What Do We Mean When We Say “Holy Catholic Church”?

Clinton writes to ask what we mean when we say, in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe a holy catholic church.” He reports that some of his friends will not read the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, or the Heidelberg Catechism because they contain references to the “catholic faith.” Here’s an expanded version of my reply:

Our English word catholic comes to us from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), which the standard dictionary of classical Greek, Liddell and Scott (now Liddell, Scott, and Jones) defines in the first instance as “general” or “universal.” That is why we sometimes speak of the books of Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John as the “catholic epistles.” In none of these uses does catholic have any reference to Roman Catholicism.

The term catholic does not appear in the New Testament but it does appear in some early Christian writings from the 2nd century. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven epistles to congregations who had supported him on his way toward his eventual martyrdom. In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (8.1), probably from the first quarter of the 2nd century, he may have been the first post-apostolic writer to use the adjective catholic.

See that you all follow the episkopos, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbyterion as you would the apostles; and revere the diakonoi, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the church without the episkopos. Let that be deemed a proper thanksgiving, which is either even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not lawful without the episkopos either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

From the context that it seems that he’s using the adjective catholic to describe the universal church and that understanding is confirmed by the clause, “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” We see a similar usage in the Martyrdom of Polycarp from late in the 2nd century:

The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the holy and catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.1

The church is holy in the same way it is catholic. Both adjectives apply to all true churches. The 2nd century church has no notion of a “Roman Catholic” church. The expression “Roman Catholic” found currency among seventeenth-century Protestants.  The Roman communion, however, speaks of the catholic church in communion with and in subjection to the Roman bishop.

The notion of the supremacy of the Roman bishop over all other pastors, and the Roman church over all other churches, developed gradually but it is certainly not inherent in the ancient ecumenical (universal) creeds. When we say “I believe a holy catholic church” we are not confessing, “I believe whatever the Roman communion declares to be dogma.” We do certainly believe the holy and catholic faith taught in holy Scripture and confessed by true churches in all times and places. It is to that faith that the Athanasian Creed refers when it says “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith…”. It is the catholic faith, not Roman dogma we affirm and hold to be necessary to salvation.

So, there is a great difference between true catholicity and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, the very expression Roman Catholicism is a contradiction in terms. The Reformation churches of the 16th century reclaimed this word and returned to the original sense of it. This is the sense of the word as it appears in the ecumenical (catholic) creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.

Your friends should feel completely free to confess the catholic faith with us since it is no way implicates them (or us) in Romanism in any way. Indeed, we claim that we, not Rome, are the true catholics (see below). We say that Rome is a sect that has repeatedly corrupted the Christian faith in a remarkable number of ways.

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1. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 39.

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  1. “Indeed, the very expression Roman Catholicism is a contradiction in terms.”

    I can see why you would say so. But do you see that the the term “Roman Catholicism” is not a contradiction in terms within the Roman Catholic system of thought? In the Catholic system, the catholicity of the Church is directly related to her authority structure, which depends in a unique way on Peter and his successors, who continue this day to “strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). Because Peter and his apostolic see are thought to reside in Roman, there exists an intrinsic connection between Rome and Catholicity: a connection that presupposes that the Church has a visible as well as invisible component, and that the visible head of the Church on earth is a man who must be located, well, somewhere.

    Also, I would ask how the supreme authority of the bishops and pope are not inherent in the early creeds. Do these documents only have authority today because we say they do? How did Christians at the time know that the statements of faith made in these first confessions were to be trusted, especially when the pastors writing these statements of faith were participating in the sacrifice of the Mass and other actions that we associate with the Roman Catholic church today?

    Thank you, and God bless,

    • Daniel,

      As one of our commenters has noted (I don’t remember where) Rome doesn’t typically speak of a “Roman Catholic” church but a Catholic church under the Roman see etc.

      Of course, historians know nothing of a Petrine succession. Here are some resources:



      As one historian has noted, the silence of the 2nd-century church about the Roman see is notable. The reality is that Roman primacy is late Patristic, early medieval development. Given that reality, succession becomes a highly problematic notion. The polity of the 2nd-century church was largely collegial. Certainly episcopacy was not the dominant polity. When Ignatius of Antioch speaks of the episcopos it is usually in the context of a plurality of offices and officers (presbyterion) and the diakonoi.

      It’s not the case that the only way to have a real, institutional structure is to have an episcopal structure. There is a reciprocal relation between the Scripture, the church, and her confession. The Word creates the church and she serves (ministers) the Word, in part, by confessing the faith and combatting error.

      Yes, the visible church must be somewhere and it is and has been and shall be!


      The authority of the visible church is certainly present in the early creeds but, again, as the Regula Fidei (rule of faith) developed from the 1st century it pre-existed the development of a monepiscopal polity and the eventual primacy of Rome.

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