Why I am not a “Roman” Catholic

St. Peter's Basilica at Night

St. Peter’s Basilica (Wikimedia). I love her, but she’s not my home church.

This is something that’s been eating at me for a while, in my conversations with Protestants: I am not a Roman Catholic.

I’m not even Roman! To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t a bit of Roman heritage within at least the past millennium. I come from good, British stock — mostly English, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish.

But when I’m talking to Protestants, they invariably refer to me as “Roman Catholic,” and my Church as the “Roman Catholic Church.” And I realize these terms are technically correct, according to popular nomenclature; but in my view, they are inappropriate, and here’s why.

I am, first and foremost, a Christian. By nativity, residence, and heritage, I am an Alabamian and a Southerner and an American; by education, I am an historian; by avocation, a blogger and would-be theologian and apologist. This is how I identify myself. I don’t generally think any clarification to my Christian identity is immediately necessary, but when it becomes relevant to conversation, I give it: I am a Catholic Christian of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis. He is my universal pastor, and I love him, and I am faithful to him — but I’m not a member of his diocese.

So why do people feel the need to label me as a “Roman” Catholic? There is almost always a note of unpleasantness in their tone when they say this: Dismissiveness? Incredulity? They speak as if there were more than one Catholic Church, and the “Roman” one is only one among many; or as if the “Roman” Catholic Church is only a pretender to the title “Catholic.” There is a sense in which my Church and my Christian heritage is indeed Roman, but that is seldom if ever the sense in which anyone uses the term. And so I reject the label. I am not a “Roman” Catholic.

The particular Church of which I am a member, the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, is a member of the Latin Rite of Christianity. Latin, the ancient language of Rome, is our primary liturgical language, even if in practice we speak more English these days. My bishop, the Most. Rev. Robert Baker, is in communion with the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. But I am not a member of the Church of Rome.

Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s a lot of bishops!

There are more than 2,000 bishops and dioceses (Latin dioceses, Greek διοίκησες, “administrations”) worldwide who, like mine, are in communion with the bishop of Rome. Collectively, these dioceses are often referred to as the Roman Catholic Church, it’s true — but the fact is, only one of those dioceses is actually Roman, the Diocese of Rome, of which Pope Francis is the ordinary. The fact is that these dioceses are distributed among every country and nation on earth, speak nearly every vernacular language, and are made up of Christians of every ethnicity and heritage and background. Only a minuscule fraction of these Christians are Roman in any way. Each diocese is a particular Church of its own. These Churches are not all part of the Latin Rite: there are twenty-three different rites represented by these Churches in communion with the bishop of Rome, some of them having little resemblance or relation to the Roman one: the Byzantine, the Melkite and Maronite, the Syro-Malabar, the Coptic and Ethiopian Catholics, just to name a few. Christians of these Churches would no doubt be offended to be called “Roman” Catholic. But when I say that I am Catholic, I mean that I am in communion — in a Christian unity — with all of these people.

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

The four marks of the true Church of Christ put forward by the Nicene Creed are that she is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. There are other Christian communities in the world that claim themselves to be “catholic” — universal — but there is only One to whom the term truly applies. Speaking practically, no other Church has as many members worldwide — over 1.2 billion — in as many places, among as many groups of people. No other Church is united in oneness by such universal bonds of communion: even the next largest Christian groups, the various Orthodox Churches, and those of the Anglican Communion, are united more by association than communion; the vast majority of other Christian communities have been hopelessly splintered by schism and disunion, to the degree of some 40,000 Protestant denominations today (and that figure is not even to mention “non-denominational” Christians). No other Church manifests more fully the Apostolic faith represented by the New Testament and witnessed forward through the ages by the Church Fathers. And in an age increasingly rocked by moral disintegration, only One Church continues to consistently stand apart in holiness against the evils of abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and immoral sexuality. Only the true, historic, Catholic Church embodies the Oneness, Holiness, Catholicity, and Apostolicity of the Church founded by Jesus 2,000 years ago, which He promised would forever stand against the powers of death. And this is what I mean when I say that I am Catholic.

21 thoughts on “Why I am not a “Roman” Catholic

  1. You are arguing about the definitions of words, and it’s a fruitless argument. Are you Roman Catholic? Yes, and here is why. By your definition, it may be redundant, since your definition of “The Church” is exclusive to those believers who swear fealty to the Bishop of Rome. It would be like saying all (US) Americans are DC Americans–they don’t live in the DC, they’ve never been there, but their allegiance is to the country based in the DC. So it’s redundant to call Americans “DC Americans”, but that doesn’t make it untrue (and yes, this whole argument ignores the reality that, continentally, anyone living in North, Central, or South America is American. I’m using the popular definition of American here).

    Traditionally and historically, Roman Catholic is also helpful when talking about the different churches within the Catholic Church, for example: Roman Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Syriac Catholic, etc. It is a label that identifies the particular rite and tradition of the church. Latin Catholic Church or Latin Church may be a better term, however.

    But these are minor arguments. The big one, and the one that bothers you and I the most, is the argument of definition. For you, the only acceptable definition of Church is the body of believers who swear fealty to Rome. Therefore, since no one else is part of the universal church (catholic) aside from those loyal to the Roman Bishop, why be redundant and say “Roman Catholic?”

    Your definition of church is not the Protestant definition. We too (well, maybe most of us, like those in my tradition) see ourselves as part of the body of believers past, present, and future. We, too, believe that there is one catholic church, and that we are a part of it (but that we are not the only members of it). I could define myself, then, as a Lutheran Catholic. I have friends who could be Presbyterian Catholics. I could probaby find some Baptist Catholics if I looked hard enough, because we all believe that the church is bigger than we are, and we are a part of it. I know you don’t think so–at best, we are “separated brethren”, maybe Christian, and at worst, we are unbelievers.

    Different definitions based on different understandings of words. I define you as Roman Catholic because to define yourself as you do requires that I give up my identity as a Christian. You don’t have to accept my definitions–I don’t accept yours. You are upset because by calling you Roman Catholic, others are infringing on your claim to be The Church as you understand it. I get upset because your claim excludes me, while my claim includes you.

    Neither of us will be able to convince the other that our definition is right. It is one of the major stumbling blocks between Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants (and among Protestants).

    • In the strictest Catholic understanding, there is only One Church, One Body of Christ, as Scripture affirms and as has been held since then, and declared in the Nicene Creed. But that’s not even what I’m arguing here. I respect your right to call yourself a Church; I affirm you as part of the Body of Christ. What I’m disputing here is the use of the term “Catholic,” especially as a proper adjective — and the necessity people perceive of applying a qualifier to it. I accept, in describing my place in the universe, I am a Catholic of the Latin Rite, or even a Latin Catholic (I do think “Latin” is a better descriptor when we are talking about the rite or particular body). What gets under my skin is when people refer to the whole body as the “Roman Catholic Church” — anyone in communion with Rome is “Roman Catholic,” including even Eastern Catholics who aren’t Roman at all. And especially when they refer to the Church Fathers or anyone else of ages past as “Roman Catholic.” St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, St. Irenaeus — they were all in communion with the bishop of Rome and recognized his primacy of authority. But they weren’t “Roman” at all. Augustine and Cyprian were African and Irenaeus was Greek by birth, Gallic by office.

      And it does bother me when other bodies try to claim the term “Catholic” as a proper part of their name, and to a lesser degree when Protestant bodies describe themselves as little-c “catholic.” Because according to the ancient use in which that term originated, they’re not. “Catholic” means universal — not just scattered Christians united by vague, spiritual, invisible bonds, but a single, visible body, “united in the same mind and judgment” as Paul says; “One as Christ and the Father are One,” according to Jesus — an absolutely singular and invisible unity.

      • I don’t know of too many churches not in communion with Rome that use the word Catholic in their name, so there’s that. You have a point about the early church fathers, who lived long before such lines were drawn.

        Catholic does mean universal, but we interpret that universality to transcend the borders of human, earthly institutions. It used to be a term that nobody ever used (and often replaced, like in the Creeds where people would say Christian instead), and even now, you won’t hear many Protestants call themselves catholic unless they are speaking theologically. An exception would be those who consider themselves Anglo-Catholics or Evangelical Catholics.

  2. Given the centralized structure of the Catholic Church and the claims of supremacy made by the Bishop of Rome, and the need to differentiate from those other (mainly Eastern) rites, I really don’t think you’ll get away from the term “Roman Catholic,” as it’s a rather apt one. And I don’t see anything to resent in it, either.

    • I’m not particularly offended by it, but it does get under my skin when people refer to the whole body, not just the Latin Rite of it, as “Roman Catholic.” And even more when they refer to the historical Church as being or not being “Roman Catholic.” I had somebody recently tell me that “St. Augustine was not a Roman Catholic.” Well, no, because there wasn’t (and really still isn’t) any such thing. Augustine was an African bishop in what he considered the orthodox, universal Catholic Church, who accepted the primacy of the bishop of Rome. Referring to a “Roman Catholic Church” in the fifth century just doesn’t make any sense.

      • Fair enough. I think you have to speak of a Catholic church after 1054, though, and of a Roman Catholic church after 1517, especially as many of the reformers continued to think of themselves as “Catholics” in their own way. Thomas Cromwell went to the scaffold claiming he had never ceased to be a good Catholic, but he certainly meant something different from what the Pope would have meant. But sure, for the fifth century, just saying the Christian Church is enough (if anyone asks, no, Arians don’t count).

        • Well, the Eastern Orthodox are the only ones of those I think can actually get away with calling themselves big-C “Catholic.” ;) But even there, I think it’s telling that in the West, almost nobody except the Orthodox refers to the Orthodox Churches as “Orthodox Catholic.” I think “Western” and “Eastern” are probably better descriptors in that case anyway, in general — but then, of course, there are both Eastern Catholics (in communion with Rome) and Eastern Orthodox.

          The Eastern Orthodox, I think, would probably object to my characterization of them above as an “association.” Their ecclesiology is rather baffling to me.

          I think, when it comes to the churches of the Reformation, it’s also telling that nobody, from an academic point of view, seems to have ever taken them seriously when they insisted they were “catholic.” As my Lutheran friend says above, Protestants tend to define “catholic” as an invisible, spiritual universality, connecting all members of the Body of Christ. But that’s not the sense in which the term was ever used historically.

          The term “Catholic Church” was actually used as early as ca. 107 by St. Ignatius of Antioch. I think, for many centuries, it was more a common adjective (the “universal” Church) than part of the proper name of the Church — but most of the Church Fathers would certainly have identified themselves as “catholic” — in communion with all other orthodox Christians.

  3. As far as I know, the Church does not include the word “Roman” in most of its official documents. Even our catechism only bears the title, “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Only since the Reformation that an emphasis of being a “Roman” Catholic is made perhaps to show their acceptance of Christian unity under the Bishop of Rome, which during that time earned much criticism from our brother-protestants. It’s just a matter of history and tradition. Nevertheless, we are still united under one baptism and one Lord. Nice article!

    • No, the Church doesn’t. I did notice, just now in fact, that the Eastern Orthodox Churches officially refer to themselves as the “Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church,” but I’ve never heard anybody in the West refer to it as that, except for perhaps an Orthodox convert friend of mine. Thanks!

  4. Maybe if you’re surrounded by a nest of vipers, you are one( a viper) too!!!
    Didn’t Cardinal Bertone honor quack faith healer and necromancer john of god of Brazil??!! with a signed papal document knighting this spiritist medium to the Order of St Gregory!!!
    http://lakishajj.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/pope-in-brazil-honor-quack-john-of-god/
    http://www.hospitaller-soulspirithealing.org/john-of-god-recognized-and-honoured-by-the-catholic-church/
    and new age ‘doctor’ kiran Schmidt has more of the same.

    • You can rest assured that there is nothing to this. He may be presenting himself as having been honored by the pope with this order — but the only references I can find to this are your site and a few others. The certificate he is presenting is clearly fraudulent, for these reasons:

      1. The document was printed on an inkjet printer — whereas in an actual papal certificate all names would be handwritten (see below).

      2. The seal is a rubber stamp, not an actual papal seal, as in this genuine article:

      http://m2.altamura.gocity.it/library/foto/big_onorificenze_01.jpg

      3. Kiran Schmidt produced an almost identical (and clearly just as fradulent) certificate, suggesting he was honored into a different order:

      http://www.energy-medicine.info/saint-sylvester-order.html

      4. Cardinal Bertone’s signature as presented on both of these documents has no resemblance to Cardinal Bertone’s actual signature:

      http://www.dignitatishumanae.com/wp-content/uploads/Popes-Letter(1).jpg

      5. The signature on the fake document is made with a cheap ball-point pen, which no one signing a genuine honorary document would use.

      These men are frauds. So you can denounce them as such. But please stop smearing the Catholic Church. The Church has no involvement with them and has given them no sanction or recognition.

      • JR, thank you for your clear and detailed explanation as to why these documents are fakes. You have been the first to present some truth and evidence. Catholic agencies and the Vatican have been notified but have not replied one way or another. If these documents are totally false, this new age doctor and quack faith healer john of god are lying and falsely promoting themselves to the sick, desperate and gullible with the appearance of support and confirmation by the Pope and Catholic Church. This from the Toronto News:
        http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=191563

        • Thank you, and you’re welcome. I’m glad I could help. I grew up in Pentecostal Christianity, in which there are also a lot of self-proclaimed faith healers running around with dubious credentials and living high lives of luxury. So I definitely sympathize, and I wish more people would check up on these folks rather than following them unquestioningly. The only thing I know to do is to pray that their eyes will be opened.

        • Also, one more thing I just thought of: If these people were really honored with a papal knighthood, I know for a fact there would have been a great public ceremony, with photos of them being honored by a cardinal or papal legate if not the pope himself! But they only have these bad photographs of certificates they apparently got without anybody ever hearing of it.

  5. Hi Joseph,

    Your post raises a couple of interesting questions:

    1. If you are not “Roman Catholic” then what are you?

    2. Does your feeling that the title is “inappropriate” give you authority to disregard it?

    3. You wrote – “There is a sense in which my Church and my Christian heritage is indeed Roman, but that is seldom if ever the sense in which anyone uses the term. And so I reject the label. I am not a “Roman” Catholic”. But since when has the Roman Church ever allowed the norm for its followers to be whether or not they perceive a term to be in common usage or not? The true measure for your denomination is the Code of Canon Law. And that Code is explicit in that you are subject to the Bishop of Rome – hence you are a “Roman Catholic” no matter what your perceptions are.

    Aren’t you obliged to follow the Magisterium and not your own intuitions?

    Thanks,

    • Hi, Paul.

      As I said above, I am a Catholic Christian of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. Technically speaking — in accord with the Code of Canon Law — my ordinary pastor is the bishop of Birmingham, Most Rev. Robert Baker, to whom “[is] entrusted … all ordinary, proper, and immediate power which is required for the exercise of his pastoral function.”

      The Catholic Church calls herself the “Catholic Church” — or even just the “Church,” since she is the one and only — not the “Roman Catholic Church.” Because, as I said above, the whole is no more Roman than the United States are Washingtonian. Pick up the Catechism, and it’s called the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I think, if you are concerned about my submission to the Magisterium, you will find my position entirely consistent with theirs, and the label I assume to be the proper and official one.

      The real question is, do your feelings give you the authority to apply inappropriate labels to others?

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