What does “catholic” mean in the Creed?

The Rev. Jim Richardson, Priest-in-Charge

You have probably noticed that in the Nicene Creed we say, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” What do we mean by catholic?

The word “catholic” does not refer just to the church based in Rome headed by the Pope. The word “catholic” has a more ancient pedigree, deriving from the Greek word katholikos that means “universal.”

Among the first recorded use of the term came from Justin Martyr of Samaria, who in the year 82 A.D., referred to a “catholic” resurrection, that is, a universal resurrection of believers.

The earliest known use of “catholic” referring to the church is in a letter by Ignatius of Antioch in the year 107 A.D. He used the term in exhorting Christians to remain united as a “universal” church. For Ignatius the word became synonymous with any church adhering to the concept that the Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. By the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa was using the term to distinguish between churches considered orthodox and others considered heretical.

The term “catholic” is sometimes written with a lowercase “c” and sometimes with an uppercase “C,” as in the Apostle’s Creed, which we recite at baptisms. The reason for the lack of capitalization conformity is obscure. Ancient Greek manuscripts were typically written in all uppercase, so the difference is likely unimportant when written in English.

So why do we say “catholic” in the Episcopal church? Because we believe we are part of the universal Church that transcends all boundaries of time and space, and transcends all denominational boundaries. And our universality is symbolized by our connection to the apostles, making us “apostolic.”

— Pastor Jim