For many years the Anglican Catholic Church ran a small advertisement in National Review magazine, which directed interested parties to a toll-free number.  In June 2007 those who monitored the number in Alexandria, Virginia, sent to me the following letter from a man in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

Dear sirs,

You have been irritating me for decades with your running ad in National Review, and I have decided to write and tell you why. 

I am confident that in your own minds there exists a Pickwickian sense in which you can be both Anglican and Catholic at the same time, but that is not how the words are used in the real world.  For centuries now, Catholic has meant someone in communion with the Pope, and Anglican has meant someone in (notional) communion with the King of England.

I dislike the term Roman Catholic both because it is a blatant oxymoron and because the label was foisted upon us by our persecutors.  In the eighteenth century the English wanted to recruit Scotch Highlanders into their regiments because they were good and they were cheap; and also because the English wanted to distract them from further Jacobite rebellion.  The clansmen wouldn’t serve unless they could wear tartan, practice their religion, and be served by chaplains of their own faith.  The English held their noses and agreed to commission Papist chaplains.  If they were going to treat them as officers and gentlemen, they needed to find some more polite word than Papist (which was then even more derogatory than it is now) and what they came up with was Roman Catholic.  From that point the term passed into general use. 

Nonetheless I use the term because I wish to speak so as to be understood.  I don’t like it, but I use it.  In the same way, if I run into someone in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, I call him Orthodox even though I know he is heterodox.  Once we’ve identified one another we can (if we wish) proceed to argue doctrine, but identification comes first. 

You have to use words in the sense they bear not in the sense you wish they bore.  The only determinant is usage:  ‘If you want to ride, you got to ride it like you find it….’  […Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line.]  When you call yourselves Anglican Catholics you are not only offending the real Catholics, you are sailing under false colors.  You might as well proclaim ‘I am a liar, listen to me.’ 

Yours truly,

[The gentleman signed his name and gave an address and telephone number.  I have no permission to publish that name, so I am not doing so.]  I decided to answer the letter and did so as follows:

*  *  *  *  *

In the Octave of the Sacred Heart.  June 16, 2007. 

Dear Mr. ____,

About yours of June 5th, I must disagree that properly ‘the only determinant is usage’, since according to that bad principle we would soon have to abandon adverbs, the nominative/objective case distinction in the use of relative pronouns, careful use of ‘hopefully’, and many other good and proper things which bad usage is killing off.  I believe in prescriptive, not merely descriptive, approaches to usage.

Nonetheless, even if I were to accept your bad principle, I would note:

  • The legal name of your Church is Ecclesia Sancta Romana, while the legal name of my Church is the Anglican Catholic Church.  Corporate law is a use.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first ecclesiastical definition of ‘Catholic’, ‘the Church Universal, the whole body of Christians’.  The second ecclesiastical definition is ‘an epithet, applied to the Ancient Church, as it existed undivided, prior to the separation of East and West, and of a church or churches standing in historical continuity therewith and claiming to be identical with it in doctrine, discipline, orders, and sacraments’.  Mention thereafter is made explicitly of the Church of England as a body making such a claim.   The sense you would impose, and for which you claim universal usage, is only the third OED definition.  Is the standard English dictionary ignorant of usage?
  • Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox, and many other Christians say the ecumenical Creeds and apply to themselves the term ‘Catholic’.  You may, again, object that they have no proper right to do so, but cannot complain that the usage is occult or an instance of lying.  Since Anglican Catholics apply the term ‘Catholic’ to themselves twice every day when we say the Apostles’ Creed, and a third time on Sundays and major feasts when the Nicene Creed is said, you could only justly accuse us of saying in effect ‘I am a liar’ if we were not firmly convinced that such usage is proper. 

Your history is mistaken.  ‘Roman Catholic’ appears as a polite alternative to ‘Roman’ or ‘Romish’ or ‘Romanist’ early in the 17th century.  As one of the OED citations makes clear, Roman Catholics themselves in England in the 17th century delighted to use the term.  You effectively negate your main point (‘Catholic’ means and can only mean ‘Roman Catholic’) when you admit that you use ‘Roman Catholic’ ‘because I wish to speak so as to be understood’.  If ‘Roman’ is entirely unnecessary in universal usage, why is its use necessary for you to be understood?

On another level, I am confident that any random group of 100 Christians from, say, Boston in 1950 or Italy in 1850 or Greece in 1650 or England in 1350 or Constantinople in 850 if transported to the Sunday Mass in the average Roman parish in this country today and then transported to the Sunday Mass in the average Anglican Catholic parish today, would conclude that the Roman Mass was not very Catholic (rather breezy, informed by little Catholic doctrine, and perhaps irreverent) and that the ACC Mass is much more Catholic.  Lex orandi statuit legem credendi.

Yours in Christ,

(The Most Reverend) Mark Haverland, Ph.D.

This reply led to a very polite answer, which I reproduce below and which concluded the exchange.

Fri 22 June 2007

Your Grace,

Thank you for your kind and informative letter of 16 June in response to mine of 5 June 2007, dealing with the name Anglican Catholic and addressed to The Anglican Catholic Church, 1607 Dewitt Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia, 22301 [where the toll free number rang and was monitored].

I had not supposed to engage the attention of the Bishop himself.

In dealing with words that have more senses than one, the OEC (unlike lesser dictionaries) lists the definitions in chronological order.  The ordinal position of a definition is not indicative of its currency.  Almost the reverse is true.

I fear Your Grace’s deep knowledge of the language indisposes you to appreciate the effect that your advertisement has upon the ordinary reader. 

Yours truly, etc.

And so our exchange concluded with a polite disagreement

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