According to text on Catholic.com, the Greek roots of the term "Catholic" mean "according to (kata-) the whole (holos)," or more colloquially, "universal." At the beginning of the second century, we find in the letters of Ignatius the first surviving use of the term "Catholic" in reference to the Church. At that time, or shortly thereafter, it was used to refer to a single, visible communion, separate from others.
The reference to the word Catholic above from St. Ignatius refers to this text:
"See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." —Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ch 8 ( This is from 107 AD. That's not very long after the death of the Apostle John. )
Before diving in, I want to set the record straight:
I haven't actually heard someone that I can recall as of this writing say "I'm not Christian. I'm Catholic" which to me is NOT a correct statement. That statement to me would make me wonder about the person saying it because I believe that faithful Catholics who get it are also Christian. In other words, "I'm both Christian and Catholic. Yes, I am a Catholic Christian." Now, let's get started with "I'm Catholic."
Using the word Catholic:
Many Catholics may say things like "I'm Catholic" - "The Catholic Church says..." - "Catholic this or Catholic that" all of which to an outsider can be looked upon as why don't Catholics just use "I'm a Christian?" or "The Bible Says?" or some other non-Catholic way of talking about their faith? I believe that it's because millions of Catholics who are serious about the Catholic faith know that using the word Catholic is all inclusive: "I'm Christian," "The Bible is the infallible word of God," "The Church is visible and founded by Christ," "Sacred Tradition plays a role in the Christian faith," "Yes, I have a relationship with Christ," "Yes, I embrace the sacraments. I'm catechized and evangelized," and more. The one word Catholic assumes ALL and encompasses ALL: Greek roots of the term "Catholic" mean "according to (kata-) the whole (holos)."
Non-Catholics may ask isn't "I'm a Christian" all encompassing? Although I understand why someone would ask that, there are so many different Christian beliefs that saying "I'm a Christian" which at it's core is a follower of Jesus Christ doesn't mean the same thing. It's hard enough to get all Christians to get very far in a discussion just past Christ on the Cross before it quickly goes down a path of ones theological understanding of the Bible.
When I say "I'm a Catholic" it's because I identify with all that "Catholic" means which includes being a "Catholic Christian." And NO, a Catholic Christian is not an oxymoron, they are one in the same. Just because some Catholics may embrace the sacraments and not fully catechized and some may not fully evangelized doesn't mean that all Catholics without exception should be placed in the same box.
There's nothing wrong with saying "I'm a Christian" if it's true. I can see how that could minimize theological arguments among Christians by saying "I'm a Christian." But for me, although I am a Christian and follower of Jesus Christ, I like identifying as a Catholic because of all that it includes within that identity.
I believe that most faithful Catholics who are not simply Catholic in name have very similar views of what I'm sharing in this article about Catholic being ALL inclusive of many things in just the one word: Catholic.
Saying I'm Catholic in the TRUEST sense to me is an understanding by that one word CATHOLIC that "I am a Christian" that "I believe Sacred Scripture ( Bible ) as the infallible word of God" that "The Catholic Church ( not me ) interprets and protects scripture" that "Sacred ( Apostolic ) Tradition is part of the Christian faith" that "The Catholic Church has authority greater than my individual authority" that "Being Catholic is the Fullness of the Christian faith" and much, much more. So that one simple word CATHOLIC means so much more than just assuming that I identify with a group of people.
Sadly, NOT everyone who says "I'm Catholic" means the same thing!
Many use the phrase "I'm Catholic" far too loosely. They may have been baptized Catholic and still identify as a Catholic. They may have fallen away from their Catholic faith and be a non-practicing Catholic. They may, like many Protestant Christians, pick and choose what they want to believe rather than being a TRUE Catholic. It's Catholics that fall into these categories or Catholics that have left the faith completely that cannot explain what being Catholic really is all about. That can create confusion when someone says, "I'm Catholic," but the individual is not fully embracing the fullness of the Christian faith as lived out by faithful Catholics who get it. As a convert, I feel like I get what being Catholic is all about. I'm a Catholic by choice. I was already a Christian. I've simply taken my Christian faith to another level by now being a Catholic Christian.
There is also a lot of confusion in what comes to mind from others that have never been Catholic. For example, "I'm Catholic" can lead to things like "You worship Mary" - "You are not Christian" - "You believe a lot of things that are not biblical" and much more. But I must admit that when someone says "I'm Southern Baptist" that I think "once saved always saved." When someone says "I'm Pentecostal" that I think "speaking in tongues." When someone says "I'm Church of Christ" that I think no music in services and weekly ( symbolic ) communion. So all of us can fall into assumptions based on what we think we know about how someone identifies with a group in their Christian faith. Oh and I almost forgot, when someone says, "I stay at home, read my Bible, let the spirit lead me and don't need organized religion" that my mind can go in many directions on that one.
Whether someone says "I'm Catholic" or "I'm Christian," I want to know what that means. I also want to know about their theology. I'm not here to judge people. That's not my job. But I would like to know the basis behind "I'm Catholic" or "I'm Christian" or even "I'm Baptist, etc."
My challenge to Catholics and non-Catholics:
If you identify as Catholic, I challenge you to not use that term loosely: Be a TRUE Catholic and live your faith daily. That also means having a relationship with Jesus Christ which to me is a no brainer, but some people miss that critical piece somehow. Don't just check the box and go through the motions. God wants all of you.
If you are not Catholic, ask someone when they identify as being Catholic. Why they say "I'm Catholic." What does saying "I'm Catholic" mean to them? Is it ALL inclusive as I have mentioned in this article? Is it I was raised Catholic but have not lived the faith in over 20 years? There is a difference. For me, when I say "Catholic," it goes deep and is ALL inclusive of the fullness of the Christian faith. Don't assume you know them simply based on "I'm Catholic." Get to know them and you may have more common ground than you think.
Saying I'm Catholic means that I believe what The Nicene Creed says:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.