In the Apostle's Creed, the term "catholic" is used in describing the reciter's belief:

I believe ... in the holy catholic church

This creed is used by a wide variety of denominations, and therefore I'd find it very hard to believe that it always refers to the Roman Catholic Church.

Some English translations of the Apostle's Creed use "holy Christian church" instead of "holy catholic church" - is "catholic", therefore, a synonym for "Christian"?

What is its use in the Apostle's Creed (and other documents)?


2 Answers 2


The wording of that creed has caused confusion among untold thousands of people over the past millennium and across scores of languages. For as much consternation as it has spawned, the intended meaning is really very simple.

The word catholic in the a Apostle's Creed is being used as an adjective, not a proper name! A quick English dictionary search will turn up possible meanings like the following:

  • Including a wide variety of things; all-embracing
  • Of or including all Christians

The Roman capital-C Catholic church used this adjective as a proper name in their official title. In our current times, the word is almost ubiquitously associated with that proper name. The Apostles Creed, on the other hand, was very specifically not referring to the Roman Catholic church but to the church universal. This is why a clear majority of Christian traditions both Catholic and Protestant are able to stand behind the Apostles Creed as a valid representation of their faith.

The various alternate wordings you will find (such as the one you noted: "Christian" or another common alternative: "Universal") are attempts at resolving the confusion by using a less miss-understood word.

Although it would not be a good substitute in the Creeds because it has overtones of diversity rather than unity, another related term is ecumenical. To put it all in context, it would be reasonable to say that "The Apostle's Creed's description of the core tenants of our (catholic) faith rather than a specific (Catholic) tradition makes it useful in an ecumenical context."


As a Big 'C' Catholic I'd have to disagree with Caleb's post on principle. But no holy wars or anything, I promise.

Catholics, like some Protestant congregations, truly consider themselves the Universal Church. Unlike other Protestant congregations however, we do not consider non-Catholics (or not-us'es) to not be Christians.

But, when Catholics say catholic in the Creed, we mean everybody capable of salvation, not just Christians.

"All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God.... and to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God's grace to salvation."

CCC 835

As far as I know, Little 'c' catholic is a lot broader as defined by the Catholic Church than as it is defined by Protestants. I'm not sure how or why this teaching came about, but the Apostles Creed is old and the traditions passed on by it are old.

There's actually a pretty good tradition of adopting a thing common to most Christians to describe one group.

  • Episcopal (a church with churches)
  • Presbyterian (a church with leaders)
  • Methodist (a church that follows a rule)
  • Baptist (a church that practices baptism)
  • Congregational (a church that has congregations)
  • Church of Christ (a church with Christ as its founder)
  • Evangelical (a church that proclaims the Gospel)
  • Pentecostal (a church that started as a church at Pentecost)
  • Orthodox (a church with right teaching)

Catholics would say we're all those things too.

  • 2
    I'm honestly not sure what you are saying here or what bit you disagree with. I'm sure I could improve the wording of my answer but I'm not sure what I'm dealing with here as an objection. I don't think your contrast here properly represents Protestant traditions who also typically don't exclude non-members from possibly being Christians in the sense of being granted salvation. We would, however, object to the implication that any humans at all are "capable" of salvation. (Which I would even argue is contrary to the catechism you quote).
    – Caleb
    Dec 6, 2011 at 17:30
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    @caleb, I disagree that Christian is an alternative for catholic or that there is 2000 years of confusion as to what it means.
    – Peter Turner
    Dec 6, 2011 at 17:46
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    First of all, I didn't endorse it as valid alternative, only that the use questioned by the OP was an attempt at an alternative (specifically forwarded about 600 years ago by a pre-reformation group). Frankly I think it's a bad alternative. And you're right it hasn't been 2000 years, but it has been upwards of 1000, but it really didn't seem to be a potential misunderstanding in the Latin original so much as every language the creed has been translated too since then.
    – Caleb
    Dec 6, 2011 at 18:10

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