Yes, They are Actually Catholics! Diversity in Rites

by Mark Florig, Yale M.A.R., Class of ’21

            As odd as it may be for Catholics to hear many of their friends across ecumenical boundaries assert that “Catholic” and “Christian” are somehow exclusive of one another, it becomes even more awkward for certain subsets within the Catholic Church to hear their fellow believers assert that they either aren’t Catholic, or, perhaps more patronizingly, that they aren’t really Catholic. The fact of the matter is that as part of its universality, the Catholic Church includes under its umbrella a multitude of rites, sui iuris Churches, uses, forms, ethnic customs, prelatures, and Ordinariates. To an outsider, it may appear somewhat strange; it may appear even stranger to an insider, but the Catholic Church is a lot more diverse than many think.

            I will grant that amongst those in communion with the Holy See, the vast majority are both members of what is, under canon law, that is the particular legal code governing the Catholic Church, the “Latin” Church, and also practitioners of the Roman Rite, most commonly in its Ordinary Form (the ritual books promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI). As an aside, it is important to note that in the way I am using it, “Rite” denotes a comprehensive mode of Christian life, including, but definitely not limited to the manner in which public worship is conducted. It is quite likely that many who will read this page are Americans, and since that is the context in which I am writing, my experiences and descriptions of the average Catholic are necessarily localized to my own context. Mileage may vary. That being said, the average Joe Catholic has probably grown up in an environment wherein the vast majority of other Catholics were likely similar to him, insofar as most would have been exposed to the culture of the American iteration of the Latin Church, and normally the Roman Rite. As such, the variety in Average Joe Catholic’s spiritual life would likely have been expressed in ethnic customs. A hundred years ago, this could be expressed in the form of the Irish parish vs the Italian parish vs the Polish parish, all within a few city blocks of one another, but all saying the same mass from the same books, with a few ethnic customs like important saints  and processions creeping in. Presently, most of the old European immigrant Catholics have largely dissolved into a broader “English-speaking” American Catholicism, which, in terms of diversity, is juxtaposed with Hispanic/Latino American Catholicism, which still, for its differences in vernacular used during the mass and emphasis on certain ethnic customs, is both similar enough and common enough, owing to the legacy of the exportation of the Roman Rite around the world in the colonial era, that it is regarded as qualitatively the same thing, the differences being roughly coterminous with ethno-linguistic lines.

            Where this comfort zone often begins to break down for the Average Joe American Catholic is where groups get small enough in his experience of Catholicism that knowingly meeting such a different sort of Catholic is so exceptional that it may be met with disbelief, especially if the rites and customs are vastly different, or emerged in exceptional circumstances. If one has only been exposed to a certain, universally common sort of Catholic, deviation from this often leads to an instinctive reaction, especially in a very ecumenical society such as the United States, of believing that this different sort of Catholic is not a Catholic at all, but some kind of Eastern Orthodox or Protestant. Hence, this can, through ignorance, lead to the accusation that someone is not a “real” Catholic.

            Granted, this may not be as groundless of an accusation as I may have implied, as there are groups not in communion with Rome that use “Catholic” in their name, such as Old Catholics (schism over Papal Infallibility), Catholic Apostolics (movement within Scottish Presbyterianism), and Palmarian Catholics (sedevacantist followers of a visionary in Spain). At the same time, however, the vast majority of different Catholics that Average Joe Roman Catholic will meet are in communion with Rome. However, what makes them different is how they express their Catholic Christianity.

            The non-Roman Rite Catholics that Average Joe is most likely to meet are Eastern Catholics, members of 23 sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches, largely self-governing institutions in communion and dogmatic agreement with Rome (the Bishop of Rome being ex officio the patriarch of the Latin (Western) Church). Generally, Eastern Catholic Churches arise out of attempts to restore communion with various Eastern Christian groups that were previously divided by schism, and there are usually corresponding groups that did not go through with re-union. For example, there is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with follows the same Byzantine Rite as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the different being that the former is in communion with Rome, while the latter is not. An interesting exception to this is the Maronite Church of Lebanon, which has never been officially out of communion with Rome, and has no corresponding non-Catholic Church.

            Eastern Catholics have a wide variety among themselves, both at the level of rite and ethnicity. Eastern Churches are often split along ethnic lines as well as those of rite. For example, both the Melkite and Ruthenian Churches follow the Byzantine Rite in their public worship, but one is composed largely of Middle Eastern Christians while the other is composed mainly of Eastern Europeans. Meanwhile, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches are both from the Indian subcontinent, but follow different Rites. (I am well aware that the Indian subcontinent is large and contains many ethnolinguistic groups. However, my goal is to illustrate that it is possible to have different rites operating alongside each other in the same cultural milieu, even in Old World, non-immigrant situations.) They are all still Catholics in communion with one another and with Rome. At the same time they are all different, co-equal in dignity, and orthodox expressions of Catholic Christianity.

            The Latin Church has this situation inverted. There is one Latin Church, but a great multitude of ethnicities, as well as, to a much lesser extent than Eastern Churches, a variety of Rites practiced within it. Originally, the West had roughly comparable amounts of liturgical diversity as the East, with the Roman Rite simply being the most common one in central Italy. In Milan the Ambrosian rite, in Spain, what would come to be the Mozarabic Rite, in the Merovingian Kingdom in modern day France, the Gallican Rite, and a variety traditions documented amongst the Britons existed alongside and in communion with Rome’s customs. While there was this great diversity early in the first millennium, three factors caused the Roman Rite to become the dominant in the West. In brief, these are the sending of missionaries from Rome to convert the pagans in the North, the Carolingian Empire adopting the Roman Rite at the expense of the Gallican, and the rise of mendicant orders who used predominantly the ritual books of Rome, albeit with some slight variations. By the time of the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s, most of the West used some variant of the Roman Rite, and it is from this ritual practice that the term “Roman Catholic” derives. However, there are still small pockets in Spain that use the Mozarabic Rite, and the archdiocese of Milan continues to use the Ambrosian Rite. These people would definitely be Catholics, just not necessarily Roman Catholics.

            In the realm of North American Christianity, the majority of non-typical-Roman Catholics are Easterners encountered in diaspora, but even there are certain special categories of Catholics, some of which may still be considered “Roman Catholics,” but who have a distinct history and distinct ritual practices. The most obvious would be those who primarily move in Extraordinary Form contexts. Most Catholics are at least acquainted with someone who goes to the Extraordinary Form, that is the Roman Missal as promulgated in 1962. This is perfectly permissible under the documents Ecclesia Dei and Summorum Pontificum. In case there’s any doubt, people who go to FSSP, ICKSP, and other Extraordinary Form parishes are really Catholics. If they start spouting about the Second Vatican Council being invalid and there being no Pope since the 1950s, then they’re schismatics, but NOT simply for the reason of which mass they attend.

            However, there are more than two forms of Roman Rite mass currently in use. The third is used by a particular ecclesiastical body known as a Personal Ordinariate, three of which were established in Great Britain, North America, and Australia as a result of the 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. The development of this particular body and the liturgical forms associated with it resulted from the fact that “In recent times the Holy Spirit has moved groups of Anglicans to petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately” (Anglicanorum Coetibus). One of the provisions provided for these Catholics-to-be was that they would be permitted to keep as much of their liturgical and theological patrimony as possible. The Ordinariates have their own mass books, as well as other occasional services and are in the process of publishing a version of the Divine Office based on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Compared to Eastern Catholics and adherents to the Extraordinary Form, finding Ordinariate members are exceptionally rare, apart from when one of their parishes is nearby. Nevertheless, despite often being called members of the “Anglican Ordinariate,” they are Catholics, not Protestants.

            As a student of sacred liturgy, I look at this vast kaleidoscope of traditions living and growing in communion with one another. The lately sainted Pope, John Paul II, remarked how the Church needed to learn how to breathe with both lungs, East and West. At the most basic level, he was calling on Western Christians not to deride the customs of Eastern Christians simply due to difference. At a deeper level, the comparison to lungs is shockingly apt, as each lung within it contains different lobes, and different alveoli, little sacs wherein the air gives oxygen to the bloodstream. Each of these is separate from one another, but they are united in performing the same function. So it is with the Church. There may be one faith, but there are many ways to express it. And so, it is my hope and prayer that this brief post may inspire someone and encourage someone who encounters a Catholic of a different sort not to doubt their claims, but rather inquire into the greater diversity of the Church.

12 comments

  1. It would’ve been clearer to all of us if you’d have included a concise list of approved Catholic rites in full communion with Rome, at the end…a summary, if you will!?

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    • Reads a bit like a run-on sentence. Why not individualize the thoughts a bit more with some space, shorter paragraph structure; utilize some parentheticals? These ideas are not difficult to grasp, but the way they lay out, they read like hieroglyphics.

      Also: Clarify whom it is being referred to when you use pronouns.

      Ask yourself: Could I say this with less words? This article should be about half as long. It’s simply informational, why prolong the “most Catholics wouldn’t……” idea. (Usually referring to Catholics resistance or inability to process concepts…..well, it doesn’t help your case by making such assertions based on assumptions that are anecdotal at best).

      This idea that the natural inclination (you suggest this is JP II’s motivation) is for Catholics to deride the Eastern Rites, in sort of knee jerk fashion. I have not found that to be the case. It may be true that Latin Rite Catholics are less familiar, but that doesn’t equate to “suspicion or skepticism” as a first thought. Certainly there is the famous situation with Eastern Rite married priests in the USA, and very uptight Latin bishops, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Eastern Catholics moving to the OCA along with their married priests, but that was a hundred plus years ago. The “shock” value is not at all the same now. People saw those Churches represented at JP II’s funeral. There is greater awareness and much less “fear” or skepticism.

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  2. “By the time of the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s, most of the West used some variant of the Roman Rite, and it is from this ritual practice that the term “Roman Catholic” derives.”

    NO it most certainly does not! The term “Roman Catholic” is a grossly false and despicable insult which was invented by English protestants in the 17th century (refer e.g. Oxford Dictionary) to describe ALL who are in communion with the Pope, NOT just those using the Roman Rite. Catholics should NOT use this term, which you even more confusingly use here as if it were variously a synonym for ” all Latin Rite Catholics” AND contradictorily “those Latin Rite Catholics who use the Roman Rite”.

    You also omitted to mention the various Rites used by several religious orders within the Latin Rite (a.k.a. the Western Rite).

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    • The insult “Roman Catholic” is intended to imply that Catholics (all of them) are (a) traitors to the country, instead serving a “foreign prince” (the Pope) and
      (b) renegades who have split off from and rejected the “real Catholic” (i.e. Anglican/Episcopalian) church.

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      • Thank you for clarification on how the term entered the English language. Perhaps I ought to have been a bit clearer on those origins as compared to how it is used today. In contemporary liturgical scholarship, “Roman Catholic” as a term denotes those Latin Church Catholics who use the Roman Rite in one of its various forms. I did not mention the “rites” of religious orders or dioceses directly because contemporary liturgical scholarship tends to view them as “uses” of the Roman Rite, insofar as thy use the Roman Canon as their main Eucharistic Prayer, and follow the same general ordo, albeit with a few variants in the prayers of the ordinary, and some variants in the propers and calendars of saints. For example, the Dominican Use is still recognizably a variant of the Roman Rite, even if there are differences in, for example, the specific contents of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.

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      • Repectfully, Peter K, I think your reaction here is unwarranted, and based on a distant time and mindset that really is not particularly germane at this point in time.

        Most Latin Rite Catholics are fine with “Roman Catholic” or simply “Catholic” and don’t really give it another thought. Most Eastern Rite Catholics, as well, could give two hoots about what 17th Century English Protestants “meant” or which sort of “insult” they were intending, if they indeed, as you’d claim, coined that term.

        C’mon. Words DO have meanings, (again, assuming you’re correct, and I’m not ceding that point) but those meanings morph over the centuries, and people themselves determine the label they wish to apply to themselves. I don’t know one Roman Catholic who’d object to that term or feel the vinegar of such an insult that you’re suggesting here.

        Which alternate labels do you, personally, prefer, and what do you suggest as an “official” designation for Latin Rite Catholics? (Or clarify the issue in any other way you’d see fit. maybe I’m missing something. In any event, try not to be so brusque and accusatory in your tone; how is that helpful or charitable?).

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      • “contemporary liturgical scholarship”, seriously?
        Use the term “Roman Catholic” to anyone if a non English speaking background and they will look at you blankly. It simply doesn’t exist in other languages.

        It’s not a claim, it’s a fact, that the term is an insult. Yes I’m aware some Catholics in the USA have recently tried to turn it into a positive, but it just doesn’t work as it’s a contradiction.

        You don’t know one “Roman” Catholic who’d object to it? You really need to get out more.

        “What do you suggest as an official designation for Latin Rite Catholics?”
        You answered your own question there, didn’t you?

        Sorry for the brusqueness, but I find it annoying when an article purporting to be learners and informative (and indeed it is in most other respects) contains an obviously wrong howler like this. Especially when it uses an anti Catholic insult as if it were a correct term.

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      • We have two separatist/schismatic “catholic” churches here in Louisville. We have managed to get the local newspaper to refrain from listing them as Roman Catholic though they don’t mention their irregular status. In this instance the identifier would seem quite appropriate and as I mentioned before, not inappropriate universally.

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  3. “Roman Catholic” is one of those terms whose use has evolved over time. As someone whose educational concentration was in English language/literature, I can assure all who might be offended by the term that it is no pejorative. For illustrations of different meanings previously to familiar words of today, I invite anyone to read English as written before Shakespeare put some regularity in the language.

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  4. Palmarian Catholics are schismatics and not sedevacantists. Their present pope is Peter III. Sedevacantists say no valid pope after Pius XII.
    Benedict XVI gave up the title Patriarch of the West in 2006. Francis does not have it.

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  5. Some years ago, I saw a photo on the interwebs with all manner of Catholic clergy wearing different vestments across different traditions, and it said “diversity”. As for myself, I am, as a Latin Catholic (I did not like or use the term “Roman” Catholic), very happy that I have gotten to worship many times according to the Byzantine rite (mostly at the Melkite church). Good article, though I would have phrased some of it differently, God bless!

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