When filling out any number of government documents or certain applications, there is usually a box to self-report religion. Inevitably, one of these boxes, in the English speaking world at least, will read “Roman Catholic.” Growing up, I called myself a “Roman Catholic.” I never thought anything of it. But what does Roman Catholic mean? I have never been to Rome. Am I still a Roman Catholic?
The term “Roman” to describe the universal Catholic Church is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the early Church, for example, the Church in Ephesus, Corinth, Alexandria, or any number of other cities would have respected the primacy of the Pope, the Roman pontiff. But, they would not have said they belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. They would have acclaimed, from the Apostles’ Creed, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Roman directly means the city of Rome. But in modern usage in the English-speaking world, the term Roman Catholic distinguishes the Catholics from the Anglicans and the Orthodox. This term likely originated from the Anglican ecclesial community. The Church Herself, however, has never officially used these terms. Certain Popes have listed the Church as one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and Roman, but they have not done so in an official capacity in defining the Church’s understanding of Herself.
Roman Rite: One of Many Rites
In reality, there are 24 major rites in the Catholic Church. The Roman Rite is actually one of the liturgical expressions of the Latin Rite. The majority of the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world belong to the Latin Rite. However, there are 23 Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, in full communion with the Roman pontiff, the Pope. At the Second Vatican Council, there is a whole document, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, specifically devoted to the Eastern Catholic Churches. These distinct traditions and spiritualities of the East are part of the Catholic tradition, with the same dignity and worth as the Latin Rite.
Therefore, when we use the term Roman Catholic to refer to the universal Church, we give the impression of leaving out our Catholic brothers and sisters in the Eastern Rites. There are many, authentic ways to worship God in the Catholic Church, including the Divine Liturgy in all its forms in the East and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the West. Even in the West, there is the Roman Rite, but there is also the Anglican Ordinariate, the Zaire Use, Mozarabic rite, Benedictine Rite, Dominican Rite, Gallican Rite, Ambrosian Rite, and many others.
Catholic Means Universal
The Church Herself is catholic, which means “universal.” Therefore, the Church of Christ is the Catholic Church. The bishops today are successors of the Apostles who are in union with the Roman pontiff, who is the successor of St. Peter. This collection of bishops, from both the Eastern and Western lungs of the Catholic Church, in union with the Pope, lead the Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic Church, therefore, is only the local Church in Rome. The bishop of Rome is the Pope. The majority of local Catholic Churches (dioceses) in the world are Catholic dioceses of the Latin Rite in which the Roman Rite is the most predominant liturgical expression. Further, the Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, is the leader of the Catholic Church. Therefore, we use the unofficial term Roman Catholic worldwide.
The Catholic Church
A Roman Catholic diocese or a Roman Catholic parish, so named, is referring to predominant liturgical expression of using the Roman Rite of the liturgy. However, following the example of the Second Vatican Council, we ought to use the term Catholic Church when describing the universal Church. If a diocese is particularly Roman, in that the local parishes predominantly use the Roman Rite, we can say “Roman Catholic Diocese of” or “Roman Catholic Parish,” but we ourselves are not Roman Catholics unless we live in Rome. We are Catholics.
That being said, it is perfectly fine to say we are Roman Catholic to show our affinity to the Roman pontiff. We can say we are Roman Catholic to distinguish our certain tradition from our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters who might wish to call themselves Byzantine Catholics, Greek Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, etc. However, we must be careful to recognize the dignity and contributions of the various rites of the universal Catholic Church.
Since the first Council of Nicaea in the 4thCentury, the Church has referred to Herself officially as the Catholic Church. Let us take up this same name found in each of the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council. Catholic Church is the most fitting name for the Church which has a place for everyone regardless of individual rite, customs, or local traditions. All Catholics belong to the one, holy, and apostolic Catholic Church.
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