Monday, 2 September 2013

Catholic or Roman Catholic?

A reader wrote this in the combox the other day: "You ought you know to refer to your self as Roman Catholic, as there are other churches, notably the Orthodox, which also call themselves Catholic."

It's an interesting point which deserves a fuller reply. Why do I refer to myself as a Catholic rather than as a Roman Catholic? I certainly grew up (as a non-Catholic) referring to my neighbours, the only Catholics I then knew, as "Roman Catholics", and I remember being rather surprised to be told by an Irish priest that the first time he ever came across the phrase "Roman Catholic" was when he came to England.

So, perhaps it would help - as it so often does - if we look at the history of the phrase. The first recorded use of "Roman Catholic" in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from as late as 1581: P. Wiburn Checke or Reproofe M. Howlets Shreeching f. 27, "The profession of ye Gospel followeth not your Romaine Catholikes." 

In other words, as the other examples in OED make abundantly clear, the term "Roman Catholic" is one that was used about Catholics rather than by them. It was, at the very least, a term of disparagement.

So, the simple reason why I call myself a Catholic is because this is what we Catholics call ourselves. And the reason we call ourselves Catholics is because the Church of which we are members is universal, it is Catholic. It is not limited to one city in Italy. It is not, we Catholics believe, just one church among many.

However, there is a sense in which our Church is very much "Roman" Catholic, as Rémi Brague makes clear in his wonderful book, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (or Europe, la voie romaine, to give it its original French title). 

Brague demonstrates not only that Christianity is essentially Roman but that Europe is too. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that: "'Catholicism' does not exist. In any event, not in the sense that it would be an '-ism' as one speaks of Marxism, of liberalism, or of fulanismo ('any-such-ism') dear to Unamuno. Catholicism is not a system of thought, a school, yet less an ideology. 'Catholic' is first of all a characteristic of the Church, one of its 'notes.' It is not a man, me for example, that is Catholic; it is the Church to which he belongs - and which his sin forbids him from identifying with perfectly." To get the full scope of his argument, you really need to read his book. It's well worth it.

So, to summarise, I am proud to be a (Roman) European and a (Roman) Catholic. But I don't think I need to change the name of my blog just yet.

1 comment:

  1. and the Church catholic is in communion with Eastern churches, which are decidedly not Roman.