Back in one my old philosophy classes I recall lengthy discussions as to the relationship between names and reality, and then spinning around for hours contemplating the brain teaser of what it means to “mean” something about anything. The aftermath: an entire class of young minds slipped further into skepticism, as if the reality each twenty something experienced was completely unknowable. Of course, arriving at the conclusion that ultimate reality is unknowable is… to know something about ultimate reality! Ah, the futility of the sinful mind in its continual construction of Babel towers. Without the presupposition “He is there and He is not silent” the sinful mind does what it does best: it creates a worldview that can’t account for the reality it truly experiences.

Despite the aspirin needed after attending such classes, it did force me early on to think about ostensive definitions, and the carefulness with which one defines terms. With theology, correctly using terms takes on the greatest moral imperative: one is speaking about the very holy God that created the universe. Think of terms that are used to describe Biblical doctrine, like “Trinity.” One is using a term to describe a collection of factual data given by the Holy Spirit. If ever one should use caution, it should be with the construction of theological terms.

Consider the designator “Catholic Church.” The Westminster Confession of Faith explains, “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” The Belgic Confession states that one of its primary distinguishing marks is the “pure preaching of the gospel.” If one were pressed to point to that vital factor placing one in the Catholic Church, it is the work of Christ and His Gospel. It is the Gospel which unites the members of the Catholic Church. It is the work of Christ, grasped onto by faith that links those in the Catholic Church together. This pure Gospel is of such importance, that the apostle Paul states if anyone (including himself) preaches another Gospel, he should be eternally condemned.

But what about throwing the word “Roman” into the the mix? The addition of one simple word adds in an ingredient that changes the taste, so to speak. In this short mp3 clip, Tim Staples touched on what “Roman Catholic Church” means. He says “Roman Catholic” has popularly and un-technically come to be synonymous with the term “Catholic”. He states “Roman Catholic” popularly means “you’re in union with the bishop of Rome.” Recent mega-convert Francis Beckwith concurs:

One of my pet peeves is the intentional overuse of “Rome,” “Roman,” “Romanist,” etc. by Protestant critics of Catholic theology. Here’s why: the Catholic Church is a collection of many churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It’s catechism–The Catechism of the Catholic Church–is that of all these churches that are in communion with one another and with the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. The theology found in that text, therefore, is not Roman Catholic theology. It is Catholic theology. That’s the way the Church understands itself. Common courtesy suggests that those who are critical of that theology summon the respect to refer to it as such”[source].

I admit that I’ve often equated the two terms. I’ve used the term “Catholic” to describe Roman Catholics. It has taken a conscious effort on my part to keep the terms distinguished. On the other hand, I’m not sure how it’s possible to “overuse” the word “Roman” when referring to those who actively and overtly pledge obedience to bishop of Rome. Beckwith is basically saying “Catholic” is the property of the papacy, and they will define the parameters of the word.

Whose theological usage reflects the teaching of sacred Scripture? Is union with the bishop of Rome an element of theological data mined from the Scriptures? Hardly. It’s an extra-Biblical presupposition hoisted upon the text. One has to first assume the validity of the papacy and then read it back into the sacred text. The popular definition as described by Mr. Staples and Dr. Beckwith is entirely unbiblical.

There’s one other theological term being thrown around with this: anti-Catholic. Recently Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong stated he “temporarily suspended [his] ongoing policy of not interacting with anti-Catholic arguments and polemics.” Well, after I ceased shaking in fear over this announcement, I scrolled through Armstrong’s multiple diatribes to see his precise meaning of the term “anti-Catholic.” His exact formula appears to boil down to: “One who denies that the Catholic Church and its theology is properly classifiable as Christian” [source].

By applying Armstrong’s standard, an Anti-Mormon would be one who denies that the Mormon church and its theology is properly classifiable as Christian. Dave would probably say it’s a good thing to be anti-Mormon. So, simply using the term “anti” as Armstrong suggests is either good or bad depending on one’s presuppositions. According to Dave’s definition, I would say it’s a good thing to be anti-Catholic in the same way Dave would probably hold it’s a good thing to be anti-Mormon.

Armstong’s seemingly endless qualifications and examination of the term “anti-Catholic,” as well as “his own definition” provoked me to apply what has been discussed above, and consider an alternate theological definition. If “Catholic” is connected symbiotically with the Gospel, wouldn’t an anti-Catholic be someone who either denies the Gospel or denies it as that which unites the people of God into the universal Church? If a particular church overtly espouses a different Gospel, according to Paul, let him be anathema. If understood this way, it would be Roman Catholics who are anti-Catholics. Their Council of Trent explicitly rejected the Gospel in an official declaration.

How does one precisely refer to those in communion with Rome and obedient to the Bishop of Rome? Contrary to Beckwith, I’ve seriously considered using the word “Romanist.” The term describes those devoted to the papacy quite succinctly. However, I was informed by another zealous defender of the papacy that “…many non-Catholic apologists are truly bigots at heart and they use ‘Roman’ as a derogatory insult. Their bigotry becomes even more clear when they use Romish or Romanist.” No one wants to be thought of as a bigot. However, in the same Catholic Answers broadcast cited above, Tim Staples and his co-host positively referred to themselves as “Romanists” introducing their “open forum for non-Catholics” show, in which they only take calls from those outside of their worldview. Here is the mp3 clip. Perhaps they were kidding, although it’s hard to tell.

I’m tempted to simply start using the term anti-Catholic for the reasons outlined. I can think of no better theological phrase to describe those who inject obedience to the papacy into the term “Catholic Church.”

©2024 Alpha and Omega Ministries. All Rights Reserved.

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?