Who is a Catholic?
Monday | Mar 17 2014
                                                                                               Image Credit: giulio napolitano / shutterstock
“Who is Pope Francis?” was the understandable and constant question during this pope’s first year, now past. “Who is a Catholic?” is the understandable and urgent question in his second year, now begun. Of course, the two questions are symbiotic. What the pope says and does relates to and potentially effects change in the lives of each of the one billion individuals called “Catholic.” The question not only takes a plural form, “Who are Catholics?” but, also, “Who is a Catholic?” So far, the public media and the internet have highlighted the latter question.

“What It Means to Be Catholic Now,” an op-ed by Peter Manseau in The New York Times (March 10), provides a focus for discussion and an illustration of the complexity of the issue. Regarding the Pope as “the perfect divining rod for uncovering assumptions about the future of the Catholic church,” Manseau brought up a number of adjectives or other forms of description. Count them: “lapsed,” “recovering,” “former,”  “ecumenical,” “universal,” “authentic,” “Reformed,” “independent,” “loyal to the poetry of,” for beginnings.

Letters to the NYT Editor (March 13) added a few more:  “because of baptism,” “because of profound healing,” “practicing,” “observant,” etc. Hang out with wearers-of-the-green Catholics on St. Patrick’s Day, and you will hear the list of adjectives and descriptions only growing.

When asked about those who do not adhere to all Catholic teachings by Catholics with agendas of their own, the Pope famously replied, “Who am I to judge?” Still, it makes sense to begin at the beginning, to bring clarity to the questions. â€œWho am I to judge?” is not a reply designed to inspire relativism, indifference, or sloppiness.

A voice from the Right, the Reverend Michael P. Orsi of Ave Maria School of Law, offered a helpful starting place by citing St. Ambrose: “Where there is Peter, there is the church,” referring to the “Petrine authority” and focus in Catholic definition and practice.

A voice from the Left, Hans Kững (quoted in Richard McBrien’s Catholicism), wrote that Roman Catholicism’s distinctive feature is “the importance it assigns to the place and functions of the Petrine ministry exercised by the bishop of Rome.”

A score of dictionaries and encyclopedias of Roman Catholicism, Catholicism, and Christianity on the shelf above my desk all testify to the same. Their words explain why what Pope Francis says and does is so much observed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Sightings and its subscribers know that whatever the Pope says and does belongs to our chosen category of emphasis, “public religion.” The other half-billion of us “non-Catholic Christians” who are interested in but do not have organic or authoritative ties to the Roman Catholic Pope don’t expect communicators in the media or digital worlds to know the names of any elected or appointed head of any other body. Non-Jews can discuss Judaism without knowing or recognizing the name of a single prominent rabbi; most Protestant leaders lack name recognition and enjoy the luxury of not being at the center of news.

Having noted all this, we know and will monitor evidences that there are very many kinds of Roman Catholics today, and what they say and do will, both positively and negatively, color the image and activity of Roman Catholics in the future.

“Who is Pope Francis?” and “Who is a Roman Catholic?” remain uncommonly intertwined. Rome, it was once said, is “simper eadem,” always the same, but in many ways which count, its “sameness” is subject to change, and has been from “Peter” until now.


Manseau, Peter. “What It Means to Be Catholic Now.” The New York Times, March 9, 2014, The Opinion Pages Op-Ed Contributor.

The New York Times, “Letters to the Editor,” March 13, 2014, The Opinion Pages Letters.

Kung, Hans, quoted by Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis, MI: Winston, 1980), 723.

Image Credit: giulio napolitano / shutterstock

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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