If you’ve ever been confused as to why some folks refer to Catholics as “Roman” – be confused no longer.
Though the term, “Roman Catholic,” is legitimate when understood correctly, it actually originated as “an insult created by Anglicans who wished to refer to themselves as Catholic. They thus coined the term “Roman Catholic” to distinguish those “other” Catholics and create a sense in which they could refer to themselves as Catholics (by attempting to deprive actual Catholics to the right to the term).”1
So how should we understand the term Roman Catholic? Well, In order to understand that, we must first understand what a liturgical rite is.
What’s a rite?
A rite – also known as a liturgical tradition – is an ecclesiastical (church) tradition about how the sacraments are to be celebrated. As the early Church grew and spread, it celebrated the sacraments as would be best understood and received in the context of individual cultures, without ever changing their essential form and matter.2
The Roman rite (also known as the Latin Rite) is one among seven – all of which are in full communion with the Catholic Church.
The other rites?
The liturgical traditions or rites presently in use in the Church are the Latin, Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean.3
Are all rites equal?
Yes! As The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Within the Catholic Church … Canonical rites, which are of equal dignity, enjoy the same rights, and are under the same obligations. Although the particular churches possess their own hierarchy, differ in liturgical and ecclesiastical discipline, and possess their own spiritual heritage, they are all entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman pontiff[emphasis added], the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in the Primacy.”4
Next time someone calls you a Roman Catholic
Unless one is referring specifically to the liturgical rite to which you belong, “Roman” becomes redundant. It’s sort of like asking, are you a “Californian American?” Well, if you live in California, then yes. But whether one is a Californian American, a Texan American or even a Hawaiian american – he’s still American.
PS If you don’t yet know how we got the word Catholic, see my article, When Was Catholic First Used?
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1203.
4. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol XII, 1967 p. 899