Recently a Roman Catholic ecquaintance of mine wrote here about his dissatisfaction with the first part of his denomination’s name, i.e. “Roman”.    It seems that the geographic label is used against him in his apologetic interactions with Protestants.  And my friend is rather tired of being “beat ‘round the ears” with the label and so is justifying his cessation of its use.

I understand the nature of his objection to be:

  1. “Roman” is just part of what he calls “modern nomenclature” and is therefore not important.
  2. If he can describe himself as a “Christian” he may be absolved from using “Roman” in his self-description.
  3. Membership in a local parish or diocese is all that is necessary to be Catholic.
  4. There is only one diocese in the world that can accurately be described as “Roman Catholic”.

To begin, we must assert the official dogmatic position of the Roman Church with regard to its nature.  According to Roman dogma,

The Church is a society instituted by Christ God…; a people one in faith, end, and things conducing to that end; subject to one and the same power, a society divine in origin…  It is a society perfect and independent…; an immutable organization…with the right to possess even temporal things…and with temporal power…it is one (in faith, rule, and communion…) and unique…, holy… catholic… apostolic… which is Roman….” etc.[i]

So we see here, at the outset, that the descriptor “Roman” is as important to Catholic self-description as being “instituted by Christ God”.  And likewise, it is not something capriciously to be discarded.

In fact, it is an intricate part of “Tradition” so that Denzinger traces the formality of the use of “Roman Catholic” through the last 800 years of Church History.

One example from the Council of Lyon (1274) may be cited:

Also this same holy Roman Church holds the highest and complete primacy and spiritual power over the universal Catholic Church which she truly and humbly recognizes herself to have received with fullness of power form the Lord Himself in Blessed Peter, the chief or head of the Apostles whose successor is the Roman Pontiff.[ii]

And this idea of “complete primacy” was extended later to the Bishop of Rome.  Here is Vatican I:

Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance,the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate.

Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world.[iii]

In sum, being a “Roman” Catholic is not just nomenclature – it is dogma.  And being Roman Catholic means that one is primarily a member of the “Roman” church and secondarily a member of a local diocese and parish.  Further, being a Roman Catholic means acknowledging that the Pope of Rome has a “primacy of jurisdiction” over you and that that primacy is both “ordinary” and “episcopal”.  In other words, a Roman Catholic owes his first allegiance to the Bishop of Rome and secondarily to his local “ordinary”.  Those are the rules set out by Rome and it therefore is of no consequence how one local parishioner thinks he can change his name.

I firmly believe that if good, well-meaning Catholics like my equaintance want to become Roman Catholics, then we have a duty to help them understand the magnitude of their decision.

They are not free to change their name, no matter how much that puts them out.

Soli Deo Gloria.

[i] Denzinger, Henry.  The Sources of Catholic Dogma.  Trans. Roy J. Deferrari from the Thirtieth Edition of Henry Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum.  New York. Preserving Christian Publications, 2009.  Systematic Index Iia.  Nihil Obstat: Dominic Hughes, O.P.  Imprimatur:  Patrick A. O’Boyle, Archsbishop of Washington.

[ii] Denzinger, op. cit.  460, 466.

[iii] Decrees of the First Vatican Council, Session 4, Chapter 3: On the power and character of the primacy of the Roman pontff. 3. On the power and character of the primacy of the Roman pontiff