Faith and Reason: The gum wears out on a suspect label: Cristina Odone, editor of the Catholic Herald, argues that Catholicism should no longer be dismissed as a 'Roman' mission and can once again be seen as a Universal Church.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ASK A Frenchman (or an Italian, or a Spaniard) whether he is a Roman Catholic and he'll raise a quizzical eyebrow: only the Anglo-Saxons could be guilty of such a spiritual oxymoron. Katholikos, after all, is the Greek for universal: and though all Catholics acknowledge the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, they would argue that their church has retained universal concerns and membership (more than 700 million far- flung exponents) and that its prayer, worship and liturgy embrace rather than exclude all men from all communities.

The 'Roman' epithet springs from an English king's brazen manipulation of a spiritual term for a political purpose. With his 1534 Acts of Supremacy and Succession, Henry VIII had rejected papal authority, created a new church which he would head, and required the conversion of his subjects. All this while France and Spain - powerful, nearby, and very Catholic - watched in disbelief.

Even Henry must have realised he would have to wage a long and arduous campaign to win over his subjects, now that he sought their souls as well as their loyalty. The enemy, after all, could lay claim to spiritual supremacy and enlist God as his Generalissimo. Henry's brilliant strategy was to reduce the enemy to size: he blurred the distinction between temporal and spiritual as he pitted patriotism against the Papacy and decreed that allegiance to the papal cause was a treasonable offence, punishable with death and loss of property. The 'Roman' label emerged as a key weapon in this us-against-them manoeuvre: Henry and Thomas Cranmer maintained that their church, though retaining the Catholic, had divested itself of the 'Roman'. Call Papists 'Roman' and you invest them with a foreign, suspect title that triggers emotional nationalism; call them 'Roman' and you reduce their claim to spiritual authority by confining it to a geographical area. What better way to counter the threat of the Pope's Church than to appeal to Anglo-Saxon xenophobia?

In England and then later in the New World, the Roman label stuck - thanks in part to the secular interests of the contemporary Popes, who seemed keener on being Roman princes than heads of a universal church.

But how much gum is left on this particular label?

As any good Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) can, the Church has proved capable of reining in diverse elements of teaching and thought in a united syllabus - or catechism - that shapes and informs Catholics around the world. That this unification is achieved and ensured in part through the recognition of a central authority based in Rome does not prevent the different cultures which come in contact with Catholicism from colouring its catechesis: social issues, economic concerns, and racial considerations form part of the dialogue that allows for development (however slow) of doctrine.

Collegiality and missionary work provide the Vatican with access to national concerns. The principle of collegiality, as manifest in the national Bishops' Conferences, is key in disabusing the Church's critics of the notion that all thought stems from Rome. If the Vatican exerts a centripetal force on intra-church debates, the conferences allow for first a national, then an international, exchange on matters of theological and pastoral significance. Grass-roots participation, fostered through the network of parish priests, finds its natural culmination in this arena, with the ecclesiastical representation of the laity.

Pivotal in the workings of a church that pioneered the notion of the global village, missionaries - mostly Jesuits - have ensured that since the 16th century Catholicism has encountered alien traditions, mythologies and mores. With even the most whole-hearted of proselytisers perforce allowing for a two-way flow of information, the soldiers of the Church have served as conduit for external influences that vary from Eastern mysticism to Calvinist capitalism.

A church that owns land, opulent headquarters and unparalelled art collections performs a precarious balancing act between temporal and spiritual concerns. In the past this dichotomy sometimes led the Church to stumble into half-hearted alliances with suspect political regimes (Mussolini's Fascists, for instance) and cult practices (voodoo in Haiti). But for the most part the Catholic Church's claim to be universal in its concerns - at once belonging to but transcending its immediate geographical context - and its Roman base, serve to distance it, in the public consciousness at least, from national political agendas and Establishments. Herein lies its attraction for the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalised, who may consider a National Church too integral an element within the Establishment.

How to reconcile a concern for orthodoxy with a need for dialogue? Recognition of the importance of national voices articulating different viewpoints - which received the Imprimatur in the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes - can spark conflict within a church that ultimately believes in only one authority, the magisterium. The controversy stirred by Liberation Theology in Latin America, where the clergy entered the political arena on behalf of the poor, testified to the tug- of-war that can take place between Rome and the outposts of Catholicism, between a traditional and a progressive approach to theology and scriptural interpretation. With his grudging acknowledgement of this theology, however, Pope John Paul II has proved that he does not automatically suspect all theology that is not Rome-minted - a notion many of his critics might be forgiven for nurturing, given his record for silencing the likes of Hans Kung and Leonardo Boff.

The Second Vatican Council emerges as a key signpost on the road from the notion of 'Rome': it confiscated in one fell swoop liturgy, prayer and worship from their Tridentine and esoteric fate and returned them to the people. Mass in the vernacular, inclusive language in the liturgy, priest in front of the altar: the changes strengthened the sense of a church capable of assimilating an infinite number of traditions while retaining its interest in spreading His word. Acknowledging this legacy, a dozen bishops from around the world have collaborated on a new catechism (whose English edition is scheduled for publication this autumn) through which the Catholic Church will continue to offer its faithful spiritual sustenance and practical guidance in matters as diverse - and universal - as capital punishment, drunken driving and horoscope consultation.

In Britain today, the Catholic Church is coming in from the cold outpost to which it has been relegated since the time of Henry VIII: as women's ordination continues to divide the Church of England, as their leadership vacuum continues to frustrate a people seeking guidance, Catholicism begins to attract more and more members of the Establishment. From Ann Widdecombe's public conversion to the Princess of Wales's media- hyped flirtation, Catholicism claims centre stage as a fount to nourish the interior life. Now that it can no longer be dismissed as a 'Roman' (or Irish) mission, perhaps it will once again be seen as the Universal Church.