Catholics’ Relationship to Other Believers
“This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities.
CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH 811
Are Catholics Christians?
For many this may seem an odd question. Yet some people just beginning to seek God and pose spiritual questions are simply ignorant about the terms. They’ve heard that there are Christians of all stripes and want to know if Catholics are to be included in that vast body. It’s an innocent question, much like asking, “Are Swedes Europeans?”
Others who ask the question, however, may carry about eccentric notions of Jesus that don’t conform to the New Testament images of Christ. They conceive of him as meekly and mildly walking the shores of Galilee with dreamy eyes and a slightly pained expression on his face as though he had an annoying pebble in his right sandal. When they hear that the Catholic Church accepts war under certain conditions, or doesn’t champion vegetarianism, or restricts the sacrament of matrimony to heterosexuals intending a life-long union with the intention of raising children, or denies that all dogs go to heaven, they say, “That’s mean. Are Catholics really Christians?” They adhere to the “gospel of nice,” which upon inquiry turns out to be little more than sentimental presumption.
A relatively small but especially vocal number of fellow Christians ask the question out of a doctrinal concern. They believe that the Catholic Church has distorted the gospel or added to it, and since the gospel is central to Christianity, they think the Catholic Church can’t be Christian. I should add that they often have the same opinion of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and deep suspicions about Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, and most historic Christian traditions.
Some Christians spend a lot of time trying to judge whether or not other professed Christians really believe the central teachings of Christianity. This is an exercise in futility and may even be a sign of pride. In truth, none of us has the right to judge the interior state of another professed Christian.
A person’s heart is transparent to God alone and, if the person has the grace of self-knowledge, maybe to himself as well. Those of us on the outside of the person can only know the content of his heart by his confession and his behavior. This is why Catholics rely on the observable sign of baptism and a willingness to profess the Creed as sufficient to welcome a fellow Christian into the family of God.
He may or may not believe these things deeply. He may or may not be very far along the road to union with God. But we include him in hope that God through the Church will grow him in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
So are Catholics Christians? Yes, all Catholics are Christians, but some are Christian in name only. This isn’t much of an admission.
Are Baptists Christians? Are Episcopalians Christians? Are Presbyterians Christians? Like Catholics, all are Christians, but some in name only.
Even so, it’s not a question Catholics tend to ask about others who are baptized, profess faith in Christ, and are part of a worshipping community. We accept them at face value as brothers and sisters in Christ, and most non-Catholics accept Catholics as fellow Christians. As noted above, though, some people have their doubts.
While there are some genuine doctrinal differences, much of the problem is manufactured by different vocabularies. Author Thomas Howard tells a story that cuts right through the tangle of words.
When I was received into the Catholic Church, I came to know an old woman named Sarah who came to daily Mass. At that same time, my octogenarian mother was living at our house. My mother, being a Protestant Evangelical who spent many hours with her Bible open in her lap, might have wondered about the sense in which it could be urged that Sarah was saved, not that my mother would have doubted Sarah’s humility and sincerity (the two women have never met: I am only fancying the following vignette). But Sarah would have done poorly with a certain set of questions my mother might have put to her. “Are you saved?” Blank. “Well—are you born again?” Confusion. “Right. Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” Consternation.
Just as my mother is concluding that her long-held fears about Catholics seem indeed to be well grounded, I interfere. I lead the two ladies over to a crucifix on the wall, and in my mother’s hearing, I ask Sarah who that is. “Jesus.” “Who is he?” “The Son of God.” “What is he doing?” “Suffering death.” “Why?” “For our sins.”
And suddenly my mother has heard Sarah make a confession that qualifies Sarah for the category “saved.” Sarah has believed all of this all along, and her trust is in this gospel, just as is my mother’s. But left to themselves, the two ladies might have gone off deeply perplexed about each other’s Christian credentials.
All Christians share a common narrative about God, man, and the world. The Christian saga of salvation has four chapters. God created, man fell, Jesus redeemed and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Catholics believe that the Triune God created the universe out of nothing. He created man, male and female, in his own image. After man’s original disobedience ruptured the union between himself and God, introducing sin into the world, God began to work salvation in the earth through a series of covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Then he spoke through the prophets about a New Covenant by which he would restore mankind to union with himself. This New Covenant was inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, a divine Person who took on human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary and entered the world to redeem it. He demonstrated the kingdom of God through his miracles; gathered twelve apostles; was crucified under Pontius Pilate as an atonement for our sins; rose bodily from the dead; and commissioned the apostles to perpetuate his message through preaching the good news of the salvation wrought by Christ, teaching His commandments, baptizing, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus then ascended to heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father. The Holy Spirit was sent to constitute the Church, and Christ continues to govern His Church today. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. All those who believe these things should imitate Christ by living a life of holiness, loving sacrifice and service, and worship of God, always bearing witness to the coming kingdom.
Catholics and other Christians believe a whole lot more than these propositions. But on these things and a whole lot more all Christians can agree. Any nominal Christian who does not believe these things has no claim to the title “Catholic,” no matter what his church affiliation. And any Christian who denies that Catholics who believe these things are brothers and sisters in the faith needs to get out more and meet a few of us.
What does the Catholic Church teach about other non-Catholic Christians?
Jesus prayed: “That they may all be one!” (Jn 17:11, 21-22). “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” The Catholic Church is fully committed to the restoration of visible unity among Christians. Ecumenism “is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature. … [It is]a duty which springs from the very nature of the Christian community.”
I personally owe much of my Christian life to non-Catholic Christians. Though I was raised Catholic,God used Brethren, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and some denominationally indescribable Christians to press the claims of Christ upon me when I was in my early twenties. Largely through them, I came to an adult faith in Christ, a love of evangelism and the Scriptures, and an awareness of the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
His grip on my life has steered my future ever since. My choice of a wife, education, and employment; the manner in which we’ve raised our children; and eventually even my return to the Catholic Church were all, ironically, deeply influenced by those outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. I even served as an evangelical Protestant pastor for five years, and I still enjoy the friendship and fellowship of many deeply committed non-Catholics.
Many non-Catholics don’t realize the degree to which the Catholic Church recognizes them as family even as we insist that Christ willed visible unity for this family. Having loving family members from whom you are separated in significant ways is certainly not unusual in modern culture. But overcoming the separation requires honestly dealing with our “issues.”
- There is plenty of blame to go around for Christian divisions. Those raised as non-Catholic Christians are not guilty of the sin of schism but are to be received as brothers if they believe in Christ and have received a Trinitarian water baptism.
- Many of the most important building blocks that Christ uses to build up and give life to his Church can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. Non—Catholics have the written Word of God; a life of grace, faith, hope, and charity; the interior gifts of the Holy Spirit; and other important elements. They significantly participate in the drama of salvation.
- Catholics must appreciate Christ’s gifts to non-Catholics, including non-Catholic martyrs. “It is right … to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. … Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can contribute to our own edification.”
- Further, the example of the martyrs, Catholic and non-Catholic, can help us overcome our divisions. “These brothers and sisters of ours, united in the selfless offering of their lives for the Kingdom of God, are the most powerful proof that every factor of division can be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel.”
- While the Catholic Church has a full deck, its members are often playing with only a few cards. “For although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should.”
- Christ willed visible unity for his Church. “Nevertheless, our separated brethren … are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those he has given new birth into one body and whom he has quickened to newness of life. … For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.”
Better a good Protestant than a bad Catholic. But better a good Catholic than a good Protestant.
Though we are family, we are not in communion with one another. Fighting has broken out in the family house, and some of the siblings grabbed a few cooking utensils, some family pictures, and some tools and decided to pitch tents in the back yard.
The fatherly authority in the house may have acted a little rashly in telling them to get out. Both sides share the blame, but the truth remains that we are all supposed to be eating at one table in one house and are obligated to seek reconciliation. After all, we are supposed to bear witness to the world that God has reconciled the world by his Son. As Pope John Paul II asked: “When nonbelievers meet missionaries who do not agree among themselves, even though they all appeal to Christ, will they be in a position to receive the true message?”
Why call yourselves “Catholic” instead of “Christian?”
It’s not a case of either/or but of both/and. “Christian” was first used to describe the followers of Christ at Antioch. It probably originated among our enemies as a contemptuous nickname (see Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pt 4:16). But by the time St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the first decade of the second century, the believers had gladly accepted it.
“Catholic” is simply derived from the Greek word catholikos, meaning “universal.” We call ourselves Catholic because it describes the scope of Christ’s saving mission and the extent of the community he founded. Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and his Church is open to members from every nation, kindred, tongue, region, generation, locale, race, gender, class, and culture. The Catholic Church is the “universal” community founded by Jesus Christ, the Savior of the whole world (see 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Rv 5:9; 7:9; 14:6).
Wonderfully enough, it is St. Ignatius of Antioch who gives us our first recorded use of the term “Catholic” to describe the Church. Ignatius was the second or third bishop of Antioch, a major teaching center in the early Church that had breathed some deep apostolic air. St. Peter had served as bishop just before he went to Rome, and Ignatius was himself mentored by the apostle John.
On his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius left us a body of correspondence that was highly revered in the early centuries of the Church. There he wrote: “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
“Catholic” is not, as many people imagine, a denominational title. It simply describes a quality or mark of Christ’s Church. “Denominationalism,” strictly speaking, doesn’t arise until the break-up of the Western Church in the sixteenth century.
Today, the Catholic Church is sometimes referred to as the “Roman Catholic Church.” Certain Anglicans, not Catholics, originated the phrase. They wanted to be regarded as the true “Catholics” in contrast to the merely “Roman” Catholics. So they sought to exploit a contradiction in terms. How can one be “Catholic”—that is, universal—and yet merely “Roman” at the same time? It was a clever play on words that was intended as a sneer.
Today, we often hear Catholics themselves claiming to be “Roman” Catholic. This is an attempt to turn the tables on the critics and redefine the phrase: “Yes, we are ‘Roman’ Catholic, meaning that we accept the primacy of Peter and the teaching authority of his successors, who traditionally operate from Rome.” These Catholics wear the phrase “Roman Catholic” as a badge of loyalty to Church teaching.