'Catholic' or 'Roman Catholic'?

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Can the term "Catholic" be modified? Mr Paul McLachlan made two complaints about some common modifiers; each complaint is is grounded in a legitimate concern, but each seems to me to be only half-right.

On the term Roman Catholic, here is Donald Attwater ("A Catholic Dictionary, 3rd ed., 1961), p. 436:

"As every Catholic of whatever rite looks to Rome as the center of the Church and the seat of her supreme pontiff and head, the expression in itself is unobjectionable and is in fact sometimes employed by them, especially in certain countries of Europe. But its use by Catholics is unnecessary and, having regard to its connotation for many non-Catholics, sometimes to be avoided."

Attwater also notes that the First Vatican Council used the phrase "Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church."

Herbert Thurston provides much historical detail on the term (in ways broadly in line with Mr McLachlan's concerns) in his article "Roman Catholic" in the "Catholic Encyclopedia" (see http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/13121a.htm).

But is the use of the modifier "Roman" unnecessary? That depends on the context. One could insist, of course, that "Catholic" without qualification means the Church which is world-wide, doctrinally complete, adapted to the needs of all men, and morally and spiritually perfect (cf. St Cyril of Jerusalem, "Catecheses," 348) and that only the Church headed by the Pope has these characteristics. One might further insist that "Old Catholics", "Polish National Catholics" and others must be designated by a fuller name. But sometimes redundancy adds to clarity; in such cases it is a virtue.

As a sidelight, I might add that the term "Roman Catholic" is not always used to name the entire church. The authors of "Gospodi Pomiluj: Molitvenik za grkokatolike" [Lord Have Mercy: Prayerbook for Greek Catholics] (Belgrade, 1961), which has an imprimatur, distinguishes "Greek Catholics" (Catholics of a Byzantine rite Church) from "Roman Catholics" (Catholics of a Latin rite Church), a distinction which I also heard on a recent trip to the Ukraine. Aren't Greek Catholics also Roman Catholics? That depends on how one is using the terms.

In Syria and Lebanon, apparently, the term "Catholic" without qualification indicates Melkites, so that Maronites don't use the term to describe themselves, though they are no less part of the Catholic Church than are the Irish or Poles.

Whether the term "Roman Catholic" is the best term, a permissible term, or a term to be avoided seems to me to depend rather heavily on the social context. Some places it will enhance clarity, in others it will not. In some, perhaps, it will suggest something that no Catholic should suggest, namely that those who recognize the jurisdiction of the Pope are just one branch of a body which also has other branches which do not recognize the jurisdiction of the Pope but who are no less Catholic for that non-recognition.

Next, a few comments about "liberal Catholics," "orthodox Catholics" "traditional Catholics," and the like.

First, about adjectives in general. It's simply a fact that adjectives can stand in tension with the noun they modify, even contradict it. Or should we also avoid the term "counterfeit money"?

Second, the term "traditional Catholic" has a perfectly ordinary sense and one which leaves it an option, not a requirement that a Catholic be a traditionalist. Some people like Gregorian chant and Latin Masses; other people like guitar music and Mass in the vernacular. Beyond the requirements of Vatican II that chant and the ability to follow the Mass in Latin be cultivated, the Catholic is free to prefer frequent or occasional use of chant and Latin. Thus one may be a traditional or non-traditional Catholic.

Third, there are liberal Catholics. Attwater's definition of a Catholic (p. 81)--"any person who, having been baptized, does not adhere to a non-Catholic religion or perform any act with the intention or effect of excluding him from the Church"--is reasonably good. It is, for example, the one needed when deciding whether the canon law requirement that Catholics be married in the presence of a Catholic priest applies to a given individual. One might define a liberal (in this context) as a person who believes that the individual Catholic is free to reject Church teachings with which he disagrees. The pervasiveness of liberalism in Catholic schools makes it easy to see that someone could innocently believe that such freedom is permissible. ("Doesn't the Church teach freedom of individual conscience?") This view of individual freedom is false of course, but falsity of belief without fault is not sufficient to exclude one from the Church. So there is such a thing as a liberal Catholic. There should not be such, but there are.

Fourth, since there are many people who are liberals and still identify themselves as Catholics, terms such as "orthodox Catholic", while in some sense verging on redundancy, are nevertheless useful. In a context where no clarification is possible, would it not be appropriate for a school to announce that all its teaching staff are orthodox Catholics? Would the loss in clarity of an announcement that the staff were all Catholic (without qualification) really be compensated for by the consolation that we had not even hinted that there are other kinds of Catholics?

Again, this is a case in which logical (or semantic) purity and everyday clarity (or effectiveness in communication) may advance conflicting claims. It is not clear to me why clarity should always give way.

Kenneth W. Kemp Department of Philosophy University of St Thomas St Paul, Minnesota USA

-- Anonymous, June 16, 1998


Response to Catholic or Roman Catholic?

I would note that as a practical matter most Eastern Rite Catholics do not specifically identify themselves as "Roman Catholic", but either use the term "Eastern Catholic" or a more specific term related to their particular Rite (e.g., Byzantine Catholic, Ukranian Catholic, etc.). This is done specifically to distinguish themselves as belonging to a Catholic Rite other than the Roman Rite, and of course is not meant in any way to undermine or otherwise call into question their loyalty to the See of Rome.

Brendan Ross, Esq.

-- Anonymous, June 16, 1998

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