After reading "At what point did the Roman See start self-identifying as the Catholic Church?" on this site I enjoyed a bit of research into the etymology and meaning of the word "Catholic," and as part of that research read both the article "Yeast," by Jesuit Walter Ong and "'Catholic' Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does" by Daniel Horan. It has led me to a question.

The word "Catholic" appears to have originally been an adjective, describing the nature of the Kingdom of God on the earth. I noted its use by Ignatius of Antioch, but though it's easy to assume he only used it as an adjective, it's difficult to discern whether his use was specifically that of an adjective or if the church had already adopted the term as a proper noun.

When, at least for practical purposes, did the word come to be used as a proper noun, identifying any one or more specific organizations?


3 Answers 3


I've been watching this question for a few days now and decided that today I would hazard a Wikipedia-fueled attempt at finding a plausible answer. Here goes...

The word "Catholic" in reference to a specific organization seemed to be originally used to distinguish the Church of God from the churches of heretics. The earliest form of this use I found was from the Catechetical Lectures of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, which he delivered around 350 A.D. He says:

  1. But since the word Ecclesia is applied to different things (as also it is written of the multitude in the theatre of the Ephesians, And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the Assembly Acts 19:14), and since one might properly and truly say that there is a Church of evil doers, I mean the meetings of the heretics, the Marcionists and Manichees, and the rest, for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to you now the Article, And in one Holy Catholic Church; that you may avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which you were regenerated.

Now, the use of the word "catholic" here can still technically be translated as "universal" given that the churches he referenced followed heretical teachings and are suggested in this passage to not have been regarded as true organizations with the mission of following Christ. However, the word is still making a clear distinction between two groups here.

Another instance of the word "Catholic" being used in a distinguishing fashion is in the Edict of Thessalonica, published during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I:

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches.

Here is probably the most blatant use of "Catholic" as a proper noun per se, as the word "title" is specifically used to define a "Catholic Christian."

In conclusion, it seems that the word "Catholic" was originally used as a proper noun to distinguish the original Church from heretical sects. Technically, I as a Protestant am a heretic in the Catholic understanding, so such a usage is still accurate in that sense and conveys similar meaning.

Catechetical Lecture from New Advent

Edict of Thessalonica translation

  • I'm missing something. Where in the above is "Catholic" used as a noun?
    – guest37
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 17:16
  • The nature of my answer assumes that the OP was not asking about when the word "Catholic" was literally used as a noun but instead when it was first used to distinguish one type of Christian from another. (This assumption was based on the OP's qualification of "identifying any one or more specific organizations." Today, the phrase "Catholic Christian" as used in the example with Theodosius I would be understood to be equivalent to the standalone noun "Catholic" in today's English, so I deemed it to be sufficiently analogous as to warrant citing it as a use of the word as a "proper noun." Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 22:18
  • I was cuing to the last paragraph in the question: "When, at least for practical purposes, did the word come to be used as a proper noun, identifying any one or more specific organizations?"
    – guest37
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 22:47
  • As was I. At least by the time of Theodosius I, the word "Catholic" was used to identify a body of believers that was deemed to be non-heretical. This definition would accurately carry over to the present day in that many Protestant doctrines are heretical according to Catholic doctrine. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 5:12
  • I'm sorry, I still can't see in your answer where you point out the use of "Catholic" as a noun, not an adjective. I.e., when was someone called "a Catholic", and not "a Catholic ______". The example you cite is of an adjective ("Catholic Christian"), not a noun. I see you earned the bounty, but I don't see where you actually answered the question as asked.
    – guest37
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 6:53

The first usage of the word “Catholic,” we have, is from the pen of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Around the year AD. 107 Ignatius was sentenced to death by lions in the Coliseum. As he was being escorted to Rome he wrote a famous series of letters to different Churches.

In his letter to the Church at Smyrna he wrote,

“Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. The celebration of the Eucharist is valid only if it is administered by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Where the bishop is, there let the people also be; just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

Information from http://mattfradd.com/when-was-catholic-first-used/

Hope this helped

  • Based on the question, the OP is already aware of Ignatius.
    – bradimus
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 2:05
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    I'm hoping for one more level of detail. Is the use of "Catholic" in that letter that of an adjective or that of a proper noun? Do you know if there is extant any original copy of the letter? It's possible that we could deduce the intent by whether or not the word is capitalized. I'm not sure I can assume that transliteration from the original letter would have preserved that capitalization. It's such a habit today to capitalize the word.
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 2:43
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    @JBH Capitalisation is a relatively modern concept so Ignatius would not have been able to use it to indicate his meaning. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – davidlol
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 10:24
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    Ignatius (if it was he) is likening the position of the bishop in the local church (at Smyrna) to the position of Jesus in the ****** church.. The missing word, catholic, here seems to mean whole. The bishop is to the local church as Jesus is to the whole church.. It does not seem to mean the bishop is the head of one organisation and Jess of another, It reads like an adjective meaning whole.
    – davidlol
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 13:14
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    Ignatius' use doesn't necessitate a specific church organisation, but can easily be understood to mean the catholic (universal) church, rather than the Roman Catholic Church as it were. This doesn't answer the question.
    – Birdie
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 0:10

As far as I can tell, the noun "Catholic" (as opposed to the adjective) has never been used in English to refer to a particular organization. As a noun, "Catholic" has always referred to a person belonging to a church that claims to be or is identified as Catholic (most commonly, but not necessarily, the Roman Catholic Church).

The earliest citation for this form appearing in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary dates to around 1425. It appears in the ninth book of Andrew of Wyntoun's Ðe orygynale cronykil of Scotland:

He was a constant Catholike All Lollard he hatyt and Heretike.

Of course, the word "Catholic" entered English through other languages (ultimately Greek, but via Latin and French). Some form of it may have been used as a noun in the sense you describe in those languages, or in other languages that borrowed it before English did.

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