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An 1807 satirical painting by James Gillray showing King George III of the United Kingdom saying "bring in the papists!"

The words Popery (adjective Popish) and Papism (adjective Papist, also used to refer to an individual) are mainly historical pejorative words in the English language for Roman Catholicism, once frequently used by Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians to label their Roman Catholic opponents, who differed from them in accepting the authority of the Pope over the Christian Church.[1] The words were popularised during the English Reformation (1532–1559), when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and divisions emerged between those who rejected papal authority and those who continued to follow Rome. The words are recognised as pejorative;[2][3][4][5] they have been in widespread use in Protestant writings until the mid-nineteenth century, including use in some laws that remain in force in the United Kingdom.[6]

Popery and Papism are sometimes used in modern writing as dog whistles for anti-Catholicism or they are used as pejorative ways of distinguishing Roman Catholicism from other forms of Christianity that refer to themselves as Catholic, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutherans of Evangelical Catholic churchmanship or Anglicans of Anglo-Catholic churchmanship. Papist was used in the latter way in 2008 by the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki at a conference opposing ecumenism, and the word sees some wider use in the Eastern Orthodox Church.[7][1]


A Dutch crescent-shaped Geuzen medal at the time of the anti-Spanish Dutch Revolt, with the slogan "Liever Turks dan Paaps" ("Rather Turkish than Papist"), 1570[8]
St John the Baptist Church, Hagley, memorial to Meriel Lyttelton (a daughter of Thomas Bromley) from 1769, remembered "for Breeding up her Children in the Protestant Religion, Their Ancestors having been Papists"

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Papist was first used in 1528.[9]

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. Catholics have been excluded from the British throne for centuries. In 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which requires that only a Protestant monarch could rule over England and Ireland.[10] 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;[6] 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,[11][12][13] as in the Popery Act 1698 and the Irish Popery Act. The Seventh-day Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White used 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.[14] As of 2022, John F. Kennedy and Joe Biden are the only Roman Catholics to have been elected President of the United States.

The term is still sometimes used today,[15][16] 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.[17][18] Alexis Khomiakhov, a Russian lay theologian of the nineteenth century, claimed that "All Protestants are Crypto-Papists".[19]

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.

See also


Pejorative terms for Roman Catholics



  1. ^ a b "Conclusions of the Inter-Orthodox Theological Conference "Ecumenism: Origins Expectations Disenchantment"". orthodox.info. Retrieved 2008-11-03.
  2. ^ Larousse, Éditions. "Définitions : papisme - Dictionnaire de français Larousse". www.larousse.fr (in French). Retrieved 2020-11-15.
  3. ^ Sennet, Adam; Copp, David (2017). "Pejoratives and Ways of Thinking". Analytic Philosophy. 58 (3): 248–271. doi:10.1111/phib.12100. ISSN 2153-960X.
  4. ^ Delaney, Sarah. "Vatican newspaper says Shakespeare was secret Catholic". www.catholicregister.org. Catholic News SErvice. Retrieved 2020-11-15. Anglican Archdeacon Richard Davies wrote, "He died a papist," a pejorative term Protestants used to refer to Catholics.
  5. ^ "Dictionary of the Scots Language:: DOST :: papist". Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  6. ^ a b Act of Settlement. UK Government. 1700. That all and every Person and Persons that then were or afterwards should be reconciled to or shall hold Communion with the See or Church of Rome or should professe the Popish Religion ... should be excluded and are by that Act made for ever (incapable) to inherit possess or enjoy the Crown and Government of this Realm and Ireland and the Dominions thereunto belonging or any part of the same or to have use or exercise any regall Power Authority or Jurisdiction within the same
  7. ^ "Паписты".
  8. ^ Bulut, Mehmet (2001). Ottoman-Dutch economic relations in the early modern period 1571-1699. Uitgeverij Verloren. p. 112. ISBN 978-90-6550-655-9.
  9. ^ "papist, noun and adjective". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ "Which European royals are not in line for the British throne?". Royal Central. 2020-08-06. Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  11. ^ Dr J. J. Overbeck and His Scheme for the Re-establishment of the Orthodox Church in the West
  12. ^ "Popery".
  13. ^ "Popery Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster".
  14. ^ Michael O'Brien, John F. Kennedy: A Biography, Thomas Dunne Books, 2005, p. 414.
  15. ^ Vladimir Moss, Letter to a Papist
  16. ^ Ian Paisley, Papist Doctrine of Oaths
  17. ^ Walter Walsh, The Secret History of the Oxford Movement (C.J. Thynnes, 1898), pp. 8 and 187
  18. ^ The American National Preacher, August 1851, Sermon DLIII, p. 190
  19. ^ James J. Stamoolis (2004). Brad Nassif (ed.). Three views on Eastern Orthodoxy and evangelicalism. Zondervan. p. 20. ISBN 0310235391.