catholic means including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.


Catholic means of the Roman Catholic faith.

But whenever I hear the someone say, "I'm catholic", it's hard for me to distinguish which usage are they referring to (even with the context). In writing, its easy to differentiate them by the lowercase/uppercase beginning.

My question, though, is what is the origin of the meaning of these two words? I get confused more because I associate the Catholicism with conservatism which is kinda the opposite of being catholic.

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    Related: Catholic with a small c – Mari-Lou A Oct 14 '18 at 12:14
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    It is not clear what exactly is supposed to be the problem here. It is not at all uncommon, or particularly problematic, for a term to function both as a generic term (with lowercase spelling) and as a proper name (capitalized). Think of democrat/Democrat, republican/Republican, states/States. When such words are spoken, the context will almost always make it clear which meaning was intended; in the very rare cases in which there is a genuine ambiguity, one may need to ask the speaker for a clarification. – jsw29 Oct 14 '18 at 17:56
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    @Mari-LouA thanks. Very informative and relevant question as well.. – yathish Oct 17 '18 at 2:48

I think the main religious usage is by far the more common, and the more general one can be easily understood in context. Note that in the religiosense the term is often capitalized:

Definition of catholic:


a often capitalized : of, relating to, or forming the church universal.

b often capitalized : of, relating to, or forming the ancient undivided Christian church or a church claiming historical continuity from it.

c capitalized : ROMAN CATHOLIC Her son goes to a Catholic school.


COMPREHENSIVE, UNIVERSAL especially : broad in sympathies, tastes, or interests.

a catholic taste in music



mid-14c., "of the doctrines of the ancient Church" (before the East/West schism), literally "universally accepted," from French catholique, from Church Latin catholicus "universal, general," from Greek katholikos, from phrase kath' holou "on the whole, in general,"


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    Thus the reason that "catholic" has two meanings (to the extent that it does) is the it was first applied to the "Christian" church, which is (or at least was, at one time) viewed (by most Christians) as a single "body" of all believers (and hence "universal"). It wasn't until the Roman Catholic Church began to splinter that "Catholic" became, in itself, a designation of a specific religion (and one that was seen as striving to maintain "conservative" values). – Hot Licks Oct 14 '18 at 12:08
  • @HotLicks by splintering of Roman Catholic Church, do you mean the Protestant-Catholic divide or something even earlier than that? – yathish Oct 17 '18 at 2:43
  • @yathish - Mainly the Protestant Reformation, dated from 1517, though there were other rumblings at least 100 years earlier. – Hot Licks Oct 17 '18 at 11:50
  • Pace Merriam-Webster, I don't think the capital-C version always has to mean RC. I recently visited a church in Kerala that professes to be Syrian Catholic, rather than Roman Catholic (but nonetheless was raised to Basilican rank by Pope Francis). – Brian Donovan Aug 6 '19 at 13:17

I quote a different standpoint on the etymology of 'catholic'. I found a third Quora post on the subject, but it's less intellgible and I don't quote it.

Sverigielle Von Gothenburg, Quora, Aug 14 2017

Catholic does NOT mean universal, first and foremost.

It has become a popular belief to hold it as such, as “irregardless” has popularly substituted the word “regardless”. Irregardless is not a word, and Catholic, at the time of it's descriptive ascendence, absolutely does not mean “universal”.

Calling the Church of Rome the “Catholic” church is a whole hearted slap in the face to the Churches which Rome split away from in 1054. The Romans did this on purpose, knowingly, and to make a point. It is a political statement, to be sure, and it does not go unnoticed to the adherents of the Churches which the Latins left.

Catholic does, as one writer mentioned, come from the word Katholikos, in Greek.

HERE IS THE KEY: When Latin was still a living language, “katholikos” was not translated to mean “universal”, the word “Universalis" already existed. It was translated to “Catholicus”, because it has a different meaning than “Universalis".

Yes, even many dictionaries are wrong, sorry.

Catholicus means “whole, in and of itself complete, lacking nothing”. In other words, “Hey, you other Churches who don't like our recent inventions and don't want to have us rule over you, we don't need you. We are whole, and even without you we are lacking nothing. You bring nothing to the table, because WE are catholic, you aren't.”

Well, as the Constantinopolitan addition to the Nicene Creed stated at the tail end of the fourth century, “I believe in one holy, catholic and Apostolic Church.” And I recited that just this morning at our Divine Liturgy….without the filioque, thank you very much.

So, at the same time that the Latins were determining it wise and necessary to proclaim the heretofore Christian Churches in communion with them as schismatics because they disagreed with Roman inventions, those same Eastern Churches had to come up with a catchy title to delineate the difference in teachings. Thus the word Orthodox was added into the title. It is Greek for “correct teaching”.

Just as the Latin use of “Catholic” was meant to slap the Orthodox, the word Orthodox was meant to remind the Latins that we are still teaching the same things we taught in the year 800, back when you said we were 100% correct.

Because you once believed it, too.

In case you forgot.

It was first used by Saint Ignatius as he wrote a letter to Smyrna, on his way to Rome to be executed. Even then, the word Catholic was used to mean the entirety of the Church.

In 1870, during the First Vatican Council, English speaking bishops started really pushing the phrase “Roman Catholic Church” to emphasize a political point. It took, but not officially. To this day, as for the preceding 963 years, the Latins simply refer to themselves in official form as the “Catholic Church”. Prior to 1054, they were a part of the Catholic Church.

James Oppenheimer-Crawford, Quora dated Feb 7 2018

Why is the Catholic church called the Catholic Church? Well, it isn’t called the Catholic church.

It is called the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

Catholic, meaning universal (look it up), is a part of the ancient creeds. We recite, “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Yes, almost all of today’s mainline Church’s could quite rationally call themselves Catholic Churches. As a matter of fact, the Anglican Church, because it never specifically joined the Protestant Reformation, has always called itself a Catholic church. That it why the Episcopal Church in the USA is also a Catholic Church.

So the Catholic church is actually the RCC. Of course, having said that, some members of the RCC will prefer the name Catholic Church. While this is absolutely right, it is also absolutely right to refer to many other denominations as Catholic Churches. To designate that denomination, some qualification is needed.

Ian MacKinnell, Quora, Feb 5 2018

“Catholic” was actually a compound word in Greek. It was formed from “kata”, a preposition meaning “according to”, and “holos”, a noun or adjective meaning “the whole”. When you join “kata” to a word starting with a vowel (including the aspirated vowel we write as “ho-”), the final -a of “kata” is dropped, and the -t- is aspirated: so “kath’olou” — a Greek word meaning “on the whole” or “in general”.

So you might say that “catholic” originally meant “on the whole-ish” or “in general-ish”. The Catholic Church is the mainstream church, the church “in general” — the church overall or on the whole, as opposed to some split-away minority church.

Oddly enough, Greek speaking Christians actually preferred a different word to describe the “correct” church: “orthodox”. For the Greeks, being the majority church was not an adequate criterion: you had to be the “right teaching” or “right praising” church (i.e. “dox” as in “dogma” or “doxology”).

So Catholics claim to adhere to the “whole” church, while the Orthodox claim to do things the “right” way.

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