The word catholic means general or universal (from the Greek καθολικός). Originally applied to the universal care and providence of God (by Tertullian), to the general resurrection (by Theophilus of Antioch), it is still used of those Epistles addressed to the Church at large and not to particular communities.
But today the term is more often applied to the Church founded by Christ, which is of its nature intended for all races and all times. The Prophets of the Old Law announced the universal reign of the Messiah, and this was established by Christ, who spoke of the kingdom as being destined for all men and who sent out His disciples to teach all nations. The reception of Cornelius marked an important step in the realization of this ideal; St. Paul in his day could already speak of the faith as being known throughout the whole world (Rom 1.8). Early Church documents (Didache, St. Polycarp) speak of universality as one of the characteristics of Christianity, and St. Ignatius of Antioch (Smyrn. 8.2) was the first to use the expression the Catholic Church. The growth of the Church in the first two centuries is often taken as a sign of its divine origin, since up to the time of Constantine there were very few material advantages to be obtained by a profession of Christianity; yet persecution increased rather than diminished the spread of the Church [see miracle, moral (the church)]. The struggle with the Donatists helped to clarify catholicity as a mark of the Church. The claim of the Donatists to be the one true church of Christ was seen to be inadmissible, since they were but a sect in a small corner of the globe. Optatus of Mileve and St. Augustine particularly insisted on this aspect of the Church of Christ spread throughout the world. Throughout history, as new lands and peoples have been discovered, the one and same Church has been extended to all parts of the world.
The word Catholic is also applied to the teaching and the faith of the Church of Christ, and in this sense it means what is believed by the whole Church. Thus Catholic teaching becomes a test of orthodoxy. It is sound doctrine as opposed to heresy, or, as Vincent of Lérins said, "that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is what is truly and properly Catholic" (Common. 1.2; Enchiridion patristicum, ed. M. J. Rouët de Journel [21st ed. Freiburg im Breisgau 1960] 2168). What is believed by the universal Church must be true, otherwise there would be a total defection from the teaching of Christ.
Finally the word Catholic is used of individual Christians insofar as they belong to the Catholic Church and are orthodox in their belief.
See Also: catholicity; roman catholic; church, articles on.
Bibliography: k. rahner and f. mussner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 6:88–90. g. w. h. lampe, ed., A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford 1961–). "Catholicus" in Thesaurus linguae Latinae (Leipzig 1900–) 3:614.53–618.35. y. m. j. congar, Divided Christendom, tr. m. a. bousfield (London 1939) 93–144. h. de lubac, Catholicism, tr. l. c. sheppard (New York 1958); The Splendour of the Church, tr. m. mason (New York 1956). g. thils, Les Notes de l'église dans l'apologétique catholique depuis la réforme (Gembloux 1937) 214–254. a. dulles, The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford 1985). garcia y garcia, h. legrand, and j. manzanares, "The Local Church and Catholicity," The Jurist 52 (1992) 1:1–582.
[m. e. williams]
cath·o·lic / ˈka[unvoicedth](ə)lik/ • adj. 1. (esp. of a person's tastes) including a wide variety of things; all-embracing. 2. (Catholic) of the Roman Catholic faith. ∎ of or including all Christians. ∎ of or relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church. • n. (Catholic) a member of the Roman Catholic Church. DERIVATIVES: cath·o·lic·i·ty / ˌka[unvoicedth](ə)ˈlisətē/ n. ca·thol·ic·ly adv.
Catholic Church the Church universal, the whole body of Christians; also, the Church of Rome.
Catholic Emancipation the term for the granting of full political and civil liberties to Roman Catholics in Britain and Ireland. This was effected by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, which repealed restrictive laws, including that which barred Catholics from holding public office.
Catholic League in 16th-century France, the party headed by the Guise family, the Holy League.
Hence catholicism, catholicize XVII; catholicity XIX.