Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church call itself that? Jesus stood against everything that the Roman Empire represented—the power, the might and the violence. Rome figured mightily in his death on the cross.
A: The term Roman Catholic became common only after the East/West separation of the Church in 1054 A.D. It was further reinforced in the West after Martin Luther’s protest in the 16th century.
You are correct that Jesus opposed many things linked to the Roman Empire. The New Testament’s Book of Revelation speaks of Rome as “Babylon” and “the mother of whores” (see 17:5). The Church steadfastly resisted the claim to the title “God and Lord” by the Emperor Domitian (d. 96) and his readiness to brand as atheists those who rejected the official state religion.
You are also correct that Rome was heavily involved in Jesus’ death. Pontius Pilate executed him on a charge of treason. No Roman citizen could be punished by crucifixion.
There were already Christians in Rome when the Apostles Peter and Paul arrived to strengthen that faith community. In that city they were martyred and are buried. Very different in temperament and background, they evangelized Jews and gentiles respectively. The fact that they share a single feast (June 29) suggests that the Church has long recognized legitimate diversity of thought and action. At times, however, the Church must designate some ideas and practices as incompatible with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We should remember that the oldest term in Scripture for Jesus’ disciples is “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2). It was in Antioch that they were first called “Christians” (see Acts 11:26). The author of Acts of the Apostles ends his story with St. Paul’s ministry in Rome. From that city, the Good News of Jesus would spread to the rest of the known world.
All peoples—Roman Catholics included—stand under God’s judgment and must avoid idolatry of every kind. Thinking that only Roman Catholics can be saved is a form of idolatry.