Monday, January 07, 2008

"Roman" Catholic?

That Lutheran spitfire, Martin Marty, takes on his (I think) friend, Andrew Greeley, in his Sightings column this morning. (Sightings is a twice-weekly e-mail-by-subscription offered by the Marty Center at the U of Chicago Divinity School. Once a week Brother Martin contributes a column, and once a week someone else offers thoughts. They deal, in the broad sense, on the issues of Church life and life in the world.) I think his response to Father Andrew is manifestly correct. See what you think (I think this constitutes fair use, but if I violate any copyright provision, I will remove the reprint immediately upon my being notified):

Sightings 1/7/08

The "Roman" in Roman Catholic

-- Martin E. Marty

Friend and neighbor Father Andrew Greeley, sociologist, novelist, and columnist, reminded me in a recent e-mail that he liked to be called a "Catholic," not a "Roman Catholic." In his January 2nd Chicago Sun-Times column, he elaborates: "My crowd has been calling themselves 'Catholic' for 17 centuries. The adjective "Roman" added in the American context is a slur, sometimes unintentionally conveyed in the tone of the one using it. It hints that we are somehow foreign and perhaps subversive. It came into use when the 'publics' started to recite the Nicene Creed and their leaders had to explain that the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church' of the creed wasn't us." He then goes on to comment on how the media have allowed some "Evangelicals" to preempt the space once labeled "Christian."

There is no question that Protestant meanies in America once spit out variants such as "Roman" (without "Catholic") or "Romish" or "Romanist" or, worse, "Papist" or "Jesuitical," with purely pejorative intent. Turn over a plank and you may still find some creepy-crawly critters, anti-Catholic to the core, who speak or write that way. But I would argue that today, "Roman" is used neutrally or even positively. First, it is not an "American" usage; as shown in almost all ecumenical documents involving Roman—oops!—Catholics with the World Council of Churches. There, "Roman Catholic Church" is standard, as it is when there is dealing with the distinct Eastern Catholic Churches. (There are also "Anglo-Catholics," and others who have some sort of identifier.) "Roman" also appears in some papal and conciliar documents issued from Rome. And we "publics" did not "start" using the Nicene Creed in recent America. "My crowd," Evangelical Lutherans, have recited, professed, and I hope lived the Nicene Creed with the "catholic" phrase in it for centuries.

Names are important, as I had to remind a friend who thought discussion of names was insignificant compared to cosmic events like " Iowa" and "New Hampshire ." Wars start over pejorative and sometimes even innocently used labels. "Catholic" and "Roman Catholic" are not the only complexities these days. More urgent, most urgent, is the task of dealing in a fair way with the many, many brands of Christians who get lumped together as "Evangelicals," especially in political discourse, where they get miscast simply as "the Christian right." More examples: Luther and Lutherans did not choose their name. None of us liked being label "ecclesial communities" instead of "churches" by Pope Benedict XVI, but we'll live with it. "Mainline Protestants" didn't and don't like their name, which is usually used pejoratively by non-Protestants, most of whom never liked and few ever use the accidentally applied term "Protestant" itself. But hang around inter-faith and Christian ecumenical crowds and you will find that today "Roman" before the word "Catholic Church" is used mainly by its friends. You can tell by the tone, which is never condescending or motivated by suspicion of another crowd.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

1 comment:

Pastor Zip said...

Dr. Marty writes: "My crowd," Evangelical Lutherans, have recited, professed, and I hope lived the Nicene Creed with the "catholic" phrase in it for centuries.

I'm not sure which "crowd" of Lutherans Dr. Marty is referring to, but I think his memory is faulty.

When the Creeds were translated into German by the 15th Century, well before the Reformation, the Latin catholicam was rendered christliche. It was replaced in the Catholic Church with katholische some time after the Reformation, but Lutherans stayed with christliche. English-speaking American Lutherans, apparently translating the creeds from the German, used "Christian" until the LBW (even though their non-German mother tongues usually said "universal" or "catholic," and the Book of Common Prayer which taught them English liturgical texts also used "catholic.").

Well, perhaps some took advantage of the asterisk next to "Christian" in the SBH, which noted the more ancient "catholic." But was that a choice in Dr. Marty's LCMS?