“Property of Rome”?

Does the Vatican have exclusive rights to the word “Catholic”?

Catholic with a capital C

They say the pope’s infallible, but does he also hold a trademark on the word “Catholic”? Readers of a dispatch from the Associated Press last month might well have wondered. The story reported that “a lawsuit filed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta accuses a network of Spanish-speaking churches of falsely claiming to be Catholic.”

Fox News was laughed out of court when it sued Al Franken for including the phrase “fair and balanced” in the subtitle of his satirical book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. But the Archdiocese of Atlanta fared better in its attempt, as intellectual-property lawyers put it, to “protect the mark.” In October, a Fulton County judge entered a consent order that permanently enjoins the “Mision Catolica: Capilla de la Fe” (Catholic Mission: Chapel of Faith) from “representing themselves to be a part of or associated with or sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta or Archbishop John Francis Donoghue.”

The lawsuit didn’t exactly chisel a TM under the word “Catholic”; rather, it alleged that the Chapel of Faith was “intentionally or recklessly” creating the impression that its clerics and services “are sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.” That is a weightier complaint than Fox’s brief against Al Franken; you don’t need to be a federal judge to understand that “fair and balanced” in Franken’s title was a joke, not the appropriation of a trademark for fraudulent purposes.

Mark Chopko, the general counsel of the United States Catholic Conference, said as far as he knows the Atlanta lawsuit is one of a kind and that the national church took no official position on it. The American Roman Catholic Church is not declaring open season on other groups that use the “C” word in their names.

That’s just as well, because it could prove impossible under the First Amendment to cabin the terms “Catholic” or even “Roman Catholic.”

Lots of people who don’t recognize the Bishop of Rome consider themselves just as Catholic as John Paul II. Many Protestants on Sunday recite the Apostles Creed, which contains the affirmation “I believe …  in the holy catholic church.”

Whether the “c” is capitalized or not, “Catholic”—the etymology is from the Greek katholikos for “universal”—has been a contested term in Christian theological polemics for centuries. After the churches of Rome and Constantinople split in a schism usually dated to the 11th century, the Church of the West became known as the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of the East as the Orthodox Church. (To complicate matters further, there are other ancient churches that went their own way because of doctrinal disputes even before Rome and Constantinople split.)

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that it is not only orthodox (correct in its teaching), but also Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church likewise considers itself to be orthodox in doctrine. In emphasizing one term over another in their “trademarks,” these two branches of Christianity are not relinquishing their claims to both attributes. (For a secular analogy, consider the names of the two major political parties in America: Democrats would tell you that they believe in a republican form of government; Republicans like President Bush trumpet the virtues of small-d democracy, at least in Iraq.)

Of course, “Catholic”—especially when the “C” is capitalized—has other connotations besides “universal.” As a result of the 19th-century Oxford Movement in the Church of England, some Anglicans began to identify themselves as “Catholics” in the sense of incorporating Roman Catholic rituals and vestments (what some called the “rags of popery”) in their worship. To this day some so-called Anglo-Catholic churches are “more Catholic than the pope” in the sense that they preserve older practices (like priests celebrating Mass with their backs to the congregation) that have been suppressed in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. Some High-Church Anglicans even offer prayers during Mass for the pope (and for the patriarch of Constantinople, for good measure).

Long before the Archdiocese of Atlanta cried foul about the Mision Catolica, Roman Catholics were rejecting the notion that one could be a Catholic and not be in communion with Rome. And aggrieved Anglicans responded in kind. Consider this sniffy entry in Fowler’s Modern Usage, published by Oxford University Press: “Catholic. It is open to Roman Catholics to use C. by itself in a sense that excludes all but themselves, but it is not open to a Protestant to use it instead of Roman-Catholic without implying that his own Church has no right to the name of C.”

So there. But Roman Catholics were unimpressed by this point of order. When I studied religion at the University of Kent, one of my classmates, a Roman Catholic priest in training, mocked this hair-splitting. When you asked an Englishman for directions to the local “Catholic church,” he told me, you would always be pointed to the Roman Catholic church.

To add to the confusion, some Eastern Rite Catholics—whose churches recognize the authority of the pope in Rome but follow rituals similar to those of Eastern Orthodoxy—don’t like to be referred to as Roman Catholics. Then there are the churches that don’t acknowledge the pope in Rome but incorporate the term “Catholic” in their title. Some, like the “Old Catholic” churches that broke from Rome over papal infallibility, have what the Vatican considers “valid” holy orders. That means that an Old Catholic (or, in this country, Polish National Catholic) priest has the power to consecrate the Eucharist.

Even the presence of “Roman” in a church’s name doesn’t guarantee a connection to the Vatican. According to the Web site of the Old Roman Catholic Church in North America, schisms in its flock produced the Old Roman Catholic Church in North America—Diocese of Michigan and the Central States; the North American Old Roman Catholic Church; and the Old Roman Catholic Church—Diocese of Florida within the Historic See of Caer Glow (!).

Lest that litany seem fantastic or facetious, consider the “Catholic Mass” celebrated every Sunday evening at the Episcopal church in my Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The Mass is sponsored by Dignity, a group of gay and lesbian Catholics that takes issue with the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexual acts.

Peggy Hays, a spokeswoman for Dignity says, that “we never hide our status” as an autonomous group or pretend to be approved by the American hierarchy (though some priests who celebrate Mass for Dignity are members in good standing of religious orders who are acting with the tacit approval of their superiors). Hayes says she knows of no attempt by the hierarchy to move against Dignity for (mis)use of the term “Catholic.” Given the multiplicity of meanings of “Catholic,” that seems like a prudent policy even after the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s legal victory.