Home > Content Index > Catholicism > Catholicism Basics > Catholic meaning

What is the meaning/definition of the word Catholic?

meaning Catholic, definition Catholicaudio
Question: "What is the meaning/definition of the word Catholic?"

The word catholic literally means "universal," as in "the universal church." It originally was applied to all Christians because we are all part of the universal church in the way that we are all members of the Body of Christ. The Latin word is catholicus, and in Greek it is katholikos, from the Greek phrase meaning "on the whole, according to the whole or in general." The word in English can mean "including a wide variety of things; all-embracing," or "of the Roman Catholic faith," or "relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church.”

Catholic was first used to describe the Christian Church in the early 2nd century to emphasize its universal scope. The term has been incorporated into the name of the largest Christian communion, the Roman Catholic Church, which consists of 23 churches sui iuris, in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. The largest of these, the Latin Rite consists of nearly 95 percent of the population of the Catholic Church. The remaining 5 percent consist of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches. Some Protestant churches use the term "catholic Church" to refer broadly to all believers in Jesus Christ across the world and the ages, regardless of denominational affiliation. Generally, to avoid confusion between this concept and the Roman Catholic Church, theologians will refer to the “universal church” as the “church catholic,” utilizing the lower case, instead of “Catholic Church.”

The Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran, and some Methodists declare that their churches are catholic in the sense that they are in continuity with the original universal church founded by the apostles. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches all believe that their church is the only original and universal church. Catholicity is considered one of Four Marks of the Church, the others being unity, sanctity, and apostolicity according to the Nicene Creed of 381: "I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." It is crucially important to remember, though, that when the early Christians used the term “catholic,” they were not referring to any particular church, denomination, rite, or communion. They were simply referring to all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Recommended Resource: Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics by Ron Rhodes

More insights from your Bible study - Get Started with Logos Bible Software for Free!

Related Topics:

What is the Nicene Creed?

What is the origin of Christianity?

What is the Apostles' Creed?

Are the seven Catholic sacraments biblical?

I am a Catholic, why should I consider becoming a Christian?

Return to:

Catholic Questions

What is the meaning/definition of the word Catholic?

Share this page on:

Find Out How to...

Statement of Faith
The Gospel
Crucial Questions
Content Index
Top 20 Questions

Question of the Week

Preferred Bible Version:


Subscribe to our Question of the Week

Get our Questions of the Week delivered right to your inbox!