December 28, 2010

Capitalizing “Catholic”

In the form of the Prayers of the People (Form III) that we used in church Sunday, I noticed that the word “catholic” was capitalized. I thought this odd, as I had been taught that, for example, when we use “catholic” in the Nicene Creed, we are referring to the whole body of Christ, whereas “Catholic” tends to refer to the Roman Catholic Church.

This observation led me to track down every instance of the word “catholic” in the 1979 prayer book. There are 37, as it turns out, and, in 24 cases, the word is un-capitalized. In 6 cases where it is capitalized, the occurrences are in the Historical Documents section. (In one case, the Roman Catholic Church is actually what is being referred to.)

I would argue that the 7 instances of “Catholic” in the main section of the prayer book are simply wrong.

See the full list of occurrences of the word “catholic” and my observations about them in “‘Catholic’ and the Book of Common Prayer” on my Web site.


  1. What's even more puzzling, is why it took so long for someone to notice this.

  2. Because you all have much better things to do than read books of fantasy with such intensity?

  3. Lionel,

    You might want to take a look at similar instances in 1928, 1789, and 1662. I'm not sure there's a consistent rationale to the inconsistency, but I would note that at least within careful conversation Anglicans have never wanted to grant the Roman Catholic Church any exclusivity to the use of the word, capitalized or no.

    Bruce R.

  4. You were simply taught incorrectly. The 1979 Prayer Book was the first to use "catholic" with a small 'C'. It would be interesting to see who won the day on the SLC and why for that revision. Both the English 1662 and American 1928 used a capital. We are not some sect. We are the English Rite of the Catholic Church, even in America. The Episcopal Church is not just a denomination; it is the English Rite of the Catholic Church in America. We seem to have forgotten, or never learned that. That this is true is clear from the Preface to the BCP 1979, and all other American prayer books. The assertion of our Anglican Catholicity is what has always galled Rome so much. We are a reformed Catholic Church.

    The Communion is not a Church; however, the national churches are the English Rite of the Catholic Church in their several lands. That's what makes us Anglican- conforming in essentials to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church of England.

    If we want to re-invent the Episcopal Church as some independent American denomination, we should plainly say so and do so. But that is not our tradition, our heritage, or our former ecclesiology.

    We are the reformed Catholic Church in America, English Rite.

  5. Well said, AmericanBrit, though I do not find the distinctions you make as compelling as you do. In particular, although I have heard many insist that The Episcopal Church (or any other Anglican church or the Anglican churches collectively) is not a “denomination,” I don’t find the assertion very useful. To almost every native speaker of American English, “denomination” simply means a variety of Christian church. In this sense, the only one recognized in this context in my dictionary, the Roman Catholic Church is also a denomination.

    Nomenclature aside, I do not have a problem with what you said. My point was not about my ecclesiological education, however, but about the unexplained inconsistency in the rendering of the word “catholic” in the 1979 BCP. I looked in Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book the other day for possible insight, but Hatchett seems not to have dealt with the issue.

  6. Not to be argumentative, but... to almost every native speaker of American English the use of "Rev So-and-So" as a form of address or title would also seem correct and seem to make sense. That would be erroneous on both counts, even by your dictionary.

    Despite common contemporary English usage, and the relativism of current pluralism from which it stems, there is no equivalency between the Catholic Churches and other churches. All churches are not created equal, nor do they all incarnate the Catholic faith. Your dictionary is not a theological dictionary, and no sound ecclesiology makes a denomination of snake-handlers the equivalent, or even comparable to the fullness of the Catholic Church of Christ, with all due respect to the relativism winning the present day.

    The Orthodox Churches of the east are not denominational, and would scoff at the idea. They are, to their mind, simply the Church Christ founded. Roman Catholics and Anglicans claim that same high nature of being THE church, not a diminished group of sectarians.

    In Catholic ecclesiology, "denominations" are made to distinguish other churches and ecclesial bodies from the authentic Catholic Church of Christ, in its recognisable Catholic variations.

    I hope that distinction will never be made of the Episcopal Church in America- with either a capital or a lower case 'C'.


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