The Early Church was Catholic
In Apostolic times, Christianity was only known as “the Way”, referring to “the Way of the Lord” or the “Way of salvation.” (Acts 16:17, 18:26). In Antioch, they were given the name “Christians” (Acts 11:26), but the early first century catechism the Didache shows that early Christians still continued to refer to “the Way.” However, when Jesus Christ established the Church, He said it was for all men and was to be universal or ‘catholic’. Here are his words: “Go forth and teach all nations, go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:15.)
The inclusion of gentiles in the early Church caused a schism between Jewish Christians who believed gentile converts should be required to keep the Mosaic Law and those who did not. The matter was decided upon, although not entirely resolved, at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). When the Council came to a decision based on Peter’s advice, this decision was binding on all Christians, for Christ Himself said; “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17-18). The former group, then, became known as Judaizers, from the Koine Greek word Ἰουδαΐζειν (Ioudaizein), found in the Galatians 2:14.
As other divergent groups began to spring up, the need for designations arose as a way to differentiate faithful Christians from “heresies”, or those who were at odds with the established, “orthodox” beliefs. One way these divergent groups could be recognized was that they could usually be traced to a specific individual or were confined to small geographic areas (although sometimes spreading worldwide, like Arianism). This was in contrast to the original Church, which had been spread across the entire known world by the Apostles and was shockingly consistent in its beliefs, as attested to by the Church Fathers. Because it was spread across the world, the Church became known as “universal” or “Catholic”, from Greek καθολικός, or katholikos. The first known use of the phrase ‘Catholic Church’ occurred in a letter written about 110 AD from Saint Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans. Of important note, Ignatius links the universal church and it’s doctrines directly to the bishops; “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2).
The use of the word heresy was given wide currency by Irenaeus in his 2nd-century tract Contra Haereses (Against Heresies). In order to identify divergent sects and differentiate them not only from the original church, but also from each other, they needed names. These ‘heresies’ tended to be named either after their founder or by their distinctive doctrines. Early heresies such as Judaizers, Gnosticism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, and Iconoclasm are all examples of heresies named after their doctrines, while Marcionism, Sabellianism, Novationism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Arianism, and Nestorianism are all examples of heresies named after their founders. Modern Protestant denominations follow this same pattern, with Lutheranism being named after Martin Luther while Seventh Day Adventists worship on the seventh day (Saturday).
It would be the fourth century Donatist heresy, however, that would springboard the name ‘Catholic’ on to it’s theological implications. Donatists argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. The heresy originated in the Church of Carthage in northern Africa and took the name of it’s progenitor, Donatus Magnus. Pope Miltiades condemned the Donatists, but they persisted, seeing themselves as the true Church with valid sacraments. Hence, in refuting them, a theory of the Church and its ‘marks’ gradually evolved by St. Optatus (c. 370) and St. Augustine (c. 400). These doctors particularly insisted upon the ‘mark’ of Catholicity, and they pointed out that both the Old and the New Testament represented the Church as spread over all the earth. This was seen in contrast to the Donatist heresy, which only occupied a small corner of the world in northern Africa. Due to this fact, St. Augustine insisted; “Whether they wish or no, heretics have to call the Catholic Church Catholic” (“De vera religion”, xii).
The early Church was quick to recognize divergent groups and unorthodox teachings and thus differentiate them from the Catholic Church. If a church professed doctrines different from those of the Catholic Church, it could not be the Catholic Church. If a church’s essential acts of worship were different from those of the Catholic Church, it could not be the Catholic Church. If the authority acknowledged by a church were not the same as the authority of the Catholic Church, that church could not be the Catholic Church. Over time bodies broke off from the Catholic Church because they did not agree with its beliefs, or did not worship as it did, or would not recognize its authority. They became new and different churches. They ceased to be the Catholic Church. The first schism to take place was the Assyrian Church after the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. Schisms are distinguished from heresies in that a schism does not generally involve great differences in beliefs or doctrines, but is rather a split or division in authority. Later schisms include the Oriental Orthodox Church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. and the “Great Schism” of 1054 A.D. between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Catholic does not only indicate geographical universality, but also temporal universality. The Church found in the second century is the same Church found today. It may look different as it has grown in its understanding and customs, but it is fundamentally the same Church, tracing its growth back to infancy the same way an oak tree can trace its growth back to an acorn. At different times men have started new churches from scratch. They were not the same Church that Jesus Christ founded, but were new, man-made churches. The new churches which came into being as a result of the Reformation are different from the Catholic Church. They were founded as protests against the belief and the worship and the authority of the existing Church, which was the Catholic Church. They are, then, non-Catholic churches. They are Protestant churches. Their history only goes back as far as their founders. There is only one Catholic Church. It is that which Jesus Christ founded, which has been on earth since that day, and to which he said, “I will be with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
Church Father Quotes:
Ignatius of Antioch
“Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he ordains. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” -St. Ignatius of Antioch, -Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2 (Written ca 110 A.D.)
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
“And of the elect, he was one indeed, the wonderful martyr Polycarp, who in our days was an apostolic and prophetic teacher, bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna. For every word which came forth from his mouth was fulfilled and will be fulfilled” –Martyrdom of Polycarp 16:2 (Written ca 155 A.D.)
The Muratorian Canon
“Besides the letters of Paul, there is one to Philemon, and one to Titus, and two to Timothy, in affection and love, but nevertheless regarded as holy in the Catholic Church, in the ordering of churchly discipline. There is also one to the Laodiceans and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, in regard to the heresy of Marcion, and there are several others which cannot be received by the Church, for it is not suitable that gall be mixed with honey. The epistle of Jude, indeed, and the two ascribed to John are received by the Catholic Church.” -Muratorian fragment (Written ca 177 A.D.)
Tertullian of Carthage
“Where was Marcion, that shipmaster of Pontus, the zealous student of Stoicism? Where was Valentinus, the disciple of Platonism? For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago—in the reign of Antonius for the most part—and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherius, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled.” –Demurrer Against the Heretics 30 (Written in 200 A.D.)
Cyprian of Carthage
“You ought to know, then, that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishops; and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priest of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is one and catholic, is not split or divided, but is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere to one another” –Letters 66:8 (Written in 253 A.D.)
Council of Nicaea I
“But those who say: ‘There was a time when the Son was not,’ and ‘before he was born, he was not,’ and ‘because he was made from non-existing matter, he is either of another substance or essence,’ and those who call ‘God the Son of God changeable and mutable,’ these the Catholic Church anathematizes” –Appendix to the Creed of Nicaea (Written in 325 A.D.)
“Concerning those who call themselves Cathari (Novatians), that is, ‘the Clean,’ if at any time they come to the Catholic Church, it has been decided by the holy and great council that, provided they receive the imposition of hands, they remain among the clergy. However, because they are accepting and following the doctrines of the catholic and apostolic Church, it is fitting that they acknowledge this in writing before all; that is, both that they communicate with the twice married and with those who have lapsed during a persecution” (Canon 8).
Cyril of Jerusalem
“The Church is called catholic, then, because it extends over the whole world, from end to end of the earth, and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly, and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness, governors and governed, learned and unlearned, and because it universally treats and heals every class of sins, those committed with the soul and those with the body, and it possesses within itself every conceivable form of virtue, in deeds and in words and in the spiritual gifts of every description” –Catechetical Lectures 18:23 (Written in 350 A.D.)
“And if you ever are visiting in cities, do not inquire simply where the house of the Lord is—for the others, sects of the impious, attempt to call their dens ‘houses of the Lord’—nor ask merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the name peculiar to this holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God” –Catechetical Lectures 18:26 (Written in 350 A.D.)
The Apostles’ Creed
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen” –Apostles’ Creed, 360 A.D. version (the first to include the term “Catholic”).
Council of Constantinople I
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets; in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” –Nicene Creed (Written in 381 A.D.)
“Those who embrace orthodoxy and join the number of those who are being saved from the heretics, we receive in the following regular and customary manner: Arians, Macedonians, Sabbatians, Novatians, those who call themselves Cathars and Aristeri, Quartodecimians or Tetradites, Apollinarians— these we receive when they hand in statements and anathematize every heresy which is not of the same mind as the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of God” (Canon 7).
Augustine of Hippo
“We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is catholic and which 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, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly 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 (Written in 390 A.D.)
“We believe in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church; for heretics and schismatics call their own congregations churches. But heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God, and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor” –Faith and Creed 10:21 (Written in 393 A.D.)
“If you should find someone who does not yet believe in the gospel, what would you [Mani] answer him when he says, ‘I do not believe’? Indeed, I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so” –Faith and Creed 5:6 (Written in 393 A.D.)
“There are many other things which most properly can keep me in the Catholic Church’s bosom. The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep (John 21:15–17), up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, 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 (Written in 397 A.D.)
Vincent of Lerins
“I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: that whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they arise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways: first, by the authority of the divine law [Scripture], and then by the tradition of the Catholic Church. But here some one perhaps will ask, ‘Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?’ For this reason: Because, owing to the depth of holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another, so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are men. . . . Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various errors, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic interpretation” –The Notebooks 2:1–2 (434 A.D.)
Council of Chalcedon
“Since in certain provinces readers and cantors have been allowed to marry, this sacred synod decrees that none of them is permitted to marry a wife of heterodox views. If those thus married have already had children, and if they have already had the children baptized among heretics, they are to bring them into the communion of the Catholic Church” -Canon 14 (Written in 451 A.D.)
J. N. D. Kelly, a Protestant & Early Church historian
“As regards ‘Catholic,’ its original meaning was ‘universal’ or ‘general.’ . . . in the latter half of the second century at latest, we find it conveying the suggestion that the Catholic is the true Church as distinct from heretical congregations (cf., e.g., Muratorian Canon). . . . What these early Fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church” (Early Christian Doctrines, 190–1).
Douglas Arnold Hyde (1911-1996) English political journalist and communist-turned-Catholic
“At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I was twiddling the knob of my radio. Unable to get out to Midnight Mass I wanted at least to bring it to my fireside. And as I switched from one European station to the next I tuned in to one Midnight Mass after the other. Belgium, France, Germany, Eire, yes, even behind the Iron Curtain, Prague. It seemed as though the whole of what was once Christendom was celebrating what is potentially the most unifying event in man’s history. And the important thing was that it was the same Mass. I am a newcomer to the Mass but I was able to recognize its continuity as I went from station to station for it was in one common language. This aspect of Catholicism is but a single one, and maybe not the most important. But I have a strong feeling that it is precisely the Catholicism of the Catholic Church which may prove the greatest attraction, and will meet the greatest need, for my disillusioned generation” (qtd. in Michael J. Miller, “The International and the Introibo: How the Catholic Mass Converted a Communist,” Sursum Corda, Winter 1999)