While perusing the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) website I came across this question.

I fully understand what the word catholic by itself means. Orthodox Christians (like many liturgical Protestant denominations) recite the Creed with the understanding that the phrase "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" emphasizes the word catholic with a general meaning, whereas the Catholic Church obviously implies that the word Catholic is more specific.

From the website:

Orthodox Christians understand the word “catholic” word to mean “whole, complete, lacking in nothing.” Hence, when we say “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” we mean that the one, holy, and apostolic Church is “whole, complete, and lacking in nothing.” The word “catholic” with a small “c” has nothing whatsoever to do with Roman “Catholic” with a capital “C”.

This explanation makes sense to me in all aspects except one - the writings of the early Church Fathers.


There are many early writings, both East and West, that are very clear and direct about the Catholic Church being named the Catholic Church with a capital "C."

For example:

"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out[through their office] the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is[administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." Ignatius of Antioch,Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:2(A.D. 110),in ANF,I:89

How do Orthodox Bishops and theologians view these specific and direct Patristic quotes in light of the Orthodox definition of the word "catholic?"

  • 1
    Do you have the original of that quote, to show that capitals were used and are not just an editorial decision in translating? Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 6:42
  • I used to own the ante nicene fathers volume one but I gave it away :( maybe this will suffice? m.biblestudytools.com/history/early-church-fathers/ante-nicene/…
    – user5286
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 13:20
  • 4
    The question is invalid. The early Church Fathers used only capital letters.
    – zefciu
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 12:24
  • @zefciu That is a very good point! You should make up an answer to that effect.
    – user3961
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 18:57
  • @zefciu Yes please do elaborate. I'm completely uneducated when it comes to text types and linguistic styles of the early fathers (that's why I asked the question). Why are the English translations in caps and lowers? A quick Google search brought this up, although I don't know how accurate it is. evidenceforchristianity.org/…
    – user5286
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 19:38

2 Answers 2


Greek manuscripts were written in the Greek uncial script from approximately the 3rd century BCE through the 12th century CE, and Latin manuscripts were written in the Roman majuscule script from the 7th century BCE through the 4th century CE. But even after miniscule script began being used, 'catholic church' was still rarely capitalized in the literature initially, because it likely was not being used as a proper title but rather as a simple adjective. The first use of the combination ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία ("the Catholic Church") is in the exact reference cited in the question (Ignatius of Antioch's Epistle to the Smyrneans 8:2, written approximately 110 CE. Since capitalization is irrelevant in this time period, it is best to allow context to help us understand the intended meaning. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The word catholic "was freely used by the earlier Christian writers in what we may call its primitive and non-ecclesiastical sense. Thus we meet such phrases as the "the catholic resurrection" (Justin Martyr), "the catholic goodness of God" (Tertullian), "the four catholic winds" (Irenaeus), where we should now speak of "the general resurrection", "the absolute or universal goodness of God", "the four principal winds", etc. The word seems in this usage to be opposed to μερικός (partial) or ἴδιος (particular), and one familiar example of this conception still survives in the ancient phrase "Catholic Epistles" as applied to those of St. Peter, St. Jude, etc., which were so called as being addressed not to particular local communities, but to the Church at large.

This Catholic Encyclopedia entry goes on to point out:

Among the Greeks it was natural that while Catholic served as the distinctive description of the one Church, the etymological significance of the word was never quite lost sight of. Thus in the "Catechetical Discourses" of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 347) he insists on the one hand (sect. 26): "And if ever thou art sojourning in any city, inquire not simply where the Lord's house is--for the sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens, houses of the Lord--nor merely where the church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of the holy body the mother of us all." On the other hand when discussing the word Catholic, which already appears in his form of the baptismal creed, St. Cyril remarks: (sect. 23) "Now it [the Church] is called Catholic because it is throughout the world, from one end of the earth to the other...."

There can be no doubt, however, that it was the struggle with the Donatists which first drew out the full theological significance of the epithet Catholic and passed it on to the schoolmen as an abiding possession. When the Donatists claimed to represent the one true Church of Christ, and formulated certain marks of the Church, which they professed to find in their own body, it could not fail to strike their orthodox opponents that the title Catholic, by which the Church of Christ was universally known, afforded a far surer test, and that this was wholly inapplicable to a sect which was confined to one small corner of the world. The Donatists, unlike all previous heretics, had not gone wrong upon any Christological question. It was their conception of Church discipline and organization which was faulty. Hence, in refuting them, a more or less definite theory of the Church and its marks was gradually evolved by St. Optatus (c. 370) and St. Augustine (c. 400). These doctors particularly insisted upon the note of Catholicity, and they pointed out that both the Old and the New Testament represented the Church as spread over all the earth. (See Turmel, "Histoire de la theologie positive, 1904, I, 162-166, with references there given.) Moreover, St. Augustine insists upon the consensus of Christians in the use of the name Catholic. "Whether they wish or no", he says, "heretics have to call the Catholic Church Catholic" ("De vera religione", xii). "Although all heretics wish to be styled Catholic, yet if any one ask where is the Catholic place of worship none of them would venture to point out his own conventicle" (Contra Epistolam quam vocant Fundamenti, iv). Of later exponents of this same thesis the most famous Vincent of Lerins (c. 434). His canon of Catholicity is "That which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." "This", he adds, "is what is truly and properly Catholic" (Commonitorium, I, ii).

I highly recommend you read the entire entry for more information. Of course later in history after the Eastern and Western church split, the bishop of Rome called the Western church the Roman Catholic Church, and the East opted to go with the title 'Orthodox.' It should be noted that the Greek adjective orthodox (ὀρθόδοξος) is dated to the late 3rd or early 4th century, and thus was in common use in the whole church prior to this split as well. It should also be pointed out that this distinction did not develop until much later in history (i.e. after the 11th century). Early on Eastern Christians were merely called "Greeks" and Western Christians "Romans." Phrases such as "the orthodox faith" and "the catholic church" were still applied to Christians both East and West (and still are in many ways).

To answer the question clearly, any speculation about the meaning of the word 'catholic' has nothing to do with capitalization. Only context can guide interpretation, in which case the Eastern Fathers tended to retain both uses: that of a title and as a simple adjective. It should be no surprise that Eastern Orthodox Christians today also retain both meanings, albeit using capitalization as a means of distinction.

  • Very interesting!
    – user5286
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 13:17
  • Nice answer! Many people seem to get this confused...
    – Byzantine
    Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 3:59

The official name of the Orthodox Church is "The Orthodox Catholic Church". Likewise, the official name of the Latin see is The Catholic Church, rather than "the Roman Catholic Church." So it's just a disagreement about who is the True Catholic Church. Both sides claim to be The Catholic Church.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site. We are glad that you stopped by. We would be happy if you stop by again soon. This post is not bad, but the question wants to specifically know about orthodox bishops, which means that a good answer would include quote from orthodox bishops.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 4:19

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