I heard both expressions, but the first sounds more "creedal". Although, just the second is fine according to the English language norms. When is "Church Catholic" fine to be used? The Merriam Webster definition writes church universal in the same way.

Here's a quote from Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and Apostolic Succession by Keith Mathison

"Well, all available historical evidence indicates that the Roman Magisterium did apostatize. But the Roman Magisterium is not identical to the Church Catholic so the Church was not overcome when this occurred. The Catholic Church continued to exist even when the local Magisterium of Rome joined the gates of hell in an attempt to prevail against her. While the bishops of Rome and the Roman Magisterium were busy deserting the sheep entrusted to them and abandoning the doctrine of the Apostles with which the Church of Rome (and all of the other local churches) had been entrusted, the Catholic Church continued. Believing Christians in the Western Church were deserted by their shepherds, who were more interested in worldly gain than they were in spiritual things, [FN13] but the desertion of the sheep by their shepherds did not destroy the church. It survived the apostasy of these “priests” just as the Old Testament church survived the apostasy of her priests."

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3 Answers 3


TL;DR: Linguistically, the terms Catholic Church and church catholic (alternatively Church catholic or Church Catholic) are not interchangeable.

The former refers to the theological tradition and religious institution headed by the Bishop of Rome (“the” Pope, in Western Civilization), often called the Roman Catholic Church, whereas the latter refers to the idealized concept of the body of all Christian believers.

Full answer:

First of all, on a purely grammatical note, the use of post-positive adjectives is well attested in English. Wikipedia provides the following handy list of set phrases with post-positive adjectives relating to Legal and general terms:

Legal and general terms: agent provocateur, battle royal, body corporate, body politic, corporation sole, cause célèbre, court-martial, fee simple, fee tail, femme fatale, force majeure, God Almighty, heir apparent, heir presumptive, knight errant, language isolate, letters close, letters patent, letters testamentary, life everlasting, the light fantastic, malice aforethought (also malice prepense), persona non grata, mens rea, pound sterling, proof positive, spaghetti bolognese, sum total, time immemorial, times past, treasure trove

This might lead us to believe that Catholic Church and church catholic/Church Catholic can be used interchangeably, where the second is merely an arcane, flowery or more literary version of the first. This is emphatically not the case.

The modern term catholic is derived from the Greek words kata and holos meaning about and (the) whole respectively. The word catholic, in theological terms means something like all embracing, universal, all encompassing and has connotations of both inclusivity and diversity.

Nowadays, however, Catholic is more commonly associated with the particular Christian church headed by the Bishop of Rome, often and especially historically also called the Roman Catholic Church (after the Roman Rite, by which Western adherents worship almost exclusively. There are Byzantine Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, and so on, but until the modern era, few were to be found in English-speaking countries). Thus, being referred to as Catholic or a Catholic is commonly interpreted as equivalent to being a member of the [Roman] Catholic Church.

However, the idea of the catholicity of the Christian religion predates the institution of the Church of Rome. Various branches of Christianity stake equal claims to be the true expression of catholicity. Consider, per Wikipedia:

  • The Eastern Orthodox Church, also known as the Orthodox Church, or officially as the Orthodox Catholic Church… teaches that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission… .

In addition to this, many Christians who are members of other churches also regard themselves as being part of the catholic faith in the sense of belonging to one universal overarching inclusive body of Christian believers.

This distinction between being catholic/Catholic and Catholic/Roman Catholic is brought out in the passage that the Original Poster (henceforth OP) quotes from. Here is a salient excerpt:

  • One of the most frustrating difficulties encountered in discussions such as this is the fact that the starting assumptions of Roman Catholics and non-Roman Catholics are so different. (emphasis mine)

Perhaps to draw out the distinction further, take this passage by John Gargev from the book Why a Church catholic?:

Simply put my thesis is that it has never been more important than at present for Christians to be catholic. Just to state such a proposition will surely raise the hackles of many a reader, but I am convinced that it is true and thoroughly defensible. Of course, the proposition needs explanation and qualification and the first chapter attempts to provide such. For the moment, I am satisfied to set forth plainly the major contention which subsequent chapters will try to explain and establish.

One qualification needs to be made at once, however. The word "catholic" in the title is written with a small letter. It is not a proper noun, naming a particular church, but an adjective describing the church of Jesus Christ wherever it is found. Many Christians who are not Roman Catholics profess faith in the holy, catholic church according to the ancient creeds, so the Catholic Church (with capital letters) does not hold exclusive title to the name.

(page 1)

Now, obviously there can be a problem with using the term Catholic Church/Catholic church if a writer wants to make it clear that they are talking about the principle of an all embracing and universal church, a body of believers, even a body of churches. The reason for this is that it could easily be interpreted as referring to the specific institution which calls itself the Catholic Church, as opposed to the notion or ideal of a catholic church in principle or referring to a notional broader church (where church is perhaps best read as a body of people). Writers who wish to avoid this confusion or to make the distinction clear will often refer to the latter as the church catholic to distinguish it clearly from meaning simply the Roman Catholic Church. This distinction is not only made by writers discussing different churches, but could easily be used by Catholic writers themselves where they might argue, for example, that the the real church catholic actually is the Roman Catholic Church.

Note that for many writers the term church catholic has a similar meaning to the body politic. The term body politic is not used so much to refer to a discrete individual political body, but all the institutions and individuals involved in politics conceived of as an overarching body. Similarly the church catholic may be seen as encompassing all the individual churches and believers who are part of an overarching inclusive body of believers.

Note: I am not religious and am not a theologian. The finer points of these distinctions may well be lost on me, and I hope not to have misrepresented any of the facts here. My interest in the terminology is merely linguistic.

  • 2
    That's really nice. My reading was taking me in a similar direction but you found a much better source (and I didn't have the patience to plod through the ones I found).
    – Chris H
    Dec 15, 2017 at 11:29
  • 1
    Digging through the answers, I see it's somehow a theological matter too :)
    – Daniel Pop
    Dec 15, 2017 at 12:06
  • 1
    @DaniPop Yes, it's kind of language meets culture meets theology, I suppose! Dec 15, 2017 at 12:10
  • 1
    Quite. I always had a vague idea that the Roman Catholic Church did consider themselves the church catholic.
    – anemone
    Dec 15, 2017 at 12:52
  • "Roman Catholic Church" is not really interchangeable with Catholic Church; it's a term used because conveniently, the Roman Rite is virtually the only surviving rite in Western Catholicism. Eastern Catholics (e.g. Melkites, Maronites, Byzantines, Syro-Malabars) are in full communion with Rome and recognize the authority of the pope (unlike Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Protestants), but would object to being called Roman. "Greek" Catholics and "Latin" Catholics are equally Catholic.
    – choster
    Dec 15, 2017 at 16:38

The phrase "Church Catholic" might be used in an arcane rhetorical flourish or in a poetic sense - it is as "acceptable" as most inversions of the usual adjective-noun arrangement.

However, the phrase is not used in the English speaking Catholic Church.

  • 1
    Conventionally in English, we put adjectives before the noun. "big dog", not "dog big", etc. "Church" is a noun. "Catholic" is an adjective that modifies that noun. So as @Rob_Ster says, someone might say "Church Catholic" to be poetic or rhetorical, but it's not the normal way English-speakers talk. I don't recall ever seeing or hearing "Church Catholic" before this post.
    – Jay
    Dec 13, 2017 at 17:05
  • Me neither, @Jay - and I've been working in an RC institution for four decades...
    – Rob_Ster
    Dec 13, 2017 at 18:01
  • The truth is, I heard this form, Church Catholic, only in Protestant contexts. But again, it seems rather a linguistic problem then a theological one.
    – Daniel Pop
    Dec 13, 2017 at 18:28
  • @Rob_Ster I take it you mean CR institutions -- Catholic Roman. :-)
    – Jay
    Dec 13, 2017 at 21:03
  • @DaniPop I've been a Protestant for decades and I don't recall ever hearing it. Maybe it's used in other denominations, or some context I don't normally read about? When Protestants I know what to talk about all Christians, we say "the universal Church", or simply "the Church" with a capital-C. When we want to talk about the group headquartered in Vatican City, we say "the Catholic Church" or "the Roman Catholic Church", occasionally other terms. But I've never heard "Church Catholic" for either idea. Not saying no one says it, but it's obscure at best.
    – Jay
    Dec 13, 2017 at 21:09

In the sense meant in the question, it's not completely unknown (ngrams, useful for its links to book searches), but seems to be most common in the 19th century. Sources appear to be both Catholic and Protestant, but with a bias towards Britsh writers.

It was the confounding the church catholic and its immunities, with the church corporate and its obligations and privileges, which really lay at the root of all the errors entertained, and all the embarrassments experienced in this question

Ten Years of the Church of Scotland from 1833 to 1843: With Historical Retrospect from 1560, Volume 1, James Bryce Bryce (1850) (emphasis mine)

And, hence, they who maintain the theory that the Anglican, Greek, and Roman branches make up, together, the Church Catholic, cannot stop here, even if they would; for the fact of one division authorizes division ad infinitum

Submission to the Catholic Church, Anthony John HANMER (1850) (again, emphasis mine)

Highlighted in the first quote is the simliar construction Church Corporate which I recollect being used in a nonconformist sense to mean Church as a body of people (as opposed to a building)

One odd case is when church is used to modify a noun Catholic to mean a proper practicing Catholic. A rather contrived example: "Alice still calls herself a Catholic, though she only turns up at Christmas; Bob is a Church Catholic, he's in there every day".

I've heard this use in speech and it might confuse searches if it occurs much in writing.

  • I have a vague memory of similar constructions being used to describe the Church in the sense of a body of believes, compared to Church as a building. Google isn't helping as it regards "church" and "church's" as synonymous in a quoted phrase. I think "Church Corporate" might be been one term, in a nonconformist setting. This was going to be in the answer but I've taken it out; it might still jog someone's memory.
    – Chris H
    Dec 14, 2017 at 8:00
  • I really appreciate your heavy work Chris!
    – Daniel Pop
    Dec 14, 2017 at 9:21
  • @DaniPop that's OK. It just needed a few minutes in front of a computer instead of on mobile. I'll clean up my previous comments
    – Chris H
    Dec 14, 2017 at 9:24

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