The use of the word Catholic

A couple of weeks ago, I asked for suggestions as to what I might blog about. One of the suggestions was this:

the use of the word “catholic” as opposed to what people think, which is “Catholic”, as is the Church of Rome.

Well, OK. Why not?

The word Catholic is one of the things that we ended up talking about quite a lot in a recent confirmation/baptism class that I was involved in, so I know that it is something that does bother people. Why do we proclaim that we are “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?” I was asked. I suspect that simply pointing out that I once was in an hour long seminar on how that phrase should be punctuated will not really help matters.

Last night as I was getting read to close up the church someone came in and declared that he was glad that he had found what he was looking for, told me that he had been looking for a Catholic church and asked whether I could provide him with a rosary.

Where to begin?

Well, we use the word Catholic to imply that we are part of the universal church. So do Roman Catholics, so far as I can see, though I’m aware that more of those I’ve met who are Roman Catholics might think that their denomination actually is the universal church rather than simply being a part of the universal church than Anglicans tend to do.

People of a more High Church persuasion (and I think given the laldy which we gave to the Regina Coeli on Easter Day, that must include some of those present at St Mary’s) tend to emphasis the word Catholic and be quite assertive that they are Catholics, and ones who just happen to be Episcopalian or Anglican.

The word “Catholic” is rather like “Anglican” in that it has both positive and negative connotations in the society in which St Mary’s is placed. Catholic implies universality to me but to the person on the Auchenshuggle omnibus, it will speak also of the sectarian division in the city. That might well mean a sense of injustice as to the way Roman Catholics have been treated in Scottish society. (Remember, the Church of Scotland was advocating repatriating Catholics to Ireland at one point in the last century). On the other hand, it might mean a sense of frustration over perceived injustice over the education system – Roman Catholics having the right to a particular form of education paid for by the state. Similarly, to someone in the know, Anglican might imply connections with a world-wide commonwealth of churches who share a particular heritage or alternatively it might imply a church famous world-wide for being nasty to gay people.

I’m interested to note in passing the protest of St Andrews students against Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien when he went there to preach in the University Chapel at the weekend. It doesn’t seem to have been reported in many places. Such a protest is a significant one. I’ve observed before that the kind of attitudes to homosexuality that the Cardinal has been promoting are becoming less and less acceptable in decent society, something for which we should thank God daily.

There are not that many weeks during the summer when St Mary’s Cathedral does not have visitors who think they are in a Roman Catholic Church who make it to the end of the service entirely oblivious to the fact that they are not. We don’t pass ourselves off as anything other than we are and the stewards are always happy to direct people who need to know, to our friends in St Columba’s up the road. I’ve been intrigued at the number of people from Spain, France and Italy who have got to the end of one of our services believing themselves to be in a Catholic church even when one of my female colleagues has been celebrating.

But that’s the nature of the word Catholic I guess. Different things to different people at different times.

One. Holy. Catholic. Apostolic. Church.
One, holy-catholic, and apostolic church.
…one, holy catholic and Apostolic church.
One holy, catholic and apostolic church.
one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

See what I mean about punctuation?


  1. I think that a big part of the confusion is because we tend to talk about the issue, rather than read about it. So whether someone says ‘Catholic’ (referring to the RCC) or ‘catholic’ (referring to the church universal) we hear the exact same word.

  2. I was once pulled up by a Church of Ireland clergyman for saying ‘Catholic’ rather than ‘Roman Catholic’. For a church that mostly self-identifies as Protestant, it’s interesting that they want to retain the identifier, and thereby assert their catholic heritage. That, indeed, was why I found a home there, rather than in Presbyterianism or Methodism, with both of which I briefly flirted.

  3. Mike Rattenbury says

    The Church of Scotland Hymnbook (both the older version 3 and the newer CH4) contains the Nicene Creed, with its use of ‘catholic’ presumably in the universal sense. A reminder, perhaps, whatever the denominational wrangles, that we are first of all ‘in Christ’ (or should be!)

  4. Revd Ross Kennedy says

    I can’t remember when I last heard someone use the word ‘protestant’ in respect of their religion. In a recent issue of the RC publication, THE TABLET, it was commented that while RCs always refer to themselves as ‘Catholic’, non-(Roman) Catholics invariably refer to themselves as simply ‘Christian’.

    Many years ago my Episcopalian cousin and her husband (an ardent Rangers supporter) caused much confusion to visitors to their Glasgow home by tucking their palm cross behind the Rangers’ calendar. (They were members of St Mary’s Cathedral back in the 1950s)

    • fr dougal says

      When I was a Glasgow curate we had a member who if the Evil Huns lost would ask on the Sunday morning for a “Requiem for the Rangers”! Confusing or simply Weegie humour?

  5. Thank you Kelvin. This is something I’ve been pondering recently and you’ve helped me understand things better. I was drawn to St Mary’s originally because I knew there were female priests who celebrate there, for the art work on the walls and the temporary exhibitions it held and because I needed to find a Christian faith I felt comfortable with, there are many other reasons why too, like the cathedral is used by the community for many reasons and things and I love that too. Anyway thank you.

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