Time to drop ’Roman’ from Roman Catholics
by Paul Andrews SJ
As a boy I had a spell in England – Lancashire and London. I had been born into a Catholic family, and I used be puzzled by a word that some of my parents’ Protestant friends used: they spoke of arsees. Gradually I came to realise that they were talking about us Catholics, and that arsees stood for RCs, which stood for Roman Catholics. Sometimes they used it with respect, sometimes with condescension, and sometimes with veiled dislike.
I had never heard Catholics call themselves Roman, so the title remained a puzzling one for me. The BBC had a policy of making a first reference to us in a news story as RC, and calling us Catholic thereafter, so as not to make the disdain too unbearable. Now I have heard presenters on Irish media, who watch too much English TV, talking about arsees, sometimes with a wan ecumenical courtesy, and a deference to the presumed prejudices of their audience.
As I learned the story of the English Reformation, and the conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope over his divorce, it seemed to me that this RC title was part of the effort of the British Establishment to make the ancient Catholic faith of England seem something alien and imported, and to make the Catholic Church seem a foreign sect. The bias was not confined to the establishment. A Methodist minister was showing a Catholic friend over the city of Nottingham, and pointed out a large building as “the Italian mission”. It was only next morning that the visitor realised he had been looking at the Catholic cathedral.
People understand that to call the universal church by a localised name is to diminish it. For us to accept such a naming is to diminish ourselves. We have made many mistakes in the past by being small-minded, and preaching Western or even Italian culture as though it was part of the Gospel. Our greatest missionaries, like Matteo Ricci in China and de Nobili in India, realised that the Gospel can take flesh in any culture, and they set themselves to learn the culture of the countries they served, before seeking a language in which to convey the Good News. As a result the Catholic Church has become, more than any other Christian church, truly catholic and universal. Numbers are not everything; but it is noteworthy that the billion-plus Catholics make up two thirds of the world’s Christians. Half of the remaining third is Orthodox, and the remaining sixth comprises all the Protestants.
A friend objected that by calling ourselves Catholic we deny any other church the right to be considered universal. Not so. The Orthodox have every right to be called orthodox, but that does not stop me from seeing myself as orthodox too. I respect the Baptist church without feeling that its title stops me from baptising. I respect the Presbyterians (presbyter = elder), without feeling that their name denies me the right to be, as I am, an ordained elder. If Quakers wish to be called the Society of Friends I am happy to comply, without feeling that it gives them a monopoly on being friendly. I am content to see the descendants of John Wesley call themselves Methodists, but that does not stop me being methodical in my religious practices. The Episcopalians (episcopos = bishop) have every right to be called such if they wish; it does not mean that no other church is entitled to have its own bishops.
What about the Anglo-Catholics, you may say. Won’t they feel miffed if we call ourselves Catholics tout court? They are a relatively recent phenomenon, God bless them, and a welcome one. But they could not expect that their wish to be called Catholics should entitle them to a veto on our use of a name which we have cherished for two thousand years.
Is it too much to ask that Christians, who are loving one another a bit better nowadays, take a step nearer to the values of Jesus by calling one another what each group prefers? Left to ourselves, our crowd calls itself Catholics. It is a good name, and we like it. We mention it every Sunday in the creed: I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We love the Pope, who happens to live in Rome; we would still love him if he moved to Tokyo, or Texas, or Timbuktu. The name of his current residence has no relevance for what we choose to be called; in fact its use involves a contradiction. The word Catholic means universal. Sticking a place-name in front of it is a contradiction in terms.
Look beyond the Vicar of Christ to the Person of Christ, who said to the woman at the well of Jacob: ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.’ If we accept any name that attempts to limit us locally, we are betraying Jesus.
Part of what triggered this article was a piece by some journalist who, when listing the universal religions of the planet, mentioned smaller and more limited groups like Islam and Buddhism but omitted the Catholic church, which both in its geographical spread, its numbers, and its theology, is open to every land and culture.
In our more ecumenical age it is time to abandon this outdated misnomer “Roman Catholic”, which smells of old animosities. People generally find it offensive to have unchosen titles thrust upon them. It is, if not a human right, at least a normal courtesy, to be called by the name you prefer for yourself. We offer that courtesy to every religious group in sight. It would be strange if we were the only church in a free Ireland that is not allowed to be called by its own chosen name.