This Meta question may sound similar to the Christians.SE vs. Survivor and Brothers, we are not Christians, but really it is about Catholics and determining who is the true Roman Catholic. The truth is, some Christian groups call themselves Catholic, but they really aren't Catholic in the Roman Catholic sense. And some Christians say they are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, but the Vatican refuses to recognize them as such.

Such Catholic (with a capital C) groups include:

  • Evangelical Catholics (aka Lutherans, because Martin Luther thought he was to correct the Catholic Church of his time)
  • Orthodox Catholics (aka Eastern Orthodox Christians)
  • Traditionalist Catholics (Catholics who are against Second Vatican Council)
  • Old Catholics (Catholics who are against papal authority)
  • Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (Catholics whose bishops are selected by the secular government)
  • Roman Catholic Women Priests (explictly say they are affiliated with and identify as Roman Catholics, even without the Vatican's approval)

Now, what do we do on this website? Should we make a point and say who is and who is not "Roman Catholic" by self-identification alone, or should we allow the official Vatican and the Pope's authority to decide?

  • 1
    You might consider revising the question to read: "Who are the true Catholics?" As it stands, it is grammatically incorrect, and does not pose the precise question you seem to be seeking via your additional commentary.
    – DrFry
    Mar 4, 2014 at 15:32
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    Can you point to a question where this distinction matters?
    – Flimzy
    Mar 4, 2014 at 18:45
  • @Flimzy Any question related to Catholicism, I suspect. Though, I don't think there's been much ambiguity so far. I think most of us assume it means Roman Catholic.
    – svidgen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 17:21
  • As @DrFry pointed out, the grammar in the title of this question really bugs me. Is it written in such a way to make a specific point, or is it just bad grammar that we can clean up? :)
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 19:52

2 Answers 2


I don't think this distinction matters in the same way it does for the term Christian. Here's why:

The Roman Catholic Church is an organization, with formal rules for membership, joining, excommunication, etc -- unlike "Christianity." As such, it is well defined who is, and is not "Roman Catholic."

Certainly, there are cases where someone may claim a Roman Catholic identity, but unless this claim is recognized by the governing authority, it is not a valid claim.

There may be situations where an ambiguity arises. But when ambiguity exists, and is relevant to the question, it will be obvious.

As an analogy, it's pretty clearly defined who is a U.S. Citizen and who is not. Any person can claim to be a U.S. Citizen, but unless the U.S. government recognizes the claim as valid, it is not de facto valid.

Having said that, I think a couple of assumptions must be made:

  1. There is a difference between "Catholics" and "The Roman Catholic Church."

    Within the Catholic Church, there are as many opinions as there are Catholics. But within the Catholic Church, there is only one official opinion (admittedly there is often room for disagreement within the official stand, but that's really beside the point).

  2. When one asks "What do Catholics believe about X?" we can only assume they really mean "What does the Roman Catholic Church believe about X?"

    Anything else leads to complete non-sense. We cannot possibly be a platform to poll all Catholics (or the members of any other group) about their opinions on something.

  3. If there ever is a question where the meaning of "Catholic" is ambiguous, because it is about a fringe group, for instance, it must be spelled out.

    To continue the earlier analogy, there have been times when the definition of a U.S. Citizen was ambiguous. Most notably, probably, between 1861 and 1865. A large group of people claimed not to be U.S. citizens, while the government claimed they were.

    A question about U.S. citizens in 1863 would simply be required to explain what it meant by U.S. citizen--as recognized by the north, or the south? The same applies when asking about "Catholics" who may or may not be considered "Catholics" by The Vatican.

  • I'm not sure the wide variety of groups who claim Catholic identity would be happy with being called "fringe groups". Whether a church is truly Catholic is a theological question, and indeed one of those pesky Truth Questions that you've written so well about elsewhere! Mar 5, 2014 at 22:36
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    @lonesomeday: I didn't mean the term in any disrespectful way... I think it's an accurate description. Any group who claims to be part of X, while X denies them, is pretty much "on the fringe"... But if you have a suggestion for a better term, I'm all ears.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 19:50
  • The Church of England consists itself to be part of the Church Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church denies this. It is a crucial disputed question of ecclesiology about some of the main rifts in Christianity. We can't judge the catholicity of the churches any more than the truth of their other doctrines. Mar 6, 2014 at 21:30
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    @lonesomeday: The Church of England does not claim any allegiance to The Vatican, and I can find no such claim that it considers itself to be Catholic. Their web site however does say the Church of England is both 'catholic and reformed', but that is a far cry from a claim of being Roman Catholic.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 22:10
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    We can't judge the catholicity of the churches any more than the truth of their other doctrines. -- the whole point of my post is to disagree with this point of yours. We can judge the "Catholicicity" (capitol C) of any church--are they recognized by The Vatican? It's a simple, fool-proof test.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 22:12
  • Do you understand what "Catholic" means in ecumenical dialogue? It is one of the disputed questions. Your test may be simple and fool-proof, but it's also wrong, because not everyone agrees that the Vatican gets the last word. Read the Church of England's Ordinal, its Creeds or any ecclesiological statement (e.g. Saepius Officio) to see how this is not as simple as you seem to think. Mar 6, 2014 at 22:18
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    @lonesomeday: Of course I understand it. Do you understand the difference between Catholic and catholic? The question, and my answer are talking about the former. You're apparently talking about the latter.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 22:23
  • It's a pretty fine distinction, and I'm not sure I agree with it. But i understand the distinction you're trying to draw, yes. Mar 6, 2014 at 22:24
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    I think it's a pretty clear distinction, used quite widely. One is the demonym of members of a specific organization. The other refers to the church universal.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 22:26
  • It may be common, as I say in my answer above, but it is still controversial. I consider myself a Catholic who is a member of the Church of England, as do many, many others. The wider point is that, irrespective of how the terms are widely used, catholicity, with any case of c, is a disputed doctrinal question, and we can't have a policy on this site about who's right and who's wrong. Mar 6, 2014 at 22:31
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    @lonesomeday: It's not a matter of right or wrong doctrine; it's a question of the meanings of words. "Catholic" (with the capital C) nearly universally means "Roman Catholic." And I think it's fair to assume as much, except when context or explanation dictate otherwise.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 22:33
  • ... which is what I said, in effect. Mar 6, 2014 at 22:35
  • @lonesomeday: Then I guess we're in agreement, for practical purposes. :)
    – Flimzy
    Mar 6, 2014 at 22:39

We should not make the determination. We shouldn't be making any judgement about the validity of the various claims to catholicity of various churches.

If it is relevant to an answer, we should explain a church's claim to catholicity, just as we would explain any other doctrinal or ecclesiological position they might hold. But this site does not have a viewpoint; it does not have an official position. All we are to do is to explain and clarify the positions of various churches.

In general usage, "Catholic" is used to refer to the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and it's not unreasonable to use it in that way in the absence of any other information. But it is not up to us to determine if that is right.

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