Are Catholics Christians?

Westmont Horizon
September 2006

“Christian” has so many meanings that the answer depends on who is asking. Around here it usually means this: Is it natural for Roman Catholics to have the kind of relationship with God that involves personal salvation?

What identifies living Christian faith? Sacramental communion with the apostles’ successors? Claims such as “Jesus is Lord” or “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Romans 10:9)? Justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 2:16) or acceptance of him as Lord and personal savior (see John 3:16 and 3:36)? Gathering and service to others as Jesus commanded (John 13)? The power and fruit of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3-13, 1 Thess. 1:4-5, Gal. 5:22-25)? I think Catholic life and doctrine on the whole pass each of those tests.

Catholics acknowledge Jesus as risen Lord and even as personal Savior. They say the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds. If you don’t believe me, go to Mass sometime.

Catholic doctrine affirms justification by grace through faith. Though it does so differently from Protestants, Catholics and Lutherans agree enough to have authored a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. (You can find the text of this remarkable document on the web.) Catholics and Lutherans don’t interpret this common text identically. However, finding so much common ground has transformed their relationship.

You can find the Holy Spirit’s power and fruit in Catholic fellowships and Catholic lives. This is tangible evidence that they belong to Jesus.

Finally, Catholics highlight exemplary lives of faithful service to Jesus Christ as “saints” to celebrate and imitate.

I may still criticize a tradition that passes all these tests, but I cannot condemn it.

“But Catholics worship Mary!” “But Catholics teach salvation by works!” No, they don’t. At least they’re not supposed to. Sure, plenty of Catholics are confused about what their own tradition actually teaches; but so are plenty of Protestants (e.g., many Doctrine students at the beginning of the semester) who have basically healthy faith. I don’t think Catholic confusion indicates a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between Catholic identity and living Christian faith. They naturally support one other.

Then why am I not a Roman Catholic? Because the Catholic Church makes demands that I do not think the gospel requires. I don’t think the bishop of Rome has all the authority that Catholics claim. I don’t think Mary was sinless or assumed into heaven. I do not consider ecumenical councils or papal dogmas infallible. These Catholic claims are not heretical, but they are significant. I would even argue that they can impair living Christian faith. Until I believe otherwise, I am not welcome at Catholic communion tables.

That’s too bad, because if Catholic traditions are natural for living faith the way Protestant ones are, whatever their faults (and ours), then by evangelical Protestant logic we do belong at each other’s communion tables, even if not necessarily on each other’s tenured faculties. So I would offer a second question to follow the first: What does it mean to live accordingly?