The Great (East-West) Schism was a massive trainwreck centuries in the making and centuries in its outworking. At what point in the process did the Roman see start identifying itself as the Catholic Church in exclusion to the Eastern Churches?

I'm not interested in what event caused this to theoretically happen, but when the Roman Church started using this particular terminology to refer exclusively to itself.

This is one of a number of related questions I intend to ask regarding the Great (East-West) Schism, terminology and self-identication of the resulting Churches.

The others so far:

  • Just to clarify, do you mean when did they start to use the name Catholic or when did they start to behave as if they believed it?
    – bradimus
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 0:53
  • @bradimus It is about when "Catholic" started being used as being synonymous with those who are in communion with the bishop of Rome. Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 4:33

1 Answer 1


Interestingly enough, it was not until about 50 years ago in the Sixties that the Roman Catholic Church renamed itself as the Catholic Church. We will get to that, but first here’s a summary background on church terminology as it changed over the centuries from “wherever Christ is” to the self-identified Catholic Church with the Pope at its head. Early dates are estimates.

• 110 CE catholic church wherever Christ Jesus is

• 110 CE catholic church in Smyrna and everywhere

• 150 CE church of God at XYZ city, like Rome or Corinth

• 200 CE catholic church everywhere

• 400 CE Roman Church self identifies

• Centuries of Roman Church and catholic church and Roman Catholic terminology

• 1950 Roman Catholic Church last usage

• 1965 Catholic Church (those in communion with the Pope) first usage


To expand on these changes, the first mention of catholic church is in the Ignatian letters written about 110 CE. Catholic means “about the whole” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_(term). This first grouping is from roughly 110 CE to about 160 CE.

[Ignatius] 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: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iv.iv.html

[Polycarp’s martyrdom] all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iv.iv.xvi.html

[Ignatius] wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.vii.viii.html

[Clement’s epistle] The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.ii.i.html

[Polycarp’s epistle] Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.iv.ii.html

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church of God which is at Philippi http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.xvii.html


About 50 years later, during the debate on the validity of the baptism by heretic question, the reiteration of the idea that the whole church is catholic remains. Oddly, it is alleged that every church is catholic, but not the one led by Pope Stephen!

Cyprian’s council in which everyone claims to be the Catholic Church. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.vi.i.html

And yet on this account there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church, such as Stephen [of Rome] has now dared to make; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.lxxiv.html


Roughly another 200 years later to circa 400 CE the church at Rome begins to identify as the Roman Church.

Gregory, a servant of God, presbyter and abbot of the monastery of Saint Theodore in the province of Sicily constituted in the territory of Panormus, has given us to understand that men of the farm of Fulloniacus, which belongs to the holy Roman Church, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf212.iii.v.i.viii.html

Then follow four books which I [Augustine] wrote to Boniface, bishop of the Roman Church, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xviii.ii.html

For the next 1,300 years, we continue to find that idea of the church at Rome, excepting the Schism, as the Roman Church. And then it begins to show up again as the Roman Catholic Church. For example in 1870 at the Second Session of the First Vatican Council, the Roman church uses that moniker to refer to itself as part of the overall catholic church.

I, Pius, bishop of the catholic church, with firm faith believe and profess each and every article contained in the profession of faith which the holy Roman church uses, namely: http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm

Finally, in 1943 referring to an earlier institute, we find the idea that the Roman Church is positioning itself as the Catholic Church.

… finally "in order that a center of higher biblical studies might be established in Rome, which in the best way possible might promote the study of the Bible and all cognate sciences in accordance with the mind of the Catholic Church" he [Pope Pius X] founded the Pontifical Biblical Institute, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12DIVIN.HTM

Moreover in 1951, we find the idea that the Catholic Church in Rome is the mother of all.

  1. With all the more reason, then, does the Catholic Church, most loving mother of all men, call on all her children to be zealous in helping these intrepid missionaries by their offerings, by prayer and by fostering missionary vocations. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12EVANG.HTM


In fairly quick succession, the idea continues and forms. In 1964 the idea that Rome is the Catholic Church appears to be first clearly promulgated

We beg the separated brethren to consider the inconsistency of this position, not only in that, without the Pope the Catholic Church would no longer be Catholic, but also because, without the supreme, efficacious and decisive pastoral office of Peter the unity of the Church of Christ would utterly collapse. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Paul06/p6eccles.htm

Lastly, according to this Wikipedia article,

The use of "Catholic Church" is usually preferred by the Holy See and most of its adherents. The last official magisterium document to use "Roman Catholic Church" was issued by Pope Pius XII in 1950.[14] "Catholic Church" was used by Pope Paul VI when signing the documents of the Second Vatican Council.[15] [held 1962-1965] This preference also usually appears on the website of the Holy See. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, only "Catholic Church" is used. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_(term)


In sum, it has taken centuries of semantics and positioning to move from the first identification that the Catholic Church is where Christ Jesus is and identified in their numerous cities to the distinguishing of the Roman Church from the Catholic Church and then to the Roman Catholic Church and finally to the recent self-identification that the Catholic Church is headquartered at Rome with those in communion with her head.

  • St. Pius IX published a document in 1860 entitled Cum Catholica Ecclesia, so we can push back the period in which the term Catholic Church has been used by the Church at least another 100 years. Let me see what else I can scrounge up...
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 17:21
  • Canons XVI and XXII of the Synod of Elvira oppose "heretics" and "the Catholic Church", too
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 17:41
  • 3
    What must be found in order to "push back" the official date is for the Roman Catholic Church to refer to herself alone as the Catholic Church. In other words, its not enough to agree there is a Catholic Church, as shown in my answer, but that the Roman Church defines the Catholic Church with the Pope at its head that way.
    – SLM
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 18:47
  • 3
    Thanks for providing the link to the article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_(term) - I hadn't found that before. I find it contains two highly relevant points that you haven't included in your answer: 1: 'While the term "Roman", as in the "Roman Church", has been attested since the Middle Ages – often connoting the local particular church of the Diocese of Rome – the first known occurrence of "Roman Catholic" as a synonym for "Catholic Church" was in communication with the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1208, after the East–West Schism.' & 2. the 1864 rejection of branch theory Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 5:24
  • 1
    @bru I'm not commenting on your question, just on this answer - reading it makes it seems like people were saying "Roman Church" to the exclusion of "Catholic Church" in 400 AD.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 12:04

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