Putting the “Roman” Back in “Roman Catholic”

O, the glories of a classical education! I spent part of this past summer attempting to supplement my classical deficiencies (what I received in college was partial and patchy) by perusing Cicero’s philosophical essays in English and plodding through parts of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy in the original Latin, dictionary in hand. In doing so, I came to reflect upon what the Roman cultural heritage means for us Roman Catholics.

According to the Modern Catholic Dictionary, the terms “Roman Church” and “Roman Catholic Church” were in use from at least the early Middle Ages, but took on new importance after the Protestant Reformation, when Catholics increasingly felt the need to distinguish themselves from those not in union with the pope. The terms were used on both sides, by Catholics who wanted to stress their loyalty to Rome, and by Protestants who wanted to stress Catholics’ loyalty to Rome—sometimes accompanied by such disparaging terms as “Romish,” and “Popish.”

Perhaps those terms still rankle a bit. I would imagine that there are some Catholics who are slightly embarrassed by the “Roman” label, considering it limiting and provincial. They would have Rome be an incidental factor in our faith—an administrative detail, but of no particular spiritual import. For when all is said and done, is Rome central to our identity? Is it not enough that we are the Catholic Church? Is the “Roman” necessary, or an excrescence?

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Here is my take on the matter: while indeed “Catholic Church” expresses what is essential about our religion, “Roman” adds an extra dimension. It completes and qualifies “Catholic,” uniting specificity with universality. Our faith is universal (Catholic), appealing to all places and peoples and times; but it is also rooted in a specific place (Rome, the city of St. Peter’s preaching and martyrdom) and set of historical circumstances that gave it birth. Our faith, like the faith of Israel, is instantiated within a human reality in place and time.

Time, for the ancients, was cyclical—a successive turnover of individuals and empires by the hands of fortune. The Roman Empire was established, among other reasons, to insure that in spite of the machinations of fate, there would at least be unity, peace and stability in the civil order. As much as the word “empire” may have negative connotations for us today, for the ancient Roman it was entirely positive and salutary. It connoted universal peace and harmony, assimilating differences into a universal whole, creating a horizon in which the human arts and sciences would flourish.

Early Christians saw this universality, this peace-keeping role, as bequeathed to the Church, which brought all people into her fold under the headship of Christ. The fourth-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius gave a theological interpretation to Roman history:

What is the secret of Rome’s historical destiny? It is that God wills the unity of mankind…. Hitherto the whole earth east to west had been rent asunder by continuous strife. To end this madness God has taught the nations to be obedient to the same laws and to all become Romans…. This is the meaning of all the victories and triumphs of the Roman Empire: the Roman peace has prepared the way for the coming of Christ.

A century after Prudentius wrote those words, the Roman Empire fell. Roman thinkers tried to explain the meaning of this catastrophe. By now the old pessimistic, fate-directed view of history had given way to an optimistic Christian view influenced by St. Paul—history as something not cyclical but linear, directed by the will of God and reaching its climax at the second coming of Christ. Representing this new way of thinking, St. Augustine explained that the fall of Rome was not an end, but a beginning: God was building a new city on the ruins of pagan Rome—a New Jerusalem which would prefigure the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Catholic Church, with its headquarters in Rome, became identified with this New Jerusalem. (This is, incidentally, the source of Rome’s nickname of “Eternal City.”)

So our Church is truly the Church of Rome, and not merely in the sense that she is headquartered there or that her liturgy used to be exclusively in Latin. Rome signifies a historical reality, a way of life, an aesthetic.

The Roman liturgy breathes the Roman aesthetic of formal elegance, eloquence, and gravitas—of “noble simplicity” (in the words of the Second Vatican Council). Celebrated by a clergy clad in what are essentially togas, the Mass arguably exudes the aura of late Roman antiquity more than the Middle Ages. Our intellectual tradition is rooted in the humanistic culture of Greece and Rome, with scholastic theology largely based on the methods of Greek dialectic as transmitted through Latin authors like Cicero, and canon law deriving ultimately from the Code of Justinian.

The Romans were essentially practical, rational, and scientific—more like the stereotype of modern Germans, in fact, than modern Italians. (How this interesting cultural role-reversal came about is explained in the book Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler, which I strongly recommend.) Those qualities naturally lent themselves to fostering great engineers and architects; and with their roads, bridges and aqueducts the Romans built the infrastructure through which not only Roman civilization but the Christian faith could be spread. To this practical spirit the Romans added the cultural refinement of the Greeks to create a potent civilization that left no area of the world—or the Church—untouched.

It’s interesting to note that the Catholic tradition stresses the continuity between the classical and the Christian, while secularists tends to view them as separate. In my Catholic university I was required to take an introductory philosophy course called “The Classical Mind.” The course ran from Plato through St. Thomas Aquinas and therefore conditioned me to see the explicit connection between the classical and Christian/medieval world. Regarding questions of the existence of God and ways of thinking about nature, the human person and virtue, there is a continuous line connecting classical to Christian thought.

I glimpsed this continuity again as I read Cicero and Boethius over the summer. Both men started out as respected Roman statesmen, became disillusioned with the state of Rome, and retreated into philosophical seclusion, producing masterpieces of Latin literature. Boethius was a Christian; in fact, he is often called the “last of the Romans” and the gateway to the Christian Middle Ages. According to tradition he was a martyr for the Catholic faith. Boethius was condemned to death for treason and while in prison penned The Consolation of Philosophy, the tribute of a Christian believer to the spirit of classical philosophy, written in eloquent Ciceronian Latin.

That language, of course, once held pride of place in the Church. I once read a sincere Catholic claim that Latin ought not be the language of the Church because it was “the language of Christ’s persecutors.” This view strikes me as misguided. Christianity is about transformation, God elevating our humanity to a higher plane. The pagan Roman past was not destroyed, but built upon, just as “grace perfects nature.” All that was best in Roman culture was, as it were, “baptized” by the Church. The faith radiated outward from Israel to the world through the medium of Rome.

All of which leaves me convinced that Catholics ought to wear the “Roman” label proudly and without apology, celebrate the ancient Roman saints, martyrs and Fathers, and value Latin—in short, connect with the Roman side of our faith. Rome is entirely worthy to be our “Mecca,” our “New Jerusalem.” We follow in the footsteps of the centurion who recognized the Son of God at the foot of the Cross, whose civilization spread the Son’s light to the rest of the world.


  • Michael De Sapio

    Michael De Sapio is a writer and classical musician from the Washington, DC area. He writes about religion, music, and vintage popular culture for such print and online outlets as Fanfare Magazine, The Papist, Conservative Book Club, The Twilight Zone Museum, and Imaginative Conservative, among others. Mr. De Sapio is a graduate of The Catholic University of America and the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

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