Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why it's the "Catholic Church" and not the "Roman Catholic Church"

One of my pet peeves is the intentional overuse of "Rome," "Roman," "Romanist," etc. by Protestant critics of Catholic theology. Here's why: the Catholic Church is a collection of many churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It's catechism--The Catechism of the Catholic Church--is that of all these churches that are in communion with one another and with the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. The theology found in that text, therefore, is not Roman Catholic theology. It is Catholic theology. That's the way the Church understands itself. Common courtesy suggests that those who are critical of that theology summon the respect to refer to it as such.

I am a member of a parish that is in the Latin Rite, and thus, I am, in that sense, "Roman" Catholic. But if, let's say, my wife and I moved to Austin and we became members of Our Lady's Maronite Church, we would still be Catholic, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, but not technically "Roman" Catholic. We would be Maronite Catholic.

For a nice summary and overview of the rites and churches of the Catholic Church, go here.


Peter Brown said...

In my experience, that usage is by far most common among the folks who believe that it is possible to be Protestant and simultaneously, in some meaningful sense, "catholic." (Most such folks I know personally are Anglo-Catholics.) For these people to cede the use of the term "catholic" (or even "Catholic") exclusively to the body of churches in communion with the Pope would be to violate their own self-understanding, so the courtesy rap doesn't quite stick. (Naturally, I think the Anglo-Catholic self-understanding is less than coherent, but they don't exactly buy my Catholic self-understanding, either.)

What I've found works reasonably well with such folks is that I stick to my terms, and they stick to theirs. Once we've mutually defined terms, we can go ahead and have a discussion. With people of good will (which includes most of my Anglo-Catholic friends), this is workable.

With those whose main interest is in scoring points against Romanist/popish heresy or some such thing, just sticking to one's own terms doesn't work so well. But then, the communication possible with such folks is pretty limited in any case.

YMMV, naturally.


Anonymous said...

So are the local churches of the Latin Rite properly called Roman? Or only the Diocese of Rome itself?

Josh Miller said...

This is also a pet-peeve of mine. If you check out the history of the term "Roman Catholic," it gained usage as an attack on "Popery."

Thus, I define myself not as "Roman Catholic," but "Latin-Rite Catholic," same as you.

Thanks for highlighting something that grinds my gears also ;).

George said...

The problem is the Roman Catholic Church doesn't have a monopoly on being the 'One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church' and therefore doesn't have a monopoly on the term 'Catholic'. There are more than just those churches in communion with the Holy Father that make up the Church Catholic. The Orthodox of all persuasions (Russian, Greek, Antiochian, Bulgarian, etc.) definitely have a better claim to the title and are ultimately part of the Church Catholic. The Old Catholics of the Netherlands are also part of it. The Anglicans are part of it. The Society of St Pius X are part of it. The Polish National Catholic Church are part of it. The Brazilian Apostolic Catholic Church are part of it. The Lutherans with valid episcopal lineage are part of it.

Julia said...


We give the Orthodox the courtesy of calling them by their name, "Orthodox", even though many other religious groups would also claim to be "orthodox".

It's a NAME.

Shall we deny the Baptists their name since all Christians get baptized?

Do I have the right to insist on "London Anglicans"? By the way, It's officially The Church of England, sometimes aka The Anglican Church. What individual members call themselves are adjectives and not corporate names.

Read the comments at The Times of London. It's full of fulminations against a feared invasion by "Southern Europeans" and the Pope taking over the EU because of the announcement concerning Anglicans this week. Face it, this business about "Catholic" is the English attempt to portray Catholics as "furriners".

There was even a diplomatic stand-off in London in the early 20th century whereby the Crown refused to received the papal nuncio unless he identified himself as "Roman Catholic".

I'm Catholic but I'm not Italian.
Like the Professor, I belong to the Latin Rite which is sometimes called The Western Church or The Church of Rome, but that's only one of the groups that are in communion with the Pope. The NAME of the group as a whole has been known as the Catholic Church since
time immemorial.

Anonymous said...

Glory to God! By Divine Providence, I made a thread about this same topic on the Catholic Answers Forum a few weeks ago:

Brian said...

I question your definition of Catholic because:

1) The Magisterium concedes the catholicity of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, which are not in communion with the Pope.

2) The Magisterium has conceded that those who are baptized are, to a limited extent, in communion with the Pope, which would thereby make a lot of Protestants Catholic! :o

3) I question whether such a definition of catholicity really conforms to the Vincentian Canon.

Now, if you are referring to the Catholic Church merely by name and not by character, then I will concede--the organization that is called the "Catholic Church" and the Churches that make it up all have communion with the Pope as an essential commonality.

Peter said...

Personally, I like the term Roman Catholic as it is the best way to differentiate myself from "Old Catholic", St Pius the X Catholic;... and whatever so=ca;;ed "Catholic" comes next for people like Pelosi, Kerry, Sibelius and the rest. Peter and the Church he left us is the Roman Catholic Church; only It has the authority to grant the status of "rite" to other branches like the maronites. People who don't appreciate the term are typically those who do not believe in the authority of Peter's successor as alone holding the "Keys" to the kingdom and a special place status as the leader of God's people. The day may come when such differentiation may become unecessary again, but we ain't there yet. For now, call me a proud Roman Catholic to best describe the Catholic belief system I subscribe to. Pray the Rosary that the long awaited Victory of Fatima may at last be fully realized in our time. Uncle Petee

Jugulum said...


FYI, I do prefer to use "Eastern Orthodox" instead of simply "Orthodox".

This parallels my preference for "Roman Catholic" over "Catholic". (Peter Brown said it well, though he left out the more general Protestant use of lower-case "catholic"--often referring to the Church Universal, i.e. the entire body of Christ.)

That's the problem with names that carry a "we're right" implication. (Which "Baptist" doesn't.)

Donald said...

Referring to the Catholic Church as the Roman Catholic Church is actually an insult to all of those non-Latin Rite rites that are also part of the Catholic Church under the See of Peter. Hence, it is correct to refer to that Church that is headed by the Holy Father (currently Pope Benedict XVI) as the Catholic Church.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Donald, you're absolutely correct. Unfortunately, there are some (though a tiny but vocal minority) of our separated brethren who believe that it is their Christian duty to insult Catholics.

Jugulum said...

Dr. Beckwith,

It's puzzling that you would simply repeat the idea that it's an insult, period.

As Peter Brown (your fellow Catholic-in-communion-with-Rome) put it, for us to call you simply "Catholic" is a matter of violating our own self-understanding.

Why would you simply repeat "It's an insult!" without even addressing what your fellow Catholics in this comment thread saw?

Francis J. Beckwith said...

It didn't say it was an insult. I said that there are some who believe it is their duty to insult Catholics. I, of course, do not believe that people who use the phrase "Roman Catholic" without knowing its pedigree are intending anything more than to label. Others, however, are less noble in their purposes.

Consequently, anyone with any grasp of the issues knows full well that the Catholic Church is no more the Roman Catholic Church than is the United States of America the District of Columbia of America.

Just as it is not wise or polite to insist on calling a man "black" who asks you to call him an "African American," one should call Catholicism by the name it calls itself rather the label its ignorant or bigoted critics insist on calling it.

If an individual Catholic wants to be called a "Roman Catholic," that's his business, and I will respect him by calling him nothing but that. On the other hand, if the Church with which he is in communion insists on calling itself "Catholic," he and the Protestant should comply, if for no other reason than that it is charitable to do so and charity is a virtue.

Peter Brown said...

Prof. Beckwith,

You appear to be resting your argument on the self-understanding of the Catholic Church, as if that were the only self-understanding at issue here. If it were, then indeed charity (if not simple courtesy) would dictate the use of "Catholic" for the churches in communion with the Pope.

Unfortunately, as I thought I'd pointed out earlier, the Catholic self-understanding is not the only one in play here. There are those—mainly, in my experience, Anglo-Catholics, but there may be others—whose self-understanding precludes ceding the word “Catholic” exclusively to describe the Catholic Church. As a convert from (most recently) Anglo-Catholicism to the Catholic Church, I run into quite a few such people myself.

You appear, from your previous statements in this thread, to be claiming that in conversation with such folks, charity requires that they subject their own self-understanding to ours. If indeed that's the claim you meant to make, could you please explain how charity does that? If it's not the claim you meant to make, how do you distinguish it from your actual claim?

Naturally, if I'm misreading you, please correct my reading.



Jugulum said...

Actually, you said that Donald was absolutely correct, when he had just said that it was an insult. If you didn't intended to agree with that part of his comment, OK. I'll assume you were focusing on his point about non-Latin Rite rites.

However, you still have not addressed the more gracious, charitable perspective that Peter Brown offered on the desire not to use "Catholic" unmodified. How about it?

Incidentally, to use your example of the USA and DC, I wouldn't be offended by a South American who got annoyed with our country's tendency to call ourselves "American", unmodified. To a South American, that can look like arrogance; everyone on these two continents is an American. And if they preferred to call us "Washington Americans", I wouldn't be offended. (And by the way, I've actually met South Americans who were annoyed this way.)

Mind you, I'd also keep calling myself an "American". I don't think it's actually arrogant; it's just the way terminology has developed.

But neither would I be bothered if they declined to use "American" that way. And "Washington American" or "D.C. American" is accurate enough, even for Texans like you and me. We're the America that's centered in DC. (Less so than Catholicism is centered on Rome, since the government simply happens to meet in DC.)

Honestly, if I could come up with a term that all can comfortably use, I probably would. (I certainly would, when interacting with South Americans.) I'd go with "USA-er", if that didn't sound obnoxious. I've never thought of a good compromise term, though.

I'm actually surprised at how much correspondence there turned out to be, here.

Any suggestions on a way to modify "Catholic" in a way that satisfies you, without requiring Protestants to use "catholic" in a way we think invalid?

Francis J. Beckwith said...

I guess it should not surprise me that a Protestant would not only protest against the Catholic Church but also the Catholic Church's use of the word Catholic. He's not pleased with just leaving our church and having his own church; he wants to take our name and give us a new one. So much for the "priesthood of all believers." :-)

I suppose it makes sense that the private interpretation applied to Scripture may be extended to dictionaries, lexicons, and catechisms as well. :-)


Jugulum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jugulum said...


I'm going to leave this to you. I don't think I have much chance of eliciting a direct response. (Thank you for engaging.)

Mack Ramer said...

Technically, Mr. Beckwith, if you went to a Maronite parish and became a parishioner, you would still be a Latin Rite Catholic, since you were baptized as a Latin Rite Catholic.

But more to the point, on behalf of all Roman Catholics, please stop this line of attack. When Protestants use the word "catholic" as they do to refer to the universal church, it is a perfectly valid use of the word. To complain about it makes us Catholics seem small-minded and thin-skinned.

As for myself, I remain proud to call myself a Roman Catholic.

Jugulum said...



Real quick, though: Dr. Beckwith isn't complaining about Protestants using "catholic" to mean "universal"--he's complaining about us not wanting to use it to mean "the church in communion with Rome".

As far as I know, he's fine with us talking about the catholic Church; he thinks it's historically unaware or insulting or chuckle-inducing when we prefer not call you the Catholic Church.

I suspect that's what you meant, but I don't want Dr. Beckwith to spend his time correcting you there, and miss your point.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Jugulum's right.

BTW, I'm surprised that no one went nuclear on me and pointed out that the title of my book is Return to Rome, and that this blog's name is Return to Rome.

I'm really disappointed in you guys! :-)

Jugulum said...

I suppose it was too much to hope that you would respond to Mack, Dr. Beckwith.

As for "Return to Rome", I noticed that. And if you had engaged with the South America/USA example, I might have pointed it out. (It messes with your black/African American argument.) But you've chosen not to interact with critique from either side, so what can I do?

Taylor Marshall said...

I completely agree. Good post and it's great coming from you. Hopefully our separated brethren will understand the negative overtones.

Mack Ramer said...

Jugulum -- thank you for clarifying what I meant.

lojahw said...

This all sounds like much ado about nothing, particularly given the title of the blog. Frank did "return to Rome," not to Constantinople, which also has a legitimate claim to the name "Catholic Church," as pointed out earlier. For those of us not in communion with the bishop of Rome, it seems presumptuous that the church of which he is head should insist on its exclusive right to the title.

Roman Catholic is descriptive for the various reasons previously cited, and it reasonably draws attention to the monolithic source from which all direction, all rules, all authority, all beliefs, etc. emanate.

lojahw said...

Why would one who has pledged allegiance to Rome be insulted to be identified accordingly?

The notion that the Catholic Church is limited to those in communion with the bishop at Rome is inconsistent with early church history. The first mention of communion with a bishop was in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, ca. 105 AD. Ignatius always referred to the local bishop, not the bishop of Rome. In fact, Ignatius explicitly denied a hierarchy of bishops. For example he wrote: “to Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of the Smyrnans, or rather, who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Ignatius went so far as to say, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

Unless one denies that Jesus Christ is present wherever two or three are gathered in His name, one should not object to descriptive designations for various branches of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Continued here. What the Catholic Encyclopedia says about this issue.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

I accidentally posted a comment that I thought I had not posted. So, I just removed it. I thought I had saved it in order to go back and work on it later.

My apologies for any offense taken. What I was trying to do was figure out a way to properly communicate the incredible change of devotion to Christ that I have undergone since becoming Catholic. I did not intend to convey something that I do not believe, namely, that there are no holy Protestants. Of course, there are, and some of them are friends of mine.

What I was struggling to say is that as I began to read the lives of the Catholic saints--such as Augustine, Gregory, Chrysosotom, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assissi, Francis de Sales, Fr. John Vianney--I found in them a combination of depth of holiness, profound learning, and a rich understanding of Scripture with which I have found no parallel in the Protestant world. There are, of course, learned, holy, and Scripturally adept Protestants. (And, might I add, really, really bad Catholics; Dante, of course, recognized that by sending Pope Boniface to Hell). Among the best Protestants have been Jonathan Edwards and the Wesleys. And though impressive in so many ways, they really can't approach those on the list above. One reason for this, I suspect, is the logocentricity of Protestant piety, which does not put a premium on contemplative prayer, fasting, the spiritual disciplines, and the sacramental life, etc.

This is why it seems to me (and my perception is perhaps skewed given my experiences of the past two and a half years) that the lack of real joy on the part of some Protestant bloggers, and the glee that they exhibit when calling people names, reveals a disordered understanding of the Christian life. Because this understanding sees Christian belief as purely cognitive while neglecting the soul and what it needs for its final good, a certain humorless ugliness tends to dominate the communications of those who embrace it. They begin to resemble, not Christians sharing the love of Christ, but Star Trek fans debating about what Spock really said to Kirk about the Romulans in Episode 52.

Peter said...

Dear "lockjaw":

Thank God for the "monolith" he left to lead us to him. And remember: to enter into heaven you will need to be in full agreement with all that Roman Catholicism teaches!

Also, you are badly misinformed about your early Church history wherein you said:"the notion that the Catholic Church is limited to those in communion with the bishop at Rome is inconsistent with early church history...." There was no contradiction among the Early Church Fathers regarding the primacy of Peter. If you think there was you're in for a rude awakening come judgement day.

(Again, go to for clarification on this and a multitude of other issues). Hugs.

CathApol said...

Dr. Beckwith,
White and I go way back, when I saw this, I felt compelled to comment too.

God bless!

Tiber Jumper said...

Dr Beckwith you said:
"What I was trying to do was figure out a way to properly communicate the incredible change of devotion to Christ that I have undergone since becoming Catholic."

Yes AMEN!. I know this comment doesn't pertain to the rest of the discussion here but your words above are what I have been trying to convey to my readers/friends/enemies etc since becoming Catholic in 2004.

At the end of the day(and our lives), all the parsing of words and "sophistry" (as we are accused of) doesn't matter. Did our Catholic faith help us to have a greater devotion to Christ than before we were Catholic? And did that devotion to Christ change the way I lived my life particularly in the Matt 25 fashion?
After 31 years of protestantism, I must say unequivocally yes and you and untold numbers of converts would agree. This reality is what can't be debated, that is what can't be criticized and ultimately is what matters on the final day.

dtking said...

BTW, I'm surprised that no one went nuclear on me and pointed out that the title of my book is Return to Rome, and that this blog's name is Return to Rome.

Dear sir, no need for any disappointment here. You've pointed out that irony far more clearly than anyone else could have possibly done.

Max Marie, OFS said...

I couldn't agree more! Catholics should wake up and realise the term "Roman Catholic" was launched by Henry VIII. As a slur! Look it up at New Advent.

Although, attending a church of another rite does not make you a member of that rite. We are Catholics. It means universal. We have such variety and beauty to our church. It's a shame so few have never attended a liturgy other than the one they were born into.

There are 7 official rites of the Catholic Church, broken down into over 20 similar rites.