One of the real joys of spending time reading and studying the writings of the earliest Christians (aka the Early Church Fathers) is gaining a bit of insight into what life was like those who professed to be Christian.
One of the real surprises (at least to me) was how early the term “Catholic” came to be used to refer to all Christians.
How early? How about the year 107 … maybe even earlier!
From the Letter to the Smyrnaeans by St. Ignatius of Antioch:
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.
Note that St. Ignatius is a real hero of the early Church – both a bishop and a martyr at the hands of the Romans, he left an awesome written legacy of letters to local churches … primarily encouragement as he marched to his martyrdom.
The current wiki article presents a good overview of the life of St. Ignatius of Antioch. From that article comes this paragraph:
It is from the word katholikos 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 first century.
While this may seem like a small point, I think it’s rather significant – the sense of universality, of all Christians belonging to the church that they themselves called katholikos … this gives us some real insight into what Christians thought important.
An Opposing View
Notice it is in direct contrast to the probably well-intentioned, but definitely historically inaccurate perspective of those who oppose the reality of the one Church founded by Jesus Christ. Typical of this perspective is a recent post by Thomas H., who writes from a Baptist perspective:
The application of the word “catholic” was not used in reference to all supposed Christians until the Council of Trent. This word was used by catholics to beat over the heads of non catholics in the sence of saying you do not belong to the true church. This resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Christians who were not Roman Catholics by the emissaries of Rome.
I think you get the idea … the only real problem with all that is it doesn’t square with the historical record on any level, starting with the word catholic.
The Historical Reality
I can empathize with folks like Thomas – when you have spent your whole life being told bits and pieces of what happened, along with stuff that’s simply not true by folks who spent their lives in the same circumstances, it must be hard to be open to the reality that contradicts what you believe.
Yet, the historical record is clear, and provides an eloquent testimony to the truth … from its earliest days the Church understood that unity and universality were basic marks of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
It began calling itself katholikos around the end of the first century, at most a few years after the death of the last apostle (John). It did not begin with the Council of Trent (late 16th century – nearly 1500 years later) or any other time. In fact, by the time the canon of Scripture – what we call the Bible – was settled Christians had been calling themselves Catholics for almost 300 years … longer than the United States has even been a country!
That Church remains Catholic to this day, and will remain so until the end of time (Matthew 16:18+).
If this does not seem right to you, please investigate on your own. Look into the historical record – pagan, Jewish, or Christian – and see what evidence supports each side. What you’ll find is exactly what the Church has always understood … it is katholikos, and has been so from the beginning.
The writings of the Early Church Fathers are widely available, with treatments ranging from the easily-accessible to the more in-depth, scholarly works. A good place to start for most folks is Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett – a very readable account, well-grounded in current scholarship,