Popery (adjective papist) is a pejorative term used to label the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings, practices and adherents. In early use the term could refer to a partisan backing the side of the pope on a particular issue. In English the word gained currency during the English Reformation, as it was used to denote a person whose loyalties were to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, rather than to the Church of England. First used in 1522,[2] papist derives (through Middle French) from Latin papa, meaning "pope".[3]

The term is also used in the Eastern Orthodox Church,[4] and was used multiple times by the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki in its theological conference entitled "Ecumenism: Origins, Expectations, Disenchantment" which opposed Ecumenism.[5]


The word was in common use by Protestant writers until the mid-nineteenth century, as shown by its frequent appearance in Thomas Macaulay's History of England from the Accession of James II and in other works of that period, including those with no sectarian bias.

The word is found in certain surviving statutes of the United Kingdom, for example in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Scottish Claim of Right of 1689. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, no one who professes "the popish religion" may succeed to the throne of the Kingdom of England and the Act continues to apply to the United Kingdom and all of the Commonwealth Realms; until the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 amended it with effect from 2015, the Act of Settlement also banned from the throne anyone who married "a papist". Fears that Roman Catholic secular leaders would be anti-Protestant and would be unduly influenced from Rome arose after all allegiance to the Pope was banned in England in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the author of Gulliver's Travels, employed the term in his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which he proposed selling Irish babies to be eaten by wealthy English landlords. Daniel Defoe wrote in the popular Robinson Crusoe (1719), near the end of the novel: "... I began to regret having professed myself a Papist, and thought it might not be the best religion to die with."

Similar terms, such as the traditional "popery" and the more recent "papalism", are sometimes used,[6][7][8] as in the Popery Act 1698 and the Irish Popery Act. The Seventh-day Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White uses the terms "papist" and "popery" throughout her book The Great Controversy, a volume harshly criticized for its anti-Catholic tone.

During the American presidential election of 1928, the Democratic nominee Al Smith was labeled a "papist" by his political opponents. He was the first Roman Catholic ever to gain the presidential nomination of a major party, and this led to fears that, if he were elected, the United States government would follow the dictates of the Vatican.[9] As of 2019, John F. Kennedy is the only Roman Catholic to have been elected President of the United States.

The term is still sometimes used today,[10][11] although much less often than in earlier centuries.


In early use the term appeared in the compound form "Crypto-Papist", referring to members of Reformed, Protestant, or nonconformist churches who at heart were allegedly Roman Catholics.[12][13] Alexis Khomiakhov, a Russian lay theologian of the nineteenth century, claimed that "All Protestants are Crypto-Papists".[14]

Although the term may simply imply a Romanizing influence, at times there have been individuals who have secretly converted to Catholicism, for example, James II of England, Bartholomew Remov and Yelizaveta Fyodorovich. Some people may later on openly convert, such as George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, or secretly convert with reservations, such as John III of Sweden. The doctrine of mentalis restrictio was used to justify situations involving deceit.

See also


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