It’s not a case of either/or but of both/and. “Christian” was first used to describe the followers of Christ at Antioch. It probably originated among our enemies as a contemptuous nickname (see Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). But by the time St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the first decade of the second century, the believers had gladly accepted it.
“Catholic” is simply derived from the Greek word catholikos, meaning “universal.” We call ourselves Catholic because it describes the scope of Christ’s saving mission and the extent of the community he founded. Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and his Church is open to members of every nation, kindred, tongue, region, generation, locale, race, gender, class, and culture. The Catholic Church is the “universal” community founded by Jesus Christ, the savior of the whole world (see 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Rv 5:9; 7:9; 14:6).
Wonderfully enough, it’s St. Ignatius of Antioch who gives us our first recorded use of the term “Catholic” to describe the Church. Ignatius was the second or third bishop of Antioch, a major teaching center in the early Church that had breathed some deep apostolic air. Saint Peter had served as bishop just before he went to Rome, and Ignatius was himself mentored by the apostle John.
On his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius left us a body of correspondence that was highly revered in the early centuries of the Church. There he wrote: “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
“Catholic” is not, as many people imagine, a denominational title. It simply describes a quality or mark of Christ’s Church. “Denominationalism,” strictly speaking, didn’t arise until the breakup of the Western Church in the 16th century.
Today the Catholic Church is sometimes referred to as the “Roman Catholic Church.” Certain Anglicans, not Catholics, originated the phrase. They wanted to be regarded as the true “Catholics” in contrast to the merely “Roman” Catholics. So they sought to exploit a contradiction in terms. How can one be “Catholic” — that is, universal — and yet merely “Roman” at the same time? It was a clever play on words that was intended as a sneer.
Today we often hear Catholics themselves claiming to be “Roman” Catholic. This is an attempt to turn the tables on the critics and redefine the phrase. “Yes, we are ‘Roman’ Catholic, meaning that we accept the primacy of Peter and the teaching authority of his successors, who traditionally operate from Rome.” These Catholics wear the phrase “Roman Catholic” as a badge of loyalty to Church teaching.
The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church. In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him the fullness of the means of salvation which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost and will always be so until the day of the Parousia.