AskDefine | Define catholicity

Dictionary Definition



1 the beliefs and practices of a Catholic Church [syn: Catholicism]
2 the quality of being universal; existing everywhere [syn: universality]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The quality of being catholic, universal or inclusive
  2. Catholicism

Extensive Definition

Christian Church and the word church are used to denote both a Christian association of people and a place of worship. The word is church usually, but not exclusively, associated with Christianity.
The Christian Church is a religiously ambiguous and cultural-sociological term to refer to all religions based on the worship of Jesus of Nazareth as the son of God. It is not a single religious institution, neither a single faith. Today there is no single political entity recognized by the secular world as the unique Christian Church.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches all claim to be the unique church established by Jesus in the Great Commission. Protestants on the other hand would hold that the concept is justified by the notion that the Church is ultimately headed by Jesus Christ himself, who acts as the unifying figure for all who claim to follow him. Anglicans feel that they are but a branch of the Church. The term means something quite different for each religious institution that sees itself as belonging to the Christian traditions.
The phrase The Church in its widest sense, as the Body of Christ has a similar breadth.

Etymology of church

The English language word "church" developed from Old English cirice, from West Germanic kirika, from Greek kyriake (oikia) "Lord's (house)", from kyrios "ruler, lord." The Greek word kyriakon (an adjective meaning "of the Lord") was used of houses of Christian worship since c.300, especially in the East, though it was less common in this sense than ekklesia or basilike. An abbreviation of ekklesia kyriake used in the septuagint to mean congregation of the lord.


Through history there have been various terms that have been used to express the concept of a united Christian Church. This section discusses some of these.
The English word church derives from the Greek κυριακή (kyriake), "Lord's (house)". The term has expanded over time to the allow today's more general meanings.
The Greek/Latin word εκκλησια/ecclesia, literally "assembly" in Greek, is the traditional Roman Catholic/Orthodox term referring to the Christian Church. Most Romance languages use derivations of this word. This Latin word is sometimes used in English as well.
The phrase One, Holy, catholic and Apostolic Church appears in the Nicene Creed () and, in part, in the Apostles' Creed ("the holy catholic church", ἁγίαν καθολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν). The phrase is intended to set forth the four marks, or identifying signs, of the Christian Church — unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity — and is based on the premise that all true Christians form a single united group founded by the apostles.
The terms orthodox Church and orthodox faith (not to be confused with the modern term "Eastern Orthodox" with a capital 'O') have been used to distinguish what is considered the true Church from groups considered heretical. The term became especially prominent in referring to the doctrine of the Nicene Creed and, in historical contexts, is often still used to distinguish this first "official" doctrine from others.
The term body of Christ (cf. Bible verse 1|Cor|12:27|NAB), also known as the Bride of Christ, is used to refer to the total community of Christians seen as interdependent in a single entity headed by Jesus Christ.
The phrase Church Militant and Church Triumphant (Ecclesia Militans, Ecclesia Triumphans) is used to express the concept of a united Church that extends beyond the earthly realm into Heaven. The term Church Militant comprises all living Christians while Church Triumphant comprises those in Heaven. Within the Roman Catholic Church there is also the concept of Church Suffering, or Church Expectant, comprising those Christians in Purgatory.
The term Communion of Saints expresses the idea of a shared faith which, through prayer, binds all Christians regardless of the physical separation or separation by death. In Roman Catholic theology this would be differentiated from the Church Militant and Church Triumphant alone because it also includes the Church Suffering.


The Christian Church originated in Roman Judea in the first century AD, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth believed by all Christians to be the Messiah, or deliverer king, of the Jewish people. The precise start of the Church is considered to be at Pentecost, but it is usually thought of as originating with Jesus' Apostles. According to scripture Jesus commanded the Apostles to spread his teachings to all the world.
Although springing out of the first century Jewish faith, from its earliest days some sects of the Church accepted non-Jews without requiring them to adopt Jewish customs (e.g. circumcision), running counter to tradition. Conflict with Jewish religious authorities quickly led to the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues in Jerusalem, see also Council of Jamnia.
The Church gradually spread through the Roman Empire and outside it gaining major establishments in cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa. Christianity became a widely persecuted religion, hated by the Jewish authorities as a heresy, and by the Roman authorities because, like Judaism, its monotheistic teachings were fundamentally foreign to the traditions of the ancient world, as well as a challenge to the imperial cult. Despite this the Church grew rapidly until finally legalized and then promoted by Emperors Galerius and Constantine in the fourth century. A major controversy as the Church was being formalized was the Arianism vs. Trinitarianism debate which occupied the Church during the fourth century. This period would begin the long-term persecution of pagans and "heretical" Christians in the Empire and the kingdoms that followed. See also Christendom.
The Church of the Roman Empire was divided into Patriarchal Sees with five holding particular prominence, one in the West (Rome), and the rest in the East (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria). The bishops of these five would become the Patriarchs of the Church. Even after the split of the Roman Empire the Church remained a relatively united institution (excluding Oriental Orthodoxy and some other groups which separated from the rest of the Church earlier). The Church came to be a central and defining institution of the Empire, especially in the East. In particular, Constantinople would come to be seen as the center of the Christian world, owing in great part to its economic and political power.
Once the Western Empire fell to Germanic incursions in the 5th century, the (Roman) Church for centuries became the primary link to Roman civilization for Medieval Western Europe and an important channel of influence in the West for the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, emperors. While, in the West, Christianity struggled as the so-called orthodox (i.e. Roman) Church competed against the Arian Christian and pagan faiths of the Germanic rulers, the Eastern Romans spread Christianity to the pagan Slavs establishing the Church in what is now Russia, Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The reign of Charlemagne in Western Europe is particularly noted for bringing the last major Western tribes outside of the Church into communion with Rome, in part through conquest and forced conversion.
Starting in the 7th century the Islamic Caliphates rose and gradually began to conquer larger and larger areas of the Christian world. The challenge presented by the Muslims would help to solidify the religious identity of eastern Christians even as it gradually weakened the Eastern Empire.
Even in the Muslim World, the Church survived (e.g. the modern Copts, Maronites, and others) albeit at times with great difficulty.
Although there had long been frictions between the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Western Pope) and the other patriarchs, Rome's changing allegiance from Constantinople to the Frankish king Charlemagne set the Church on a course towards separation. The political and theological divisions would grow until Rome excommunicated the East in the 11th century, ultimately leading to the division of the Church into the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox) Churches. Some Eastern churches even broke with Eastern Orthodoxy and entered into communion with Rome. The changes brought on by the Renaissance eventually led to the Protestant Reformation during which the Protestant Lutheran and the Reformed followers of Calvin, Hus, Zwingli, Melancthon, Knox, and others split from the Roman Catholic Church. At this time, a series of non-theological disputes also led to the English Reformation which led to the independence of the Anglican Communion. Then during the Age of Exploration and the Age of Imperialism, Western Europe spread the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant and Reformed Churches around the world, especially in the Americas. These developments in turn have led to Christianity's being the largest religion in the world today.


The Christian concept of a "Church" is used for the Greek (ecclesia, church, ekklesia), ref. [Strong's Concordance] 1577, Bauer's, Thayer's, and Moulton's and is introduced by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. Of the 114 occurrences of the term in the New Testament, three are found in the Gospel of Matthew: "And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Mt 16:18); and "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ekklesia; and if he refuses to listen even to the ekklesia, let him be to you as the Gentile and the tax-collector" (Mt 18:17).
The Greek term 'ekklesia', which literally means a "gathering" or "selection" or "called out assembly", was a governmental and political term used to denote a national assembly.
This concept in Christian terms has its direct antecedent in the Koine Greek translation of the Old Testament (see also Septuagint), where the noun ekklesia has been employed 96 times to denote the congregation of the Children of Israel, which Christians regard as a Type of the "Body of Christ", as they also call the Christian Church of Jesus Christ.
Each church may recognize some or all other Christian churches as legitimate. Mainstream denominations can be far apart ecumenically, but generally do not require members to be rebaptized when they switch from one denomination to another. They share common ground in that they believe and follow Jesus Christ as the savior, and seek to follow Jesus' teachings.

Related Concepts

Universal church

The term "catholic" is derived from the Greek adjective καθολικός pronounced katholikos, which means "general" or "universal".
Church is taken by some to refer to a single, universal community, although others contend that the doctrine of the universal church was established until later. The doctrine of the universal, visible church was made explicit in the Apostles' Creed, while the less common Protestant notion of the universal, invisible church was not stated explicitly until the Reformation. The universal church traditions generally accept that the Church includes all who are baptized into her common faith, including the doctrines of the trinity, forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial action of Christ, and the resurrection of the body. These teachings are expressed in liturgy with the celebration of sacraments, visible signs of grace. They are passed down as the deposit of faith.

Catholic and catholicism

This term appears in both the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed, statements of faith adhered to by almost all modern denominations. When the word "catholic" or "universal" is applied to the Church, it is generally intended to indicate that the institution is the uniquely legitimate Christian church intended for all of humanity.
In Christian theology the term is often used to imply a calling to spread the faith throughout the whole world and to all ages. It is also thought of as implying that the Church is endowed with all the means of salvation for its members.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, the earliest known writer to use the phrase "the Catholic church", excluded from it heterodox groups whose teaching and practice conflicted with those of the bishops of the Roman-Catholic church. In keeping with this idea, many churches and communions see groups that it judges to be in a state of heresy or schism with their church or communion as not part of the catholic Church. E.g. the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches follow this doctrine.
Others have, since the Protestant Reformation, used the word "catholic" to designate instead adherence to the doctrines and essential practices of the historical institutional Churches, in contrast to those propounded by the Reformers. In this sense indicated in this paragraph, "Catholic" tends to be written with an upper-case "C". The Roman-Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches all see themselves as fully "catholic" in all the foregoing senses.
Some Anglicans see their communion as a component part of the Catholic Church, albeit not subject to the Holy See of Rome, and maintain beliefs and practices akin to those of the Roman-Catholic church. They are however not recognised by Roman-Catholic or Orthodox tradition as being part of them.
Most other Protestant denominations interpret "catholic", especially in its creedal context, as referring to the concept of the eternal church of Christ and the Elect, referenced in the Bible in phrases such as "body of Christ" and "great cloud of witnesses." Expressed in the language of traditional Roman Catholicism this Protestant interpretation of the words "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" identifies the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" exclusively with the Church Triumphant - i.e. the church that exists "in heaven" or in eternity as opposed to the Church Militant which is the communion of the faithful here on Earth. They view this understanding of "catholic" as necessarily distinct from any concrete expression in an institutional Church. In this last sense, "catholic" tends to be written with a lower-case "c".


The term orthodox is generally used to distinguish the faith or beliefs of the "true Church" from other doctrines which disagree, traditionally referred to as heresy.
This distinction can be seen as originating with the biblical proscriptions against false prophets. "Orthodoxy" means both "true glory" and "correct teaching" this theological term is explicitly used by Orthodox Christians to refer to themselves as a shorthand for "the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, Orthodox and Orthoprax, Church of Jesus Christ and His saints." In the same manner, the Roman-Catholic church describes itself as orthodox, meaning having possession of the whole faith. Of course, other Christian denominations, who disbelieve the claims of the Orthodox Churches refer to her thus as the "Eastern Orthodox" churches.
This concept of "orthodoxy" began to take on particular significance during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, the first to actively promote Christianity. Constantine convened the first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicea, which attempted to provide the first universal creed of the Christian faith.
The major issue of this and other councils during the fourth century was the christological debate between arianism and trinitarianism. Trinitarianism is the official doctrine of the Catholic church and is strongly associated with the term "orthodoxy", although some modern non-trinitarian churches dispute this usage. Churches that subscribe to the Nicene Creed, the first official trinitarian creed, are sometimes referred to as "orthodox".

Apostolic succession

The doctrine of "apostolic succession" asserts that the bishops of the true Church enjoy the favor, or grace, of God as a result of legitimate and unbroken sacramental succession from Jesus' apostles. Modern bishops, therefore, must be viewed as an unbroken line of leadership from the original apostles. Note that this doctrine is distinct from that of Papal supremacy, which grants the Roman-Catholic bishop of Rome special powers in the Roman-Catholic church.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Anglican Church Communion and others interpret the adjective "apostolic" as referring not only to the Church's origin from Christ's Apostles and their teachings, but also to the Church's structure around bishops who have succeeded the apostles by unbroken succession transmitted by episcopal consecration (laying on of hands), which is traceable to the Apostles themselves.

Spiritual authority

It is a widely held belief among Christians that the Christian church is guided by the Holy Spirit and given spiritual authority by Christ.
According to Christian tradition the "authority" of Jesus Christ to preach, to teach, and to do all the things that He had done while on Earth came from God. Before Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven He had given His apostles and disciples the authority to preach (that may include teaching, exhorting, rebuking, correcting) and to baptize. This "authority" was passed on by the apostles to the disciples, and was to be passed from one generation of disciples to the next until His second coming. The passing on of this authority had been conducted solely by the church. This passing on of authority was sometimes called the anointing or appointing of pastors or leaders of a church.
(Membership in the Christian church has traditionally been defined by baptism. The church administers Christianity's sacred acts: baptism, the Lord's supper, worship, etc.)

The visible and the invisible church

Many believe that the Church, as described in the Bible, has a twofold character that can be described as the visible and invisible church.
The Church invisible consists of all those from every time and place who are vitally united to Christ through regeneration and salvation and who will be eternally united to Jesus Christ in eternal life. The Church visible consists of all those who visibly join themselves to a profession of faith and gathering together to know and serve the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.
The visible church exists globally in all who identify themselves as Christians and locally in particular places where believers gather for the worship of God. The visible church may also refer to an association of particular churches from multiple locations who unite themselves under a common charter and set of governmental principles. The church in the visible sense is often governed by office-bearers carrying titles such as minister, pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon.
Some say that no reference to the church is ever made in the Bible that is not referring to a local visible body, such as the church in someone's house or the church as Ephesis. They believe that the term is sometimes used in an institutional sense in which the term refers to all of a certain type, meaning all of the local visible churches.

Church government

Major forms of church government include hierarchical (Anglican, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic), presbyterian (rule by elders), and independent (Baptist, charismatic, other forms of independency). Before the Protestant Reformation clergy were understood to gain their authority through apostolic succession, as still affirmed by the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.


Christian scriptures use a wide range of metaphors to describe the Church. These include:
  • Family of God the Father (Bible verse |Ephesians|3:14-15|KJV,Bible verse 2|Corinthians|6:18|KJV)
  • Brothers and sisters with each other in God's family (Bible verse |Matthew|12:49-50|KJV)
  • Bride of Christ (Bible verse |Ephesians|5:31-32|KJV)
  • Branches on a vine (Bible verse |John|15:5|KJV)
  • Olive tree (Bible verse |Romans|11:17-24|KJV)
  • Field of crops (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|3:6-9|KJV)
  • Building (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|3:9|KJV)
  • Harvest (Bible verse |Matthew|13:1-30|KJV,Bible verse |John|4:35|KJV)
  • New temple and new priesthood with a new cornerstone (Bible verse 1|Peter|2:4-8|KJV)
  • God's house (Bible verse |Hebrews|3:3-6|KJV)
  • Pillar and foundation the truth (Bible verse 1|Timothy|3:15|KJV)
  • Body of Christ (Bible verse 1|Corinthians|12:12-27|KJV)
  • Temple of the Holy Spirit (Bible verse 2|Corinthians|6:16|KJV)

Divisions and controversies

Today the churches that consider themselves to be Christian are numerous with a variety of different doctrines and traditions. There are many controversies between the denominations which persist today.

Existence of the notion of single Christian church

One significant controversy is simply the definition of the notion Christian church or Catholic church. To some degree this controversy is related to the Nicene Creed, to which virtually all modern denominations subscribe albeit in somewhat different forms, which specifically references a catholic, or universal, church.
Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have each traditionally regarded itself as the one true and unique church of Christ, hence the names. Note that the formulation of this principle by the Roman Catholic Church in the document Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council was purpously made ambiguous. This ambiguity proved so contentious that in 2007 the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification document.[]
Many other Christian groups take the view that all denominations are part of a symbolic and global Christian church which is a body bound by a common faith if not a common administration or tradition.
Note that in classical times the term Catholic Church came to be most widely used in reference to the official Roman Imperial church from which the Catholic church, and all of its split offs descend directly or indirectly. The term, however, dates back to the Apostles' Creed which predates the official sanction of the Church by the Empire.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and some others have always referred to themselves as the Catholic church. Oriental Orthodoxy shares this view, seeing the Churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion as constituting the one true Church. In the West the term Catholic has come to be most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church because of its size and influence in the West (although in formal contexts most other churches still reject this naming). These Churches believe that the term one in the Nicene Creed describes and prescribes a visible institutional unity, not only geographically, throughout the world, but also historically, throughout history. They see unity as one of the four marks that the Creed attributes to the genuine Church, and the essence of a mark is that it be visible. A Church whose identity and belief varied from country to country and from age to age would not be "one".
In the New Testament, the word "Church" or "assembly" - (ekklesia) in the original language - normally refers to believers on earth, and they conclude that the Creed's description "one" must be applicable to the Church on earth and must not be reserved for some eschatological reality. The only exception to the normal New Testament use of the word "" is the mention of the " of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven" in Bible verse |Hebrews|12:23; and even there the Christians to whom the letter is addressed are associated with that heavenly Church ("you have come to..."). In line with this passage, the ancient Churches mentioned see the saints too - that is, the holy dead - as part of the one Church and not as ex-members, so that Christians both in the present life and the afterlife form a single Church.
Many Anglicans, Lutherans, Old Catholics, and Independent Catholics view unity as a mark of catholicity, but see the institutional unity of the Catholic Church as manifested in the shared Apostolic Succession of their episcopacies, rather than a shared episcopal hierarchy or rites.
Reformed Christians hold that every person justified by faith in the Gospel committed to the Apostles is a member of "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church". From this perspective, the real unity and holiness of the whole church established through the Apostles is yet to be revealed; and meanwhile, the extent and peace of the church on earth is imperfectly realized in a visible way.

First church

The right to be considered the first or oldest Christian Church is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by the Orthodox Churches and Anglican Church. Christianity, of course, began with the birth of Jesus Christ in Roman Judea and gradually spread westward into Asia Minor, Egypt, Illyria, Rome and eventually the entire Empire.
The Roman Catholic Church is linked to an unbroken succession of Bishops of Rome, who trace their authority to Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome.
The Orthodox Churches have argued that the Scripture in no way designated Saint Peter as having unique authority over the Church and that all the patriarchs of the Roman Empire, including the bishop of Rome, as well as the local Churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus and many other places, even outside the Roman Empire, trace their roots to the Twelve Apostles.

Other debates

Other debates include the following:
  • There are many opinions as to the ultimate fate of the souls of individuals who are not part of a particular institutional church, i.e. members of a particular church may or may not believe that the souls of those outside their church organisation can or will be saved.
  • There have always been differing opinions as to the divinity of God, the Son and or his unity with God, the Father. Although historically the most significant debate in this arena was the arianism and trinitarianism debate in the Roman Empire, debates in this realm have occurred throughout Christian history.
  • It has been debated whether or not the Christian Church is in fact a unified heavenly institution with the earthly institutions relegated to secondary status.


Throughout its history the Christian church, both as a single abstract entity and as concrete institutional groups has been criticized both by outsiders and by its own members. (On criticisms of Christianity in general, see Criticism of Christianity.)
One criticism is that the Church does not accept others and so does not follow the example of Jesus in accepting children, women, gentiles, and adulterers, whom the religious establishment and society of the time rejected. These critics often pass over in silence his recommendations to "sin no more".
From early times some have seen the Church as intolerant of outsiders and prone to fierce internal disputes.



catholicity in Persian: گرایش‌های مسیحی
catholicity in Simple English: One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
catholicity in Chinese: 基督教會
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