Why are we called the “Catholic Church”?
The term “catholic” simply means “universal,” and when employing it in those early days, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna were referring to the Church that was already “everywhere,” as distinguished from whatever sects, schisms or splinter groups might have grown up here and there, in opposition to the Catholic Church.
The term was already understood even then to be an especially fitting name because the Catholic Church was for everyone, not just for adepts, enthusiasts or the specially initiated who might have been attracted to her.
Again, it was already understood that the Church was “catholic” because — to adopt a modern expression — she possessed the fullness of the means of salvation. She also was destined to be “universal” in time as well as in space, and it was to her that applied the promise of Christ to Peter and the other apostles that “the powers of death shall not prevail” against her (Mt 16:18).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in our own day has concisely summed up all the reasons why the name of the Church of Christ has been the Catholic Church: “The Church is catholic,” the Catechism teaches, “[because] she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is ‘missionary of her very nature'” (no. 868).
So the name became attached to her for good. By the time of the first ecumenical council of the Church, held at Nicaea in Asia Minor in the year 325 A.D., the bishops of that council were legislating quite naturally in the name of the universal body they called in the Council of Nicaea’s official documents “the Catholic Church.” As most people know, it was that same council which formulated the basic Creed in which the term “catholic” was retained as one of the four marks of the true Church of Christ. And it is the same name which is to be found in all 16 documents of the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Church, Vatican Council II.
From The Catholic Answer, May/June 1996
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