I recently saw a comment from a user saying that the term Roman Catholic is derogatory. Is this the widely considered to be the case?

There are various terms I have seen applied to the Catholic church which I am certain are derogatory (I'm not going to list the more obvious ones here because they are obvious). I'm pretty sure Papism, the Popish religion etc. are broadly frowned upon. I also think that Romanism is also not liked by adherents to the faith though I have seen it printed in a lot of books.

I can see that Catholicism by itself could be problematic in that it could refer to Eastern rites, there is a catholic wing to other churches like the Anglican church and people can be sloppy with capitalisation on the internet. Roman Catholicism seems sensible when you are trying to be specific: is it really thought of as derogatory? Is there a better term? Would Latin Rite of the Catholic Church be more acceptable even though it's a bit of a mouthful?

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    For the record, I've never seen anyone be offended by "Roman Catholic". I haven't seen every single comment, though, but that does lead me to consider this a minor issue that we don't really need to worry about. +1 nonetheless for raising the question! Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 14:47
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    Okay, amendment, now I have. Still, it's not something I've seen often. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 15:12

2 Answers 2


Although the term "Roman Catholicism" nowadays is seldom intended in a derogatory way, it is not a term that originated in the Catholic Church, nor is it a term that the Church applies to itself, at least in its recent official documents.

The origin of the term "Roman Catholic" seems to have been 16th or 17th-century England, where it was used to distinguish Anglican Christians ("English" Catholics) from Christians in communion with the Bishop of Rome ("Roman" Catholics). In post-Elizabethan England, the term certainly had a derogatory connotation, because Catholics were often seen or portrayed as traitors (since, according to that point of view, they obeyed a foreign monarch). (See the Wikipedia article on this topic.)

Later on, in the 19th Century, the term came to be associated with the so-called Branch Theory. The idea is that the Catholic Church came to be divided in to three great groups, each with an equal claim to descend from the original Catholic, or Universal, Church: the Anglican Church, the Orthodox Church, and (what proponents of the Branch Theory called) the Roman Catholic Church.

Eventually, the term came to be accepted even by Catholics themselves, as a way of emphasizing their loyalty to the Bishop of Rome.

However, the term is misleading in a number of ways: it could lead people to make a false identification between the Western or Latin Church with the Catholic Church, whereas in fact the Catholic Church consists of 23 autonomous Churches of equal dignity, only one of which is the Western Church (albeit the largest in number of members). In those 23 Churches, there is a wide variety of liturgical practice and theological tradition (although all are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and profess the same faith).

Moreover, it could lend credence to the Branch Theory, and in that way undermine the Catholic Church's claim to be the universal Church.

Finally, the "Roman Catholic" Church could be confused with what is properly the Roman Church, that is, the Church or Diocese of Rome itself; such a confusion might give rise to an excessive "Ultramontanism" (an exaggerated opinion of the authority and jurisdiction of the Pope).

For these reasons, official Church documents, at least from Vatican II onward (including the Catechism of the Catholic Church) avoid the term "Roman Catholic" entirely.

I think it would, therefore, be appropriate to follow suit. Not everyone accepts the claim of the Catholic Church to be the universal Church, just as not everyone accepts the claim of the Orthodox Churches, say, to have all the right doctrine (orthodoxia), but it seems a token of respect to use the name preferred by the church in question.

  • Great post. I almost think it belongs on the main site. You should draft a less meta sounding question and post that and this on the main site.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 19:31
  • Do the Eastern Catholic Churches have their own popes?
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 0:03
  • Not exactly, but each one has either a patriarch or a major archbishop. (The Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt is commonly called the Pope of Alexandria for historical reasons, although that usually refers to the Coptic, not the Catholic, Patriarch.) The Bishop of Rome, however, has jurisdiction over all the patriarchs and major archbishops. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 10:33

I brought up this question here already, it's not as if anyone in the 21st century is going to get offended, but AFAIK, the term Roman Catholicism didn't appear (not unlike the term Christianity) until the time of the Protestant Reformation and was used by Protestant Reformers to describe people who were not them in a not good light.

If you were a disinterested party, it would not be derogatory, it's exactly like an French explorer calling the Lakota Nation the Sioux Nation.

The Catholic Church is universal first and Roman second. It's universal because when we go tromping through the stars, it's the Church that we want to be out there tromping around. It's universal because we proclaim Jesus Christ King of the Universe. It's only Roman because we use a dialect that we inherited from the Latins who were conquered by the Romans and our first leader chose to go and preach and die there. That's important, but in the end, it's kind of arbitrary.

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    So is Catholic Roman Church better? I can't think of any at the moment, but I bet there are words that were derogatory at first but have evolved into something benign because of common use for disambiguation. Though I agree that "Roman Catholic" might have been said with a sneer 500 years ago, I've never seen anyone intend it to be a slur today.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 15:34
  • So you think it is OK if you are not using the term to attack the Roman Catholic church? (And this comment would be correct usage?) Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 15:34
  • @Reluctant_Linux_User I think it's obvious that we have a very strict no hate speech policy. The community usually kills those posts pretty fast. The only scenario where it becomes acceptable to parrot what is said by these people is when there is a question abut it.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 15:38
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    @fredsbend no it's not a big deal, but it is the reason catholicism is the main tag and roman-catholic is a synonym (because I made a stink about it at the inception of the site, which was was the OP was originally asking in that question, I didn't mean to start a minor internet controversy)
    – Peter Turner Mod
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 15:49
  • @Reluctant_Linux_User don't ask me, I don't believe in hate speech.
    – Peter Turner Mod
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 15:56
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    The term "Christian" was first used in a derogatory fashion by those who ridiculed the sect. As it's current most broadly understood connotation is simply a factual identifier I don't think that's a reason not to use it. Nor do I think that argument holds any water for Roman Catholicism.
    – Caleb
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 16:18
  • @Caleb, the term "Christianity" was fashioned by Protestants who thought they could suck the philosophy out of Jesus' teaching. I didn't know that until I read Hilaire Belloc, who makes quite a few startling observations and predictions concerning Protestantism. I'm starting to think he and Chesterton were like the No Agenda podcast of the early 20th century.
    – Peter Turner Mod
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 16:33
  • @PeterTurner Oh, okay, that makes more sense. I wasn't trying to start a controversy either. I was just confused about this a bit. I'm fine with the tags they way they are, so there's nothing to argue about, afaict.
    – user3961
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 16:48
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    This argument would make sense if you had a legitimate claim to call yourselves the Catholic church in the first place. Excluding the Protestants is fine, but when you exclude the Orthodox churches, some of which could be even older than the See of Roman, it's a claim that doesn't hold up.
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 0:10
  • @curious just wait another 20-30 years and we may see that get fixed, please God!
    – Peter Turner Mod
    Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 3:12

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