now survives, however, only as that of the head of the Armenian Church (q.v.). A bishop's cathedral church is, however, in Greek the Catholicon.
An isolated use of the word "catholic" as a secular legal term survives in Scots law; a catholic creditor is one whose debt is secured over several or over all of the subjects belonging to the debtor.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)