Catholics have sometimes been heard to speak of the four marks of the church. In fact, we state our belief in them every time we say the Nicene Creed at Mass. When we proclaim this Creed, we state that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
Catholics believe that the true church can only be identified as one that bears all four qualities.
The Meaning of “Catholic”
“Catholic” comes from a Greek word that means universal. That the true church must be a universal (or “catholic”) church is undeniable.
Jesus told us to make disciples of all men. He instructed us to preach the gospel to the entire world. A Church that does not orient itself to evangelizing the world is not fulfilling Jesus’ command.
That the Church is catholic means that like the Gospel, the Church exists for the entire world. She is not confined to one culture or race or nationality. The Church is the same Church in the United States as she is in Argentina as she is in Tanzania.
Yet the Church is also catholic because she takes what is good in every culture and integrates it into an authentic celebration of the faith. If you were to go to a Catholic church in the United States, Argentina, or Tanzania, you would see different ways of expressing the faith. The Church differs in its expression of faith in accordance with the culture which it evangelizes and serves. For example, in Africa, singing is often much more prominent in the Mass than it is in the United States, and Mass can last for hours.
In that sense, the Church is not only catholic in her mission to evangelize all nations, but also in the fact that no good thing is alien to the Church.
The First Usage of “Catholic”
The oldest documented use of the word Catholic to describe the church occurs circa 110 A.D in a letter written by Saint Ignatius of Antioch:
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
Saint Ignatius did not explain what he meant by the term “Catholic Church,” and this suggests that Ignatius’s audience would have already been familiar with the term. If he were using a new term, he would probably have defined it for his audience.
Incidentally, this quotation also indicates how important the bishops were in the Church within 100 years after Jesus’ life. Another mark of the Church is that it is Apostolic, meaning that the leaders of the Church (the bishops) are the successors of the Apostles.
By 110 A.D. the books of the New Testament had all been written. But by that time, the New Testament had not yet been compiled, so the Christians did not have a Bible the way Christians do now. They had an Old Testament and understood that many early Christian writings were also Scripture. But they did not have a list of the New Testament books like we have today.
Yet even before the Church had a New Testament in its Bible, the Church was already calling itself a Catholic church. The usage of the term “catholic” is almost as old as Christianity itself. The Church was called “catholic” to distinguish the universal faith from various heresies that were not accepted by the universal Church. Therefore, the Catholic Church was acknowledged as the Church that preserved the teachings of Jesus and of the Apostles from false beliefs that threatened the truths of the faith.
What it Means to be Catholic
There are other groups that call themselves Catholic aside from the Roman Catholic Church. For example, Anglicans often consider themselves to be Anglo-Catholic. There are also Eastern Churches that call themselves Catholic, even though the Eastern Catholic Churches are not part of the Roman Catholic Church.
So according to the Roman Catholic Church, what makes a Church catholic?
First of all, it must hold to the universal truths of the faith. According to the Catholic perspective, Anglicans would not be Catholic because many of their doctrines differ from the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Second, the Church must be in union with the Pope. Eastern Catholic Churches have different liturgical and theological traditions, but these are not in conflict with right doctrine. The Eastern Catholic Churches are in union with the pope. This is what distinguishes and Eastern Catholic from an Eastern Orthodox. Therefore, while the Roman Catholic Church would not recognize Anglicans as true Catholics, it does recognize that Eastern Catholics are truly Catholics even though they are not part of the Roman Church.
There are other things that make the Catholic Church the true Church, but these are the traits most important in calling the Church “catholic.”