By James Akin, Catholic Answers
The term “Catholic” was applied to the Church at the beginning of the second century by Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch. During the reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117) Ignatius was taken to Rome to be executed. The exact year of the journey is uncertain, but most scholars estimate it was around 107 or 110. On the way to his death, Ignatius wrote letters to churches he was passing by or through. In his letter to the church of Smyrna, he wrote:
“Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”[Epistle to the Smyrneans 8:2.]. This is the first recorded use of the phrase “Catholic Church,” but its usage almost certainly precedes Ignatius’s letter. He assumed his readers would be familiar with the term, and he uses it in an off-handed manner, suggesting he was not coining a new term, but picking up one already in use.
Protestants often see such early references as teaching nothing more than that there is a “universal church” that is not necessarily identified with any particular body of believers. While this could be claimed for Ignatius’s reference, it cannot be true for all early references. The term “Catholic” very quickly became a designation for a particular body of Christians.
The attempt by non-Catholics to claim “catholic” for themselves is not new. Heretics and schismatics in the fourth century tried to claim the term, yet their attempts proved unsuccessful. In 397 Augustine pointed this out using an illustration from everyday life. “[T]he very name of Catholic . . . belongs to this Church alone . . . so much so that, although all heretics want to be called `catholic,’ when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house” (Against the Letter of Mani Called `The Foundation’ 4:5).
Augustine also remarked that the Church “is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies. For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her .. with strangers . . . they call her nothing else but Catholic. For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name which the whole world employs in her regard.” [The True Religion 7:12, ca. A.D. 390]. Thus the fact that the Church is generally or universally (catholically) called “Catholic” forms part of its title to that name.
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