Names, Revisited

Back here I discussed why it irritated me that a translation of the Gospel of Thomas that I was reading used the Aramaic forms of the names of the people mentioned within it (“Yeshua” for Jesus, “Thoma” for Tomas, and so on), instead of the more familiar forms of the names.  More broadly, while such complaints may seem trivial, they’re not, really.  The way you refer to something implies and even to an extent determines the way you think about it, relate to it, and act with regard to it.  As Philip K. Dick said, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” What we call something matters.

As far back as my third post here, I noted that I object to the term “Roman Catholic”, preferring just plain “Catholic”.  I’ve reiterated that view at times over the course of my writing on the blog, but I’ve never explained my reasons for that objection.  Those reasons are exactly what I am going to discuss now.

The earliest followers of Jesus were, of course, Jews, and didn’t think of themselves as anything otherwise.  They were merely Jews who believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah, or in Greek, the Christ.  Within a very short time after the Resurrection of Christ, however, the faith began to spread among the Gentiles.  Eventually, the Apostles decided that Gentile converts need not be circumcised or follow Jewish ritual law to join the Church.  From that point on, two things happened.  First, Gentiles began entering the Church in droves, the faith spreading like wildfire among them.  Second, it was no longer tenable to view Christ’s followers as Jews.

The term that was used by the believers themselves in these early days was simply “The Way” ( ἡ ὁδός in Greek).  “The Way” is used several times in Acts, for example:  Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, and 24:22.  It is also used in the earliest Christian document outside the New Testament, the Didache.  Outsiders, not knowing quite what to make of the Followers of the Way, often referred to them as “Nazoreans”, after Jesus the Nazorean (see Acts 24:5).

Eventually, at some point, probably in the 40’s AD, in the city of Antioch, the followers of Jesus Christ were first called “Christians”. (Acts 11:26)  What most moderns don’t realize is that this was intended as a slur.  “Christianos“–a Greek root with a borrowed Latin suffix, was equivalent to calling someone a “Christer” or a “Christie”.  It’s the same way that the followers of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, were referred to back in the 70’s as “Moonies”.  This was a deliberately derogatory way to refer to members of a widely-derided church viewed as a cult.  The pagan Greeks of Antioch in the 1st Century viewed the early Church about the same way that people in mainstream America viewed the Unification Church in the 20th Century; and “Christian” was flung at the members of the early Church just as “Moonie” was flung at members of the Unification Church.

As often happens, what began as a slur was co-opted by those at whom it was aimed.  Just as members of the LGBT community have reclaimed “queer” as a term of pride, and as other minorities use former slurs among themselves as a badge of honor, the early followers of Christ accepted the word “Christian” not as an insult, but as a reminder of whom they followed and whom they strove to emulate.  Thus, for the first millennium, the followers of Christ were Christians, pure and simple.

As time went on, the Christian community became more organized and structured, with bishops administering first what we’d now call “parishes” and later the larger divisions known as “dioceses”.  Each diocese was relatively autonomous, but there had to be agreement in faith among different dioceses.  Movements arose claiming to teach the true doctrine of the Apostles, but whose teaching deviated from the accepted teaching.* These heretical teachings were opposed by the mainstream believers, who found it necessary to band together, both to propagate the orthodox teaching and to administer the increasing large numbers of Christians.

Thus, “church” (ἐκκλησία–“ekklesia”, or “assembly”), originally a term for a local assembly of believers, came to have two broader, derived meanings.  The broadest and earlier meaning was “all Christians throughout the world, taken collectively”.  Thus, instead of saying that she was a Follower of the Way, or a Christian, a believer would now say, “I am a member of the Church.”  No other adjectives were necessary.  Though customs and language were already diverging in different parts of the Empire, all Christians were seen as united in a single supra-national, supra-ethnic organization that was the Church–the one and only Church.

Secondarily, by the 4th Century or so, dioceses had come to be organized in groups headed by a larger, older, and more important diocese.  This is hardly surprising–any organization that hopes to function needs to be organized into hierarchies.  By the 4th Century or so, this had been formalized in the concept of the Pentarchy.  The idea was that local parishes, usually under the authority of priests, were grouped into dioceses under the authority of bishops; dioceses were grouped together in provinces under a larger diocese, or archdiocese; and all the parishes, dioceses, and archdioceses of a region were ultimately under the authority of the bishop of one of the five cities with the most ancient Christian communities (in theory, at any rate–that’s another complicated issue).  These cities were Jerusalem (obviously), Rome, Antioch and Constantinople (both in what is now Turkey), and Alexandria, Egypt.  The bishops of these cities were called “Patriarchs” (the Patriarchs of Rome and Alexandria later, for historical reasons, being referred to as “popes”), and their authority was their “Patriarchate”.  The term “Church” came to be applied to these patriarchates.  Thus, “Church” by itself, usually capitalized, meant all Christians everywhere; whereas the “Church of Antioch” or the “Church of Jerusalem”, and so on, referred to the local division of the One Church.

Thus, a Christian would belong to the Church of Rome or Antioch or Alexandria or Jerusalem or Constantinople; but he would also consider himself as belonging just to “the Church”, just as  New Yorker, a Californian, and a Tennessean are all just “Americans”.

A refinement of this was added by the Nicene Creed (mentioned in the footnote below), which speaks of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”.  “Catholic” is from the Greek καθολικός, which means “universal” or more precisely, “encompassing the whole”.  To say the Church is “catholic” means merely that it’s for everybody.  You might be under the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch or Alexandria or wherever; but the Church is bigger than those local divisions–it’s universal.  All the Patriarchates were in full communion with each other, and they all were parts of the One Catholic Church.

By and large, this is how it was for the first millennium of Christianity.  The Oriental Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East broke away from the larger Church over doctrinal issues; but they were small with regard to the rest of the Christian world; and after the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th Centuries, they largely lost contact with the rest of the Christian world until modern times.  The Churches of the Pentarchy continued to use the term “Church” or “Catholic Church” to refer to themselves.  The Oriental Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East continued to use the term “catholic” of themselves, too.  The attitude of the Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian Churches was essentially, “We didn’t break away from them; they broke away from us!”  Thus, each side still considered itself to be catholic, that is, universal.  So it continued for centuries.

In the year 1054, for various long-standing cultural, political, and theological reasons, the four churches of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, on the one hand, and Rome, on the other, broke apart in what is known historically as the Great Schism.  The four churches of the East remained in communion with each other; but communion with Rome was broken.  Afterwards, each continued to use the word “Catholic” as a descriptor, since as with the earlier schisms of the Oriental and Assyrian Churches, each considered itself as the “original” Church from which the other had broken off.

While both the Western Church under Rome, and the Eastern Church, under Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem (and later other patriarchates) continued to describe themselves as “catholic”, the Eastern Churches gradually came to add the term “orthodox”–that is, “of correct doctrine”, or literally, “straight doctrine”.  Of course, the Western Church believed itself to be “orthodox”–teaching correct doctrine–too.  However, for various reasons that aren’t completely clear, the Western Church was content to leave its official self-designation as the “Catholic Church”, whereas the Eastern Church preferred to call itself the “Catholic Orthodox Church”.  Thus, captial-C “Catholic” is understood to mean the Church of the West, headquartered in Rome, under the authority of the Pope; and capital-O “Orthodox” is understood to refer to the Church of the East under its various local patriarchates.

Things continued like this until the 16th Century and the Protestant Reformation.  Some Protestant churches–the Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches, for example–retained the Creed.  Not wishing to be confused with the Catholic Church, from which they’d broken off, some used lower-case “catholic” in the Creed, while others replaced “catholic” with “universal”.  Some, such as the Anabaptists and Baptists, rejected the use of creeds altogether, on the grounds that they were man-made texts that were unnecessary, the Bible being the ultimate authority.  In any case, the various churches of the Reformation took as names either names of their founders, such as the Lutheran Church; or of the territory they served, such as the Church of England; or of a prominent or defining dogma or practice, such as the Baptist Church.  Though some retained “catholic” in the Creed, none wanted to call itself “Catholic”!

In fact, none of them wanted to call the Catholic Church “Catholic”, either.  Considering it to be corrupt, apostate, and not at all universal, they preferred to refer to it as the “Roman Church” or the “Church of Rome”.  This tendency persisted for some time, though it is much less common in modern times, given the more irenic milieu of the ecumenical movement. 

In England, events took an interesting course.  The Church of England, or Anglican Church, was unique among all Protestant churches in retaining a hierarchical structure of bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as retaining most of the Seven Sacraments (that’s a complex story in itself).  Though the Church of England was Protestant, it was in a sense the most “Catholic” of the Protestant churches.

By the early 19th Century two important things happened that were of great moment for the future of Anglicanism.  First, the Catholic Church was fully legalized and its hierarchy, formerly banished from Britain, was allowed to be re-established.  Second, in the wake of the Enlightenment, a tendency among more modernist critics to “de-mythologize” the Bible–to reject the miraculous elements contained in it–gathered increasing steam, as did the tendency in some quarters to reject Christianity altogether.  These and other complicated factors led to the Oxford Movement.  The goal of the Oxford Movement was to demonstrate the antiquity and legitimacy of the Church of England as compared with the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and on the other to defend its historic doctrines and beliefs against the arguments of modernists and skeptics.

In pursuance of the first goal, the members of the Oxford Movement developed the Branch Theory of the Christian Church.  The idea was that the Anglican Church was never “part” of the Catholic Church, under the authority of Rome, but rather that it was the expression of the one, undivided Church as it was manifested in England.  Thus, rather than the Church of England having been a part of the Catholic Church from which it schismed off, it had always been a separate, unique branch of the One Church.  The Catholic Church was another branch, and the Orthodox Church yet another.  To put it another way, each branch was equally “catholic”, and each ought to be in control of its own internal affairs, the Pope having no jurisdiction outside the Catholic fold.

Unsurprisingly, neither the Catholic nor Orthodox Church bought this theory.  A bit more surprisingly, neither did all the members of the Oxford Movement.  The most famous and prominent proponent of the Oxford Movement, Anglican priest John Henry Newman, made a long and intense study of the writings and history of the early Church in general and the Church of England in particular in an effort to demonstrate the validity of the Branch Theory.  Eventually, though, through his studies, he concluded that the Church in England never had been independent, but had been a part of the Catholic Church under the authority of the Pope, after all; and that the practices and beliefs of the early Church aligned more closely to those of the Catholic Church than those of the Church of England.  As a result of this, Newman shocked the nation by leaving the Church of England and entering the Catholic Church in 1845, eventually being re-ordained as a Catholic priest.  Many other members of the Oxford movement followed in his wake, becoming Catholic themselves.

Those who remained in the Anglican Church continued to promote the Branch Theory, and it has remained an occasional belief in Anglicanism to the present day.  This tendency is also the origin of the naming issue we’re discussing.  The Branch Theory argues that the Church of England is every bit as “Catholic” as the Catholic Church.  Thus, there was a reluctance to refer to the latter church merely as “the Catholic Church”, as this would imply that only it was “catholic”, and that the Anglican and Orthodox Churches were not.  Thus, in light of the Branch Theory, it became customary to refer to the Catholic Church as the “Roman Catholic Church”, to emphasize that, in their view, at least, it was only the Roman branch of the One, Holy, Catholic Church, no better or more venerable than the Church of England.

Admittedly, this was an improvement in the discourse.  Protestant polemical literature often referred to the Catholic Church as the “Romish” Church, and spoke of “Popish” beliefs and the practice of “Popery” by said Romish Church.  These, obviously, were no more intended to be flattering than the original term “Christianos” in 1st Century Antioch!  To speak of the “Roman” Church or the “Roman Catholic” Church was more genteel and not in the nature of a slur.  Still, it was ever so slightly supercilious, in that inimitable, passive-agressive manner that only the British can pull off.  “Roman” or “Roman Catholic” Church was not a direct insult; but it was a refusal to use the name the Catholic Church used (and still uses) for itself, while subtly implying that it isn’t really as “catholic” as all that.

Alas, the term spread throughout the English-speaking world, and has become so ingrained that many Catholics refer to their church as the “Roman Catholic Church”, or sometimes “RCC” for short, and themselves as “Roman Catholics”.  These terms are still more commonly used by non-Catholics than by Catholics; but they’re common enough among Catholics.  The street sign pointing to my parish, as well as the church marquee, beneath the church’s name, read “Roman Catholic Church”.  Sigh.

More than once on this blog, I have insisted on the importance of the rectification of names.  This is the Confucian principle that you should call things what they are, rather than trying to obfuscate by euphemism, misdirection, and so forth.  As my best friend in college used to colorfully say, “Don’t step in shit and call it peanut butter!”  Thus, a non-Catholic might say, “I don’t believe the Church of Rome is truly Catholic, in fact; so why should I call it that if I don’t believe that’s true?  Wouldn’t that be calling something what it’s not?”  That’s a fair point; and it brings up a complexity here.  To extend my friend’s analogy, sometimes you step in something and you’re not sure what it is! The claim of the Catholic Church to be–well, catholic–may not be true.  On the other hand, it might indeed be true.  Short of Divine revelation, or an angel coming down to adjudicate the matter, none of us, Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise, knows or can know for sure.

In cases like this and others, where there is debate but no real way of ultimate resolution, I would argue that it is not a violation of rectification of names to call any church or other organization what it calls itself, as a matter of convenience and courtesy, and as an admission that it might, just might, be correct.  Thus, as a Catholic, I don’t think the Orthodox Church is 100% orthodox on all matters (else I’d be Orthodox).  Nevertheless, it would be silly and petty, as well as rude, to try to come up with some other name to call it.  Regardless of my personal views, I thus call it the “Orthodox Church”.  I don’t believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is, in fact, the “Church of Jesus Christ” in the unique sense it claims; but I have no problem calling it that.  Who knows–maybe Joseph Smith was right!

Thus, it seems to me a matter of simple courtesy for a non-Catholic to call the Catholic Church “the Catholic Church”, whether or not he believes it to be truly catholic.  Admittedly, many don’t realize the history of the term “Roman Catholic” and use it in good faith.  Some do, though, and say “Roman Catholic”, anyway.  Certainly, Catholics should know better, or be catechized so that they know better.

This reminds me of a similar phenomenon whereby many on the right refer to the “Democrat Party”, deliberately refusing to use the proper form “Democratic”.  This, I think, is purposely done to troll the Democrats; and since I generally disapprove of trolling by anyone, I think this is emblematic of a childish, petty, and unpleasant attitude.  Some may have actual principles regarding this, though.  A friend of mine, who is a libertarian-leaning conservative and a Greek Orthodox, used the term “Democrat Party” recently, and I called him on it.  He tried to argue, saying, “I honestly don’t think they stand up for democratic principles.”  I immediately replied, “You’re in the Deep South, and a lot of your neighbors don’t believe the Orthodox Church really is orthodox–they don’t believe it has the true teaching.  Some don’t even think it’s Christian.  Should they refuse to call  your church the ‘Orthodox’ Church?”  He had no reply for that.  What I didn’t say, but could have, is that I personally don’t think that the Republican Party is upholding the values of republicanism; but I don’t therefore call it the “Republic Party”!

Thus, in matters both religious and political, while we must ever agree to disagree–sometimes quite vigorously–I think it is also imperative that we cut each other a little slack, and show the basic courtesy of calling each others’ churches and organizations what they themselves consider to be their official names.  It isn’t selling out our beliefs and values to do so, and it would go a long way towards defusing at least some of the increasing and lamentable polarization and hostility in current discourse.  Is that too much to ask?  I, for one, think not.


*I’m aware that there is debate as to the extent that what is now called “orthodox” Christian teaching does, in fact, represent the Apostolic teaching.  There is certainly increasing evidence that certain doctrines later condemned as heretical were not always considered to be so, and that some of them might be traceable to the earliest days.  Whether little-o orthodox Christianity was the pure teaching which was later (or earlier) corrupted by heretics, or whether “heretical” doctrines were accurate representations of the original teachings of Jesus which were later cruelly suppressed by the institutional Church is going to depend on one’s prior assumptions and faith commitments.  There’s no way to “prove” either side is “right”.  We all pays our money and takes our chances.  Thus, I’m following the traditional orthodox narrative above in my history of the names of the Church, especially in my references to orthodox Christianity as the “mainstream”; but if you prefer the heretics, that’s fine and it’s your prerogative–YMMV.


† I guess I should be explicit about what I mean here.  When I capitalize “Orthodox” or “Orthodoxy”, I mean the Eastern Orthodox Church and/or one of the subdivisions of it–Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.  When I write “orthodox” or “orthodoxy” in lower case, or say, “little-o orthodoxy”, I mean any church–Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental, or even Protestant–that holds to the definition of faith determined at the Council of Nicea, and encapsulated in the Nicene Creed, as opposed to  various heretical groups such as the various flavors of Gnosticism, the Arians, and so on.  I realize that the Oriental Orthodox (formerly known as Monophysites) and Assyrian Church of the East (formerly known as Nestorians) were also held to be heretics; but the Catholic Church, in recent decades, has come to agreements with these churches, such that they are no longer held by the Catholic Church to be heretical.  The Eastern Orthodox are also in ongoing negotiations with them.  Thus, I feel justified in including the Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrian Church of the East under the rubric of “orthodox”.

Posted on 10/02/2019, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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