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.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore