When did the Church become both "Roman" and "Catholic?"  The oldest existing record of the term "catholic", meaning universal [katholikos from the Greek, which was the international language employed in the first centuries of the Church], used as a title for the Church founded by Jesus Christ is a letter written by St. Ignatius Bishop of Antioch.  St. Ignatius, who was martyred circa 107AD, is the third Bishop of Antioch, succeeding St. Evodius who was the immediate successor of St. Peter the Apostle, who was the shepherd of Antioch before leaving to found the Church in Rome.  In his letter to the Church at Smyrna in Asia Minor he wrote, "Wherever the Bishop appears there let the people be, just as where Jesus is there is the Catholic Church" [Ignatius, Smyrna 8.2].  About 40 years after Bishop Ignatius' letter a document telling the story, in the form of a letter, of the martyrdom of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna [m. circa 156 at 86 yrs. of age], a disciple of the Apostle St. John, records in the first lines of the document the name of the Church at Smyrna responsible for the writing the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom and that of the addresses, the Church at Philomelium and "all the communities of the holy and Catholic Church, residing in any place." And writing of the final prayer of the beloved Bishop just before his death the document records "When he had at last ended his prayer, in which he remembered all that had met him at any time, both small and great, both known and unknown to fame, and the whole would-wide Catholic Church, the moment of departure arrived..." [Martyrdom of Polycarp, 8].

Initially the term "catholic" or "universal" referred to the Church's geographical mission and expansion, as is found in an early baptismal formula written sometime circa the 2nd century AD which states, "the Church is called Catholic because it is throughout the world, from one end of the earth to the other."  As the Church of Jesus Christ grew, retaining its solidarity in belief, "Catholic" assumed a more doctrinal connotation and came to describe its universality in the sense of continued obedience and fidelity to the original teachings of Jesus Christ and His Apostles.  In the 3rd century St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage [martyred 258AD] expressed this unity of belief in the document On the Unity of the Catholic Church, where he wrote that Catholic belief was from God because those who professed it were united through Christ in the same unity of belief.  Of Jesus' last instructions to St. Peter he writes: "And again He says to him after His resurrection: 'Feed my sheep.'  On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity.  Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; put a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair.  So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord.  If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith?  If he deserts the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? [...].  The church is bathed in the light of the Lord, and pours her rays over the whole world; but it is one light that is spread everywhere, and the unity of her structure is undivided." [On the Unity of the Catholic Church, first edition, written in 251AD by St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, Chapter 4; referencing the Gospel of St John 21:15-17].

 In this document Cyprian correlates the center of Christianity with the Vicar of Christ, St. Peter's successor the Bishop of Rome and therefore "Roman" with "Catholic" and so from his time forward the two terms were interchangeable.  Theologians who followed St. Cyprian affirmed this doctrinal universality like the great 5th century theologian Vincent of Lerins [died 434] who defined the Church's catholicity as "that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all."  The Roman Catholic Church continues in this tradition, faithfully handing down to the New Covenant believers of the universal Catholic Church today the same teaching received from Jesus Christ and given to His Apostles, the spiritual fathers of the New Covenant people of God. 

For additional information please see Catechism of the Catholic Church #s 830, 831, 832, 833, 834, 835, 836, and 868


Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2006 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.