I am not a Roman Catholic. I was not born in Rome, I have not lived in Rome, heck – I have never even been to Rome. I was, in fact, born in England, and hence, since Irish Catholics are Catholics from Ireland, Mexican Catholics are Catholics from Mexico, I propose that I should be called an English Catholic.
Why is “English Catholic” misleading, and why am I referred to as a Roman Catholic, anyway, even by other Catholics who know I am not Roman? In a very limited sense, the name is not wrong: the Catholic Church’s leader is Bishop of Rome, and what is sometimes referred to as the Holy See is, in fact, the Roman See. Somewhat deeper, the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, referred to the Church as “Sancta Catholica Apostolica Romana Ecclesia,” (Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church). Perhaps that solves the mystery, then, the reason people call me Roman is that Vatican I said so.
Not so fast. The first draft of the document did not actually have the term “Apostolica” in it, and it was added in response to the English speaking bishop’s complaint that the word “Romana” might be deemed to support the Anglican Branch theory, which basically says that the Catholic Church is in fact divided between Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Council did not wish to support such an odd claim. The East, the West and the English together formed the full Catholic Church, according to this theory. Whilst these churches are indeed in schism with respect to each other, they each conserve apostolic succession, and so are true churches. It is not surprising that only Anglicans believe this, and not all of them, at that.1 And yet, if it is the case that I can be called a Roman Catholic just because the First Vatican Council said so, then I can equally be called an Apostolic Catholic or a Holy Catholic. If only the latter were true!
The absurdity of these other adjectives, equally proclaimed by Vatican I, make it clear that it was probably the Anglicans’ doing that I be called a “Roman Catholic.” This does not make it true, for even if one accepts the Vatican I argument, “Roman”, “Apostolic”, “Holy” and even “Catholic” are attributes not of the person, but of the Church. Were I to be ordained a bishop, then I might in some sense be apostolic, were I to become fully sanctified, then I would be holy – there is very little sense in which I will ever become Roman, however.
So I am not a Roman Catholic. I probably should not even be referred to as Catholic, just as Christian, for a Catholic is simply a Christian in the true sense of the term. To think otherwise is to implicitly accept that there is such a thing as, for instance, an English Catholic, distinct from a Roman Catholic. As John Henry Newman pointed out, however, when the Church of England decided to install a bishop in Jerusalem, even the Anglican Branch theory broke down, as when one wishes to install bishoprics where another of the so-called branches of the Church of Christ exists, one denies ipso facto the legitimacy of the others.2 The fact that the Catholic Church exists worldwide, and counts among it English Catholics such as myself testifies that, even if the Church of Christ does not “subsist in” the Catholic Church as she claims it does in Lumen Gentium (the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), it is not Roman other than the limited sense given above, which stands behind the First Vatican Council's statement.
1 For a Catholic treatment of the issue, the CDF’s “Dominus Iesus” is probably the best place to start, and a link to the declaration can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html
2 Well, Newman did not quite say that it broke down, but it was at the very least strained.