Catholic Romaphobia: Just What is the Vatican Doing Messing Around in Everything?

British Catholic journalist Damian Thompson, described as either a “blood-crazed ferret” or “intrepid defender of the faith” given your point of view, has apparently coined a new term: Romophobe. Unfortunately, the Urban Dictionary declares the word to mean a fear of Dallas Cowboys quaterback Tony Romo (and as fan myself, I say, “You should be afraid – very, very afraid!”

But Damian Thompson uses it to refer to the hysterical critics of Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church who made themselves look positively irrational during the surprisingly (surprising for whom, exactly?) successful state visit of the Roman Pontiff. That there exists Romaphobia, anti-Catholicism, or whatever you want to call it, no one in the Church doubts. But Romaphobia is not exclusive to those outside of the Church; on the contrary, it is alive and well within the Catholic Church!

Faithful Catholics have rightfully bemoaned the seeming inability of the media to “get the facts straight” when talking about the Church. Many Catholics and non-Catholics, whose opinions are formed by the media instead of by the Church, have very confused notions about how the Church actually works. Even when the media report accurately particularly salacious events surrounding members of the hierarchy, they often ascribe responsibility for those members and their actions to the wrong people. Other times the word of “a senior Vatican official” is made out to be the deposit of faith, and people base their entire view of the Church on the random musings of someone whose real identity could be a Cardinal Prefect of a Congregation of the Roman Curia, or a barely literate Carabiniere whose beat is Piazza San Pietro.

This Romaphobia among Catholics is particularly manifest in the comment sections of blogs. The anonymity of the internet allows people to make unchecked claims all the time, and the momentum of Romaphobic comments grows as other like-minded birds of a feather flock together to air their grievances against the Catholic Church, which they generally reduce to their hatred of the hierarchy, and encapsulate in the four-letter word, “Rome,” even if they also use “Vatican” as a synonym. One has the impression reading articles, books and blog comments of reading nineteenth century Protestant polemic in the style of Maria Monk or the colorful phrases of Martin Luther on a very bad day rather than vehement protests of faithful Catholics who actually love their Church.

Why has this state of affairs come about? Just what is Rome and the Vatican, anyway, and what role does the Pope, Rome, the Catholic Church and the Vatican (words that are used as if they were interchangeable) have in saying anything to anyone?

One of the most perplexing presuppositions of many Romophobes is that the Catholic Church is a highly organized machine, not unlike a cult, which demands and exacts unflinching obedience from its billions of automaton followers who are homogenized into accepting every word of the Pope as divinely revealed. The Pope, then, is responsible for every action of every single one of these automatons, much like a computer programmer is responsible for the error messages that creep up on your computer screen when something has gone wrong. There are many Catholic Romophobes who know that this a caricature of the truth, that even the slightest glance at history could disprove it, but they still feel that behind the caricature there is, not a grain, but a grain silo, of truth. They then view their “faithful dissent” as prophetic witness in changing the Church so that she (or it) is no longer the object of the caricature. So where do the Catholic Romophobes feel justified in their protest? Let us look at four areas.

Sacred Liturgy

When a liturgical reform is imposed inorganically by committee, it is impossible to escape the criticism of those who are upset they were not on the committee or that their opinion was not followed by the committee. Every Catholic, especially if he serves on a self-styled Liturgy Committee, has an opinion on what the liturgy should look like. The fact that the liturgy is a gift from the Church to be received and celebrated has been transformed into the notion that the liturgy is really nothing more than a human action that can be manipulated at will. Romophobes take the historical development of the liturgy to be proof that it has always been manipulated by human beings, and cry out when someone besides themselves manipulates the liturgy. They are particularly vexed when someone who happens to live in or around Rome says anything about the liturgy which does not square with how they think the liturgy should be.

One of the byproducts of the hermeneutic of rupture has been that the Roman Rite has in practice been divorced from the reality of the local Church in Rome. Whereas before the Council of Trent, many local Churches had their own liturgy, many bishops sent people to Rome to study the liturgy as celebrated in Rome with a view to integrating the Roman ars celebrandi, or adopting it wholesale, into their own liturgical practice. At Trent, many of these local liturgies were abandoned in favour of the Roman liturgy and others were heavily Romanised. No Romophobes these legitimate liturgists. While they did not go to the extreme of Dom Prosper Gueranger who looked forward to the day when no liturgy that was not Roman would exist, they all had a real deference to Rome on liturgical matters even when they preserved their own customs. In the present situation, the Romophobes argue that any intervention from the competent Roman congregation for liturgical matters is contrary to the Second Vatican Council, and such interventions are resisted with the force of the last stand against the Romans at Masada. “Rome” is continually criticized because “they” do not take into account the opinions of those who feel the right to be consulted.

One is reminded of the invocation of the Litany of Humility of Cardinal Merry Del Val, one of those figures of recent ecclesiastical history the Romophobes despise, “from the desire of being consulted, deliver me, O LORD.”

The angst over the new translation of the Roman Missal into English shows just how deep this Romaphobia runs. The publication of Liturgiam authenticam governing principles of translation has not only not been received by the Romophobes, it has been treated as if it were the death knell of language and literature itself. As the arduous process of correcting the translation of the English edition of the missal (by means of wide consultation over a span of many years, unlike the process by which the first translations were foisted upon the Church) unfolded, the Romophobes capitalized upon it to express their fear that, because the initiative was supposed to have come from Rome (as if now three generations of Catholic faithful have not complained for forty years of insipid translations), this was proof that Rome was “rolling back the clock to before Vatican II.”

This visceral reaction, which has been in reality not so much as to the language of the liturgy as much as it has been to the fact that Pope Benedict XVI has made it very clear that the liturgy is not ours to manipulate as we please, has manifested another byproduct of the hermeneutic of rupture: the distortion of the sensus fidelium. The participants at a certain liturgy conference, the members of a liturgy committee of a certain parish, a certain bishop and his chancery staff, are all unanimously agreed that Latin is dead, the Extraordinary Form is for old people who can’t get with it, and that the new translation of the Roman Missal is a pastoral nightmare waiting to happen. The people have spoken. They have exercised their ministry of prophecy. They protest in their “faithful dissent.” Ergo, the Spirit must be inspiring them and they are voice of the faithful; they are expressing the sense of the faithful.

The facts that the sensus fidelium is a much broader concept, one which also takes into account the sense of the faithful throughout all the world and all of history, and those who work in Vatican congregations also happen to be part of the fideles, does not occur to them. The manipulation of the media by propagating angry voices at the Roman contravention of the “spirit of Vatican II” and sensus fidelium only increases the impression that the Romophobes are in the majority. When someone also publicly decries the new translation of the Roman Missal as contrary to Vatican II (effectively denying the canonical principle that the Roman Pontiff has universal jurisdiction, not only over the liturgy, but over all of the Church, and, if you are Boniface VIII, over all creation), Romaphobia reaches a fever pitch and the folks in the pews can be excused for thinking that maybe there is something wrong. In fact, what is wrong is not that the Roman Curia and the Pope are exercising their ministry of protecting the sacred deposit of faith; what is wrong is that many have exchanged their own opinions on how the liturgy should be celebrated for living what the liturgy symbolizes: the Church, gathered around the apostles, in prayer and unity. And that unity can never be guaranteed by committee or by refusing to pray with the Roman Church.


There has always existed in the Church a rich theological pluralism. Many times that theological pluralism has brought about discussions, which were more acrimonious than charitable, but those same discussions have succeeded in clarifying important aspects of the Revelation of God in His Church. Nowadays, however, theological pluralism has degenerated into little more than doctrinal confusion. The Roman Church “which presides in charity over all the churches” is particularly solicitous for preserving the deposit of faith. While the deposit of faith, the content of Revelation, is distinct from theology, which is the intellectual exercise of understanding that content, theology veers off the right path if it distorts or denies that Revelation. The Magisterium, which can best be understood as the Church in her office of teaching, has as its duty to evaluate theology vis-à-vis that Revelation of which it is the custodian.

Many theologians today are very concerned with what they call “academic freedom.” It is true that theologians must be free from all coercion to pursue their investigation, formulate their conclusions, and propose their ideas. But if theology is to be anything more than an academic discipline pertaining to scholars in universities, and is to be of service to the universal Church, theology must be done, to use Von Balthasar’s phrase, “on our knees.” Theology cannot be divorced from life in the Church. And since life in the Church is principally a communio sanctorum, a communion of holy people, places, things and ideas, theology cannot operate outside of the sphere of the Magisterium whose task is to evaluate the idoneity of theology with Revelation.

The academic freedom of the religious thinker is subordinate to the higher goal of communion with the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican is the principal organ, although it is by no means the only one, by which the Roman Pontiff assures communion among Christians by assuring theology’s consonance with Revelation. The Romophobe feels his autonomy as a thinker challenged by the very existence of the Magisterium and the authority it claims to exercise in assuring the continuity, not just of one theologian’s thought with Revelation, but of all theology with the deposit of faith. Yet, the theologian’s freedom is ordered to the higher good, not of intellectual progress, but of communion within the Church.

The Romaphobic cries out that poor, unsuspecting theologians are hauled into the Vatican to be intellectually (and in former time, physically) tortured, for their beliefs. The very existence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and any other Vatican congregation, for that matter, is an outrage against human freedom and dignity. How dare they question anyone on what they believe? The reality is that the relatively few theologians whose work is analysed by CDF are not casualties of an all-out witch hunt to enforce conformism to the Roman machine. The process of investigation, discovery and evaluation, which CDF takes up in dialogue with some theologians, is initiated precisely because the hierarchy takes seriously the intellectual capacities of certain men and women to contribute to communion of the Church. One is reminded that even saints were examined by the Inquisition, the predecessor of the CDF, and as a result of such examination had the rightness of their convictions confirmed by the Church. The work of dialogue between the Roman Curia and theologians throughout the world exists first of all to ascertain what is good and helpful. It also carefully engages in fraternal correction, where necessary. Where the interventions of the Roman Curia are portrayed as obscurantist pogroms, the phantasms of Romaphobia can be discerned lurking the background, phantasms which essentially prize freedom at the expense of communion, and often, at the expense of truth.

The Appointment of Bishops

Nobody can seriously deny the evidence that the process for the selection and the appointment of bishops is very different today than it has been for most of history. The Romophobe sees the popular election of St Ambrose as Bishop of Milan from his status as a catechumen as proof of American-style populist democracy in the ancient Church. The Romophobe sees the election of bishops by cathedral chapters and, sometimes even by abbesses, in the Middle Ages and the appointment of every bishop from Rome today and thinks there must be something wrong with the process of today, if for most of history it was done differently. In short, the Romophobe is convinced that the present system testifies to the power-grabbing mania which he takes to characterize Rome, and often declares that this lust for power is precisely what drives people out of the Church.

The history of bishop-making is complicated indeed. But it is complicated partly because of the continued interference of civil leaders in the process. After 2000 years, the Church has extricated herself in large part, although not entirely, from state interference in the selection of bishops. If the Church teaches the principle of subsidiarity, namely, that decisions should be made “as close to home as possible,” then is it not logical for such a process to be as free from the interference of the Roman Curia as it is from the State?

In reality, this presupposition is not Romophobic at all. But it comes up against the sad reality of the fallen nature of man as homo politicus. The wisdom of the ancient Fathers and Doctors of the Church held that no man should ever want to become a bishop. But the type of popular election at the local level of bishops would inevitably cause the rise of careerist priests spending their time electioneering at the expense of their spiritual duties, and of men who might be worthy of the episcopacy being marginalized for not “playing the game.” Such a popular election mires the episcopal office invariably in local church politics.

Even many Romophobes are surprised, when they come across the Vatican’s procedure for the nomination of candidates to the episcopacy, of just how much consultation at the local level is asked for. In practice, the nuncios, the Vatican ambassadors whose job includes the synthesizing of this information to send to the Congregation for Bishops in the Vatican, do not always consult as they should. But the method is there. The fact that such nominees are “vetted” at several levels, even as far as the desk of the Holy Father himself, makes it a more consultative and inclusive decision making process than that of the election of many important positions in civil society.

The increased Roman centralization of the appointment of bishops has to be seen in the context of the increased localization of the information gathered to appoint them. It also serves to put forward candidates who might be excluded by local politics, it identifies candidates from one milieu whose talents might be just the right thing for another milieu, and it underscores the universality of the Church which goes over and above the merely local.

The discretion the Church asks of those involved in the laborious process of consultation is offered as evidence of the “cloak-and-dagger” mentality of Rome, when it serves to protect the peace of the candidates involved, as well as to keep out undue influences from the media or from other purely local political factors. The Romophobe, in his obsession with “transparency” actually would turn the whole life of the Church into an eternal campaign; this obsession Rome wisely resists.

It is not a perfect system, and the consultative process could always be larger, but in effect, it works.

The Diplomatic Mission of the Holy See

The Romophobes outside of the Church protested loudly the Holy Father’s visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010 on the ground that they felt they should not have to pay for the state visit of a man who was a religious leader, and not a true head of state. Particularly against the background of the sexual abuse crisis, calls abounded for the Pope to be arrested and handed over to the justice of the State, although no one was clear which State that would be. In fact, whether the Romophobes like it or not, the Pope is the head of a state known as Vatican City State and which is styled The Holy See as its diplomatic name, and as such, he and his ambassadors, the nuncios, are granted the rights and privileges of diplomatic immunity as are any other heads of state and their diplomatic corps.

Theological opinion on the relationship between the spiritual and temporal power of the Church, particularly as it resides in the person of the Holy Father, has varied widely through the ages. The all but complete loss of temporal power in the form of territory at the takeover of the Papal States by the Italian Unification completed in 1871 made such a discussion an academic one for the most part. The 1929 Lateran Treaty, and its subsequent reconfirmations in diplomatic law since then, guaranteed the Pope a spiritual freedom which was actually enhanced by the loss of temporal power and the establishment of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in its present form.

The Romophobe sees this special status of the Holy See as a fiction. Again, against the backdrop of the sexual abuse crisis, it seems nothing more than a convenient way of escaping the law and empowering immoral behavior. Yet, the handing over of clerics to the civil authorities for punishment of civil crimes is not at variance with the diplomatic mission of the Holy See. The Romophobe, who buys into the aggrandizement of the State as the only legitimate authority (because at least in theory, it is based on representative government, whereas the Church is a hierarchy with an infallible pope and a monarchical episcopate who call the Church a communion), wants to see the humbling of the Church before and by the State for its sins. The Romophobe wants to see the erasing of any vestige of temporal power, in a misguided attempt to restore a purely spiritual power to the Church. How he does not learn from the lesson of Henry VIII, who purported to do exactly the same in England, and ending up just despoiling the Church of her legitimate possessions and enriching himself, remains a mystery.

Here we see again a refusal to see the Church as she is and make the necessary distinctions. The Church is sinless, and made up of sinning members, as the paradox goes. That just punishment, in civil and canon law, for errant clerics and their protectors, must be had for the Church to regain the confidence of many, no one sane can deny. But using the sad story of crisis and cover-up as a pretext for the destruction of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission would be a grave offense against justice and humanity.

For one, the Holy See, precisely because of its unique status, can be above nationalism and local politics. The diplomatic service of the Holy See is actually in service, not just of the interests of the Catholic Church, but of religion in general and for all true human rights precisely because it is not the usual kind of state. While it is not unforeseeable that the current culture wars may result in stripping the Holy See of that state, a victory the Romophobes within and without the Church will celebrate, such a pyrrhic victory would remove from the public square a unique but powerful voice of conscience.

So where does all of this Romaphobia come from?

The acerbic, and not entirely unjustified, reaction to the sexual abuse crisis understandably feeds anti-Catholicism. But it also feeds Romaphobia. In part, Romaphobia is a positive reaction against those in the Church who do not practice what they preach, and is a call for coherence of life among those who hold the office of teaching, governing and sanctifying in the Church. However, Romaphobia among Catholics also points to the fact that many people no longer think with the Church. The Romophobe reasons that, if there are so many who do not think with the Church, then maybe the Church needs to think again. Yet such reasoning does not have as its reference point anything other than private judgment and individual contempt for the communion of the Church. Our individual struggle with the teaching of Christ and life in His Church, which is at the same time unified and broken, cannot remain at the level of reaction against Rome. That struggle must be lived in the communion of believers.

The hierarchy of the Church must be a model of communion if the lay faithful are going to find such a communion credible. The public accusations of cardinal vs. cardinal, bishop vs. bishop we read in the news today may at first seem like the fight between Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the New Testament, where a prophetic voice challenges Roman authority to truth and justice. But often our hierarchs can be lone rangers, waging their own battles with their own agendas in mind, without that discussion with the Roman Church and the Pope which makes dialogue flourish in communion. The continuous calls of some priests and bishops to “rethink” Church teaching on a variety of questions, from clerical celibacy and liturgical translations to same-sex marriage and global warming, plays right into the logic of Romophobia and does not edify the faithful. These calls give the impression that there is no authority in the Church, or that it is arbitrary, and they always make Rome out to be the villain. That certain men who have occupied the Chair of St Peter and worked in the Vatican have not always lived up to the Gospel as they should have is undeniable. But the same holds for those who occupy the pulpits and altars of Catholic churches all over the world, and those who sit in their pews.

To love Christ and His Church is not to hold back from constructive criticism at the right time, in the right place and in the right way, of those who err, but such criticism must be neither hatred nor fear of Rome, the Vatican, the Pope, or the Catholic Church. It must be offered from the standpoint of the eternal truth of Revelation lived joyfully in communion with the Church, with and under Peter.

Father Christopher Smith is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina and a graduate of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain.

11 Replies to “Catholic Romaphobia: Just What is the Vatican Doing Messing Around in Everything?”

  1. Many thanks for posting this article, Father. I've known far too many priests and deacons who, as you say, "give the impression that there is no authority in the Church, or that it is arbitrary, and they always make Rome out to be the villain." They do it to establish a sense of comraderie with parishioners, I think. But the reality is that it's simply dangerous and dishonorable.

    –Benjamin Ludwig

  2. Ooh ooh like Jeffery Tucker and how he stands against the Church's teaching on economics, saying the Church doesn't have the competence to proclaim stances on economics. Then when he is called on this over at Inside Catholic by distributists, who are seeking to understand and promote the teaching of the Church on economics, he and his buds at Inside Catholic deleted these critical comments.

    Thank you very much for this article Father, and thank you to all the contributors to this site (including Mr. Tucker) your work on sacred music and relating issues is very instructive.

    – Mitch_WA

  3. the Church doesn't have any particular expertise in economics, so what's your point. When they do so, they frequently embarrass themselves. I'd rather have a well formed Catholic laity trained in economics to comment.

    Most liturgical "progressives" are anti-Roman and unhinged. At least that's been my experience since the 1960s.

  4. What is Rerum Novarum, etc. about then other than a framework for a moral economics. The Pope doesn't himself have any particular expertise in birth control, but he has authority to speak on it. Its all part of moral theology, the Church has a right. People just claim it has no right to teach on it because they don't like the teaching.

  5. Mitch (and his distributivists friends)is just mistaken. It is not Mr. Tucker who says the Church has not particular competency to speak on the specifics of economics (which is different than addressing the moral framework needed, as in RN), but the Church Herself who says this in numerous places and consistently over time. the latests instance of this comes in Caritas in Veritate, no. 9: "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer…". See also, Guaudium et Spes, no. 36; Centesimus Annus, no. 43, Octogesima Adveniens, no. 4, Mater et Magistra,no. ..well, you get the idea.

  6. Whenever anyone makes a comment on the Roman Church, one cannot expect objectivity, because the state of their soul is very involved with their perception. This is the reason why reactions are heavily polarized. This does not occur with any other institution on the face of the earth.

  7. The Anonymous homunculus @ 11:12am who stated that the Church claims She has no competency has done the usual: cite the "loci communes", take at least one sentence verbatim (always out-of-context), and give the "ad nauseam" comment at the end. When debate – even on the internet – is reduced to such a level, it is embarrassing and makes one to pine for the days of the public "disputationes" where such stupidity would be quickly ashamed and run off the stage.

    The article, ad punctum, is great and a needed correction to much popular american thinking … speaking as an unpopular american 🙂 God's ways are not our ways, and Rome's ways (or the Papal and Curial ways) are not our ways either.

  8. Or not.

    There are many problems with this piece. Most obviously, just as there are many political fronts in the Church as Fr Smith suggests, people have all sorts of reasons to disagree with Rome. Few involve fear. But some are entirely rational, and don't involve fabrication theology like committees, ruptures, and such. Accurate diagnosis is essential to getting a start on tackling Church problems.

  9. Strawman alert.

    Fr. Smith doesn't suggest, let alone state, that people who disagree with Rome do so for only one reason – let alone that it is because of "fear."

    That's because he's not talking about "disagreeing with Rome." (What he's really talking about, I leave for you to discover.)

  10. The Vatican is recovering from their wound but are not quite there yet. The deadly wound happened in 1798. But remember the two horns of the lamb but spoke like a dragon talked about in the Bible…. They will help the Vatican heal from the wound meaning the United States will back the Vatican to combine church and state. They will say that we believe in the frist Amendment but on the other hand join church and state together.The Vacatican wants that power back of Church and state. The two horns on the lamb represents two Kingdoms…Church and State. Remember when they asked Christ They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus said..Show me a Roman coin. Whose picture and title are stamped on it?" "Caesar's," they replied.He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
    Jesus knew the two kingdoms.Church and state. Its dangersous to join Church and State together. If that happens and it will according to prophetic teaching in the bible we will no longer have our own conscience of worshipping God.

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