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This article discusses the term "Roman Catholic", its usage and origin. For the structure and theology of the "Roman Catholic Church" as an institution, please see Catholic Church.

Emblem of the Papacy

The term Roman Catholic first appeared in the English language in the 16th century to differentiate specific groups of Christians in communion with the Pope from others. It has continued to be widely used in the English language ever since, although its usage has changed over the centuries. It is now even used to distinguish different groups of Catholics who recognize the Pope, e.g., those who belong to the Western (i.e. Latin Rite) Church from those who belong to the Eastern Catholic Churches.[1]

The Catholic Church consists of 23 autonomous Churches, one "Western" and 22 "Eastern", governed by two sets of Codes of Canon Law.[2] To refer to all 23 autonomous Churches together, official Church documents often use the term "Catholic Church" or, less frequently, the term "Roman Catholic Church". The usage that makes the term "Roman Catholic" mean members of the Latin Rite or Western Church to the exclusion of those who belong to the Eastern Catholic Churches does not appear in recent documents of the Holy See.

In popular usage, "Catholic Church" is usually understood to mean the same as "Roman Catholic Church". In some compound forms such as "Roman Catholic Worship", the term is used to differentiate Western practices.

Origin and use of the term

16th and 17th centuries

Woodcut depicting a "Popish priest" being rebuked by 16th-century English clergyman Thomas Taylor; the National Gallery, London.

The roots of the term Roman Catholic may be traced to the differences between English Catholics who remained loyal to the Pope from those who acknowledged the Elizabethan Settlement which re-established the Church of England’s independence from Rome in 1559.

The terms "Romish Catholic" and "Roman Catholic", along with "Popish Catholic", were probably originated in the English language by Protestants (who at times called themselves Protestant Catholics) who were not willing to concede the term Catholic to their opponents without qualification.[3]

The reign of Elizabeth I of England at the end of the 16th century was marked by conflicts in Ireland. Those opposed to English rule forged alliances with those against Protestant reformation, making the term Roman Catholic almost synonymous with being Irish during that period, although that usage changed significantly over time.[4]

Like the term Anglican, the term Roman Catholic came into widespread use in the English language only in the 17th century.[5] The terms "Romish Catholic" and "Roman Catholic" were both in use in the 17th century and "Roman Catholic" was used in some official documents, such as those relating to the Spanish Match in the 1620s. There was, however, significant tension between Anglicans and Roman Catholics at the time (as reflected in the Test Act for public office). Even today, the Act of Settlement 1701 still prohibits Roman Catholics from becoming English monarchs.

18th and 19th centuries

The official and popular uses of the term Roman Catholic in the English language grew in the 18th century. Up to the reign of George III, Catholics in Britain who recognized the Pope as head of the Church had generally been designated in official documents as "Papists". In 1792, however, this phraseology was changed and in the Speech from the Throne, the term "Roman Catholic" was used.[6]

Saint Mary's "Roman Catholic Mission", built in 1866 in Stevensville, Montana.

By early 19th century, the term Roman Catholic had become well established in the English-speaking world. As the movement that led to Catholic Emancipation through the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 grew, many — though not all — Anglicans and Protestants generally began to accept that being a Roman Catholic was not synonymous with being disloyal to the British government. While believing that in the past the term Roman Catholic may have been synonymous with rebel, they held that it was by then as indicative of loyalty as membership in any other Christian denomination.[7] The situation had been very different two centuries before, when Pope Paul V forbade English members of his Church from taking an oath of allegiance to King James I, a prohibition that not all of them observed.[8]

Also in the 19th century, prominent Anglican theologians such as Palmer and Keble supported the Branch Theory, which viewed the universal Church as having three principal branches: Anglican, Roman and Eastern.[9] The 1824 issue of The Christian Observer defined the term Roman Catholic as a member of the Roman Branch of the Church.[10] By 1828, speeches in the English parliament routinely used the term Roman Catholic and referred to the "Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church".[11]

In the United States, the use of the term Roman Catholic and indeed the number of Roman Catholics began to grow only in the early 19th century, given that in 1790 there were only 100 Roman Catholics in New York and some 30,000 in the whole United States, with 29 priests.[12] As the number of Roman Catholics in the United States grew rapidly from 150,000 to 1.7 million between 1815 and 1850 — mostly by way of immigration from Ireland and Germany — the clergy followed the people to serve them, and Roman Catholic parishes were established.[13] The terms "Roman Catholic" and "Holy Roman Catholic" thus gained widespread use in the United States in the 19th century, both in popular usage and within official documents.[14][15][16] In 1866 President Andrew Johnson attended a meeting of the Council of the Roman Catholic Church.[17]

20th century

American Catholics, who by the year 1900 were 12 million people and had a predominantly Irish clergy,[18] objected to what they considered the reproachful terms Popish and Romish and preferred the term Roman Catholic.[19]

In the early 20th century, the use of the term Roman Catholic continued to spread within the United States and Canada, to refer to individuals, parishes and their schools. For instance, the 1915 Report of the Commissioner of Education of the United States had a specific section for "Roman Catholic Parish Schools".[20] By 1918, legal proceedings in state supreme courts (from Delaware to Minnesota) and laws passed in the State of New York used the term "Roman Catholic parish".[21][22]

By the middle of the 20th century the use of the term Roman Catholic was widely established in the United States and a 1957 survey by the United States Census Bureau determined that 25% of the US population applied the term Roman Catholic to themselves.[23]

Name of the Church

Saint Ignatius of Antioch first used the term "Catholic Church" (literally meaning universal church) in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans around 100 AD.[24]

The Branch Theory and its implication that the Church in Rome was but a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was rejected by the Vatican. In 1864, in a condemnation of the Branch Theory, the Holy Office wrote a letter to the English Bishops affirming that the Roman Church is not just a part of the Catholic Church and stated that "there is no other Catholic Church except that which is built on the one man, Peter ...."

A few years later, at the First Vatican Council in 1870, objections were raised to the expression "Holy Roman Catholic Church" which appeared in the schema on the Catholic Faith. It was proposed that the word "Roman" be omitted. While the Council overwhelmingly rejected this proposal, the text was modified to read "The Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church".[25] The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s did not use the term "Roman Catholic Church",[26] and in one important passage replaced it with an equivalent phrase, "the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in union with that successor", while also giving in a footnote a reference to two earlier documents in which the word "Roman" was used explicitly.[27]

Throughout the years, in various instances, official Church documents have used both the terms "Catholic Church" and "Roman Catholic Church" to refer to the worldwide Church as a whole, including Eastern Catholics, as when Pope Pius XII taught in Humani Generis that "the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing".[28] However, some Easterners, though in communion with the Bishop of Rome, apply the adjective "Roman" to the Latin or Western Church alone. Representatives of the Catholic Church are at times required to use the term "Roman Catholic Church" in certain dialogues, especially in ecumenical milieu, since some Protestants consider themselves authentic instances of Catholic faith.[29]

In the 21st century, the three terms Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Catholic Church continue to appear in various books and publications, and scholarly debates on the proper form of reference to the Catholic Church within specific contexts continue. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not contain the term "Roman Catholic Church", referring to the Church only by names such as "Catholic Church" (as in its title),[30] while the Advanced Catechism Of Catholic Faith And Practice states that the term Roman is used within the name of the Church to emphasize that the center of unity of the Church is the Roman See.[31]

Current usage

Mass being celebrated at the Vietnamese American "Roman Catholic Festival", Marian Days, 2007.

See also: Terminology of Eastern Catholic Churches

The term Roman Catholic is generally used on its own to refer to individuals, and in compound forms to refer to worship, parishes, festivals, etc. Its usage has varied, depending on circumstances.[32] It is sometimes identified with one or other of the terms "Catholic", "Western Catholic" (equivalent to "Latin Catholic"), and "Roman-Rite Catholic".

"Roman Catholic" and "Catholic"

In popular usage, "Catholic" usually means "Roman Catholic",[33] a usage decried by some, including some Protestants.[34] "Catholic" usually refers to members of any of the 23 constituent Churches, the one Western and the 22 Eastern. The same meaning is attributed also to "Roman Catholic" in documents of the Holy See, talks by Popes and in newspapers.[35]

When used in a broader sense, the term Catholic is distinguished from "Roman Catholic" which has connotations of allegiance to the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the Pope. In this broader sense, "Catholic" also refers to many other Christians, especially Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans, but also to others, including Old Catholics and various independent Catholic Churches, who consider themselves to be living within the "catholic" tradition.[36] They describe themselves as "Catholic", but not "Roman Catholic" and not under the authority of the Pope.

"Roman Catholic" and "Western or Latin Catholic"

The term "Roman Catholic" is also used to refer to Western (i.e. Latin) Catholics, excluding Eastern Catholics. An example is the statement in the book When other Christians become Catholic:

"...the individual becomes Eastern Catholic, not Roman Catholic".[37]

Similarly the Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth states that

"...not all Catholics are Roman Catholics and there are other Catholic Churches",

using the term "Roman Catholic" to refer to Western Church members alone.[38] The same distinction is made by writers in the Eastern Catholic Churches.[39][40][41] That this view is not the only one, especially perhaps at popular level, is shown by the use of terms such as "Byzantine Roman Catholic" and "Maronite Roman Catholic" as self-identification by individuals or as the name of a church building.[42] Additionally, in other languages, the usage varies significantly.[43][44][45]

Although the Catholic Church has Western and Eastern branches, many, even Catholics, are unaware, or only dimly aware of this fact, partly because, outside the Middle East, Eastern Catholics are a small fraction of the total number of Catholics.[46]

"Roman Catholic" and "Roman-Rite Catholic"

Celebration of the older form ("Tridentine Mass") of the Roman Rite.

When referring to worship, the term Roman Catholic is at times used to refer to the "Roman Rite", which is not a church but a form of liturgy. The Roman Rite is distinct from the liturgies of the Eastern Catholic Churches and also from other Western liturgical rites such as the Ambrosian Rite, which have a much smaller following than the Roman Rite.

An example of this usage is provided in the book Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to today states:[47]

"We use the term Roman Catholic Worship throughout to make it clear that we are not covering all forms of Catholic worship. There are a number of Eastern Rite churches that can justly claim the title Catholic, but many of the statements we make do not apply to them at all.".

The oldest extant missal containing the text of the Dominican Rite, one of the Latin liturgical rites distinct from the Roman Rite.

Compared to the Roman Rite, the other Western liturgical rites have little following. Hence, the Vatican department that deals with forms of worship (including music) in the Western Church often issues documents that deal only with the Roman Rite.[48] [49][50] Any involvement by the Holy See in questions of Eastern liturgies is handled by a different department.

Some of the writers who draw a contrast between "Roman Catholics" and "Eastern Catholics" may perhaps be distinguishing Eastern Catholics not from Latin or Western Catholics in general, but only from those (the majority of Latin Catholics) who use the Roman liturgical rite. Adrian Fortescue explicitly made this distinction, saying that, just as "Armenian Catholic" is used to mean a Catholic who uses the Armenian rite, "Roman Catholic" could be used to mean a Catholic who uses the Roman Rite. In this sense, he said, an Ambrosian Catholic, though a member of the Latin or Western Church, is not a "Roman" Catholic. He admitted, however, that this usage is uncommon.[51]

Parishes and dioceses

When the term "Roman Catholic" is used as part of the name of a parish it usually indicates that it is a Western parish that follows the Roman Rite in its liturgy, rather than, for instance, the less common Ambrosian Rite, e.g. St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church, Oyster Bay, New York.[6][7][8] The shorter term "Catholic" may also appear in parish names and "Roman Catholic" sometimes even appears in the compound name of Eastern Catholic parishes, e.g. St. Mary's Byzantine Roman Catholic Church.[52]

All Catholic parishes are part of an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, usually a diocese (called an eparchy in the canon law of the Eastern Catholic Churches).[53] These jurisdictions are usually grouped in ecclesiastical provinces, headed by a metropolitan archdiocese.[54] All dioceses and similar jurisdictions — Eastern and Western — come under the authority of the Pope.[55] The term "Roman Catholic archdiocese" is formally used to refer to both Western and Eastern Churches. As of January 2009, there were 630 Roman Catholic archdioceses, Western and Eastern.[56]

See also


  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, 1985, The Christian Tradition University of Chicago Press ISBN 0226653773 page 245
  2. The latest Code of Canon Law for the Western Church was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 with the apostolic constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges [1] In contrast, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, i.e., the other 22 Churches, which are not Latin Rite, dates to 1990 [2]. Each of these Eastern Church has its own additional canon law (cf. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 64).
  3. Catholic encyclopedia
  4. Charles Hefling, 2006 The Oxford guide to the Book of common prayer Oxford University Press ISBN 0195297563 page 202
  5. A.C. Hamilton, 1997 The Spenser encyclopedia, University of Toronto Press, ISBN 0802079237, page 160
  6. William Lecky 2001, A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century Adamant Media ISBN 1421211254 page 134
  7. The Critical Review, Series III, Volume XI (May 1807), page 104. Published by Pickering & Chatto, London, page 104
  8. Lisa McClain, 2003 Lest we be damned: practical innovation and lived experience among Catholics in Protestant England ISBN 0415967902 pages 257-268
  9. Paul Avis 2002, Anglicanism and the Christian church T&T Clark Publishers, ISBN 0567088499 page 221
  10. The Christian Observer, Volume 23, 1824, page 133
  11. Robert Inglis, 1828, On the Roman Catholic question, published by J. Hatchard, Piccadilly, London, 1828.
  12. John Fletcher Hurst, Short History of the Church in the United States, A.D. 1492-1890, published by Bibliolife, 2008, ISBN 0554544997, page 82
  13. Erwin Fahlbusch, The encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4, Eardsman Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0802824161, page 626
  14. The United States Catholic magazine and monthly review, 1847, page 564
  15. José Baralt, 1999, The policy of the United States towards its territories, University of Puerto Rico Press, ISBN 084770341X, page 119
  16. James Hitchcock, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life Princeton Univ Press, 2004, ISBN 0691116962, page 165
  17. James J. Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States, Oxford University Press, 1983, ISBN 0195032683, page 159
  18. William D'Antonio, 2001 American Catholics AltaMira Press ISBN 0759100411 page 1
  19. Israel Rupp, 1861 Religious denominations in the United States Desilver Publishers, Philadelphia page 137
  20. Report of the Commissioner of Education United States Office of Education, 1915, page 560
  21. Atlantic Reporter, Volume 98, 1917, West Publishing Co. Saint Paul, MN, page 521
  22. Annotated consolidated laws of the state of New York, 1918, The State of New York, page 7635
  23. Thomas McAvoy, 1960 Roman Catholicism and the American way of life Ayer Publishing, ISBN 0836981677 page 21
  24. John Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church, St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1997, ISBN 0881410063, page 7
  25. Avery Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church, Oxford University Press, 1987, ISBN 0198266952, page 131
  26. Kenneth Whitehead, How did the Catholic Church get Her name?, EWTN[3]
  27. Dulles, page 132
  28. Encyclical Humani Generis, 27
  29. Bud Heckman, Interactive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook‎, Skylight Path Press, 2008, ISBN 159473237X, page 235
  30. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued by Pope John Paul II in 1992 on the basis of a French text (the English translation appeared only in 1994). The official Latin text, with a few revisions, appeared in 1997, and later editions in English and other languages are based on that text. The definitive English translation is available on the Holy See's website and has been printed under the auspices of various Episcopal Conferences.
  31. Thoms O'Brian, An Advanced Catechism Of Catholic Faith And Practice, Kessinger Publishers, 2005, ISBN 1417984473, page 70
  32. Earle E. Cairns, 1996 Christianity through the centuries Zondervan Press ISBN 0310208122 page 452
  33. J.C. Cooper, Dictionary of Christianity (Taylor & Francis, Inc. 1996 ISBN 9781884964497), p. 47
  34. James Hastings Nichols, Primer for Protestants (Kessinger Publishing Company 2004 ISBN 9781417998241), p. 9
  35. The New York Times Topic: Roman Catholic Church
  36. Thomas P. Rausch, Catherine E. Clifford, Catholicism in the Third Millennium (Glazier, Michael, Incorporated 2003 ISBN 9780814658994), p. 248. See also the List of Christian denominations#Catholicism, in which the "Catholicism" section includes the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and other Churches that call themselves Catholic.
  37. Paul Turner, 2007 When other Christians become Catholic Liturgical Press ISBN 0814662161 page 141
  38. Brian Singer-Towns, 2003 The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth Saint Mary's Press ISBN 0884897591 page 105
  39. Fran Colie, Roman or Melkite, What's the Difference?
  40. Descy, Serge (1993). The Melkite Church. Boston: Sophia Press. p. 92-93. 
  41. Faulk, Edward (2007). 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-8091-4441-9. 
  42. See examples given below in the discussion of names of parish churches.
  43. E.g. Arabic-speaking Melkite Catholics occassionally identify themselves as Rum Katolique, which refers to the "New Rome" of Constantinople, home of the Melkite's Byzantine-rite heritage (Faulk, p. 7). On the other hand, the Maronites, who are also Arabic-speaking, but for whom the Patriarch of Constantinople is schismatic, call themselves Roman Catholics with reference to the Rome of the Popes.
  44. "Surrounded by Mussulmans, schismatics, and heretics, they are proud to call themselves Roman Catholics" ( "Maronites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  45. Faulk, Edward (2007). 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches. New York: Paulist Press,. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-8091-4441-9. 
  46. Joseph A. Varacalli, 2005 The Catholic experience in America Greenwood Press ISBN 0313325839 pages 125
  47. James White 2003, Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today, Liturgical Press, ISBN 0814661947 page xv
  48. E.g. see Musicam Sacram [4] and Redemptionis Sacramentum[5]
  49. Jan Michael Joncas, 1997 From Sacred Song to Ritual Music: Twentieth-Century Understandings of Roman Catholic Worship Music Liturgical Press ISBN 0814623522 page 6
  50. Donald Boccardi, 2001 The history of American Catholic hymnals: since Vatican II GIA Press ISBN 1579991211 page 115
  51. Adrian Fortescue, 2001 The Uniate Eastern Churches Gorgias Press ISBN 0971598630 page 3
  52. Examples are St. Anthony Maronite Roman Catholic Church, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary Byzantine Roman Catholic Church
  53. For areas that are not part of a diocese or eparchy, the Church usually establishes another form of jurisdiction, e.g., apostolic vicariate, exarchate (for Eastern Catholic Churches), apostolic prefecture, territorial prelature, or mission sui juris. In special cases, the Holy See establishes an apostolic administration, as was the case when the Church began to re-establish itself in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are also military ordinariates with "parishes" on military bases. For further information, see Catholic Church hierarchy#Equivalents of Diocesan Bishops in law. See also List of Roman Catholic dioceses (alphabetical).
  54. Some dioceses are not part of an ecclesiastical province. See List of Roman Catholic dioceses (structured view)#Dioceses that are immediately subject to the Holy See.
  55. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canons 43 and 45; Code of Canon Law, canons 331 abd 333
  56. See List of Roman Catholic archdioceses.