Are Catholics Christians?

Traditional Latin Mass
St. Agnes Cathedral in Springfield, Missouri

Are Catholics Christians? Such a question might seem shocking to most people around the world, but here in the Ozarks, it's a common everyday thing. For example, not long ago, I was buying some groceries at a local store. I wear a scapular medal about the size of a quarter, so the lady clerk checking out my groceries took notice of it. She asked what it was. (People in the Ozarks have no trouble talking casually about religion.) I told her it was a scapular medal, and seeing she had no idea what I was talking about, I explained it had a picture of Jesus on the front and Mary on the back. She asked: "Oh, are you Catholic OR Christian?" I told her I am a Catholic Christian. She paused and looked at me in disbelief. "Oh that's nice that you are BOTH," she said, "I didn't know THEY would let you be both. Catholics aren't Christians." I explained to her that Catholics are Christians. She chuckled a little as she said "Yeah right!" in a slightly condescending way and handed me my receipt.

Now I could have taken her to task on that, but I decided to let it go. There were people behind me and I didn't want to keep them waiting. Plus, I was trying to hold back my laughter. I found the whole conversation delightfully funny. Think of it for a moment. I was standing in a checkout line in a grocery store. The clerk is checking out my groceries. In the middle of this scene, she strikes up a religious conversation and then basically slanders my faith, to my face in front of about half a dozen other people, all with a smile on her face as she's handing me my receipt. Nobody in line blinks an eyelash. It's all very "normal." Just another day in the Ozarks. You gotta admit, this whole scene is hysterically comical when you really stop and think about it. I couldn't help but let my laughter go once I walked out the doors. As I'm putting my groceries into the back of the minivan, it just keeps getting funnier the more I think about it. I suppose I could have been offended, but why, it just doesn't get more entertaining than that. This particular incident happened near Springfield Missouri.

Okay, so if you're reading this on the West Coast, North of the Mason-Dixon line, or pretty much anywhere else in the world, the whole experience sounds surreal. Before you get judgemental of the people in the Bible Belt, I must advise you, please don't. They have a good reason for thinking this way and it's probably not what you think. I've seen this attitude in California too. In fact, one of the biggest anti-Catholic publishers is based in Chino California. In fact, there are a LOT of anti-Catholics in California, it's just that they're usually not so open and frank about it. Why? Well, there are a lot more Catholics in California, and perhaps they don't want to offend.

Now being anti-Catholic has nothing to do with hating people. I've never met an anti-Catholic who says he "hates Catholics." On the contrary, most anti-Catholics say they "love Catholics" but just "hate Catholicism." That is what I mean when I say "anti-Catholic." They hate the religion, not the people involved in the religion. Now before you get judgemental, please don't, they have a good reason for this. You see, it all goes back to the Reformation. Originally all Christians were Catholics. Most people outside of the Bible Belt know that. However, during the Reformation period, a doctrine was introduced by Martin Luther called Sola Scriptura. That's Latin for "Only Scripture," and throughout the last five centuries, Protestant Christians have taken this to mean different things to different denominations.

Historically the Puritans (yes, these were the "Pilgrims") and the Anabaptists (meaning "re-baptisers") took this very literally, and it was in 1601 that a minister by the name of John Smyth brought these groups together in Holland to form the first Baptist churches. Sorry, the Baptist churches were not founded by John the Baptist, as many people falsely believe. They were founded by a "John," just not the same one, and it was about 1,600 years later. Baptist churches splintered into many different denominations over the centuries, but the largest one is the Southern Baptist Convention which dominates much of Christianity in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and south of the Mason-Dixon line. This is the "Bible Belt" but it could just as easily be called the "Baptist Belt." Granted, there are other similar denominations here, such as Pentecostals and Evangelicals, but the Baptists make up the majority.

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Baptists subscribe to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in an absolute and literal kind of way. The idea is that if a Christian teaching or doctrine cannot specifically be found in the Bible, then it's not to be believed. Now that may not be the way Martin Luther intended the doctrine to be understood, but that is how it is generally understood in the Bible Belt.

Now enters Catholic Christianity with all of its traditions and rituals. It's bad enough that most of these rituals seem foreign to Christians who abandoned their liturgical roots hundreds of years ago, but the fact that about 10% of Catholic doctrine cannot be easily found in the Bible just makes everything worse. Catholicism is labelled a "cult" and Catholics are seen as "non-Christians." This is NOT the result of ignorance, backwardness, or stupidity. Like I said, don't judge them! It is actually the product of a very logical and rational train of thought. If it is true that Christians should not believe any teaching that is not found in the Bible, then it only makes logical sense that those who teach extra-Biblical teachings must be deceivers. Thus it only stands to reason that Catholicism is a "false religious system" that is deceiving people into believing "false doctrines," and they know they are false because they cannot be found in the Bible of course! That's not ignorance my friends. That's not backwardness or stupidity. No. That is cold hard logic at work, and yes, it makes perfect rational sense. My countrymen in the Ozarks are not dumb. They're actually pretty darn rational people -- smart and logical. What I particularly admire about them is how fearless they are too. On the West Coast, people would be afraid to express such absolute opinions, right or wrong, for fear of being judged as narrow-minded. So I actually think it's admirable when people stand up for what they believe, even when I don't necessarily agree with it. So what if they got their facts a little mixed up and don't know history. At least they are standing up for something! I give them credit for that. It's a vast improvement over the relativism that was so common on the West Coast. I give my fellow Ozarkians an "E" for effort when it comes to facts, and an "A+" for zeal, courage and conviction. For this, they are a constant inspiration to me. Even when they are telling me Catholics aren't Christians as they hand me my grocery receipt.

Now before I go on, I have a confession to make. I didn't use to always be Catholic. In fact, I was baptised as a baby in a Lutheran Church. Then I was raised in an American Baptist Church. As a young adult, I became an Evangelical in a nondenominational church called Calvary Chapel. There I began informal training for the ministry. It was this informal training that led me to discover the very "Catholic" roots of the early Christian faith, and because of this, I left my hopes for ministry to get a better understanding of these "Catholic" roots in a good "safe" Protestant environment. So my wife and I became Anglicans (Espicopalians). After spending some time in The Episcopal Church, we decided to bite the bullet and become Catholics. There were many reasons for this which I won't go into here, but that is my confession. Perhaps one of the reasons why I just don't get offended when people insult my faith is because at one time I used to think just like them, and I've lived on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Thus where others get angry, I tend to chuckle. I'll admit, it took me a while to get to this point. I was a bit defensive and angry shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church, but that is ancient history now. I've been a member of the Catholic Church for the last twelve years. My kids are Catholic, and I make sure to teach them the reason why. So there is my confession.

Everything about the Bible Belt logic is sound, except for one thing, the history it's based on. Let's start from the beginning. Nowhere in the Bible does it actually say to believe in the "Bible Alone." What I mean by that is the Bible itself never says to only believe things that are found in the Bible. In fact, quite the opposite is true. For example; Saint John tells us in his gospel that Jesus said and did far more things then were actually written down in the Bible (John 21:25). St. Paul the Apostle commended the Corinthians for following the "traditions" he had given them (1st Corinthians 11:2) and he told the Thessalonians these "traditions" came by both written letter and word of mouth (2nd Thessalonians 2:15). In fact, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says everything we need to know is in the Bible. That idea itself is a man-made "tradition." The notion that everything the apostles taught, that is necessary for our salvation, was neatly packaged in a single volume of books, from Genesis to Revelation, is an ideal notion, a tidy concept, but very unbiblical. The Bible itself doesn't even tell us what books belong in the Bible. That too is a man-made "tradition." That's right, pull out a Bible and look at the first few pages. There you will find a table of contents. That table is called the Biblical "canon." In other words, out of the hundreds of Christians books that could be found written in the first century, it was these 27 New Testament books that were decided to be worthy of the Christian Bible. Who decided that? Why the Catholic Church of course, back in AD 367 through 401. It was St. Athanasius of Alexandria Egypt who first came up with the New Testament list in 367 AD. Later this list was debated by the Christian synods at Rome, Hippo and Carthage. So that by 401 AD, Pope Innocent declared this to be the official New Testament for all Christians, and all Christians have used this New Testament ever since, even the Baptists.

So from the beginning, the historical facts don't match the common perceptions. This puts a chink in the armour of "Bible Belt" Christianity. The typical logic of Sola Scriptura (Bible Alone) is sound, but history doesn't match the preconceived notions that logic is based on. So once you know that, Sola Scriptura presents a logical loop that disproves itself. For if you can only believe what is taught in the Bible (Sola Scriptura), and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is nowhere taught in the Bible, then based on what Sola Scriptural says, you can't believe Sola Scriptura. Why? Because it's not in the Bible! This is a classic logical loop, but you would never see it unless you know the history of the Bible and how we got it.

So based on this understanding, I think it's safe to point out that all Christians, even my brothers and sisters in the Bible Belt, believe in extra-Biblical traditions. The biggest one is probably the list of books in the Bible itself, which comes from extra-Biblical tradition. Another one is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which comes from the Reformation and has evolved through the centuries. I could go into a whole host of others, but I'll save that for another article. Suffice it to say, all Christians believe in extra-Biblical doctrines, even the Baptists, whether they realise it or not, and because of this, they have a lot more in common with Catholics than they usually suspect.

As I said above, of all the doctrines that Catholicism teaches, about 90% of them can be easily found in the Bible. When it comes to the basic doctrines of Christianity, Catholics have these in common with Baptists, Pentecostals and Evangelicals. Thus we could say the first "Bible Belt" stretched from Southern Europe to Northern Africa in what was known as Early Medieval Christianity -- Catholic Christianity that is. It's nice to know the Protestants are now following our example in the American South. We all believe in God as the Blessed Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We all worship this same God, and we all believe that worship of any other is forbidden idolatry. Yes, you read that right. Catholics are not permitted to worship Mary or the Saints, nor would we want to. We all believe that Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to salvation, and we all believe that we are saved by God's GRACE. Furthermore, we believe many Christian doctrines in common, and we all use the same New Testament compiled and canonised by our Catholic fathers in the old Bible Belt (Southern Europe to North Africa). Are Catholics Christian? Of course, we are. For a splinter group of Christians (like Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, etc.) to accuse Catholics of being non-Christians, especially when we have this much in common, is sort of like the pot calling the kettle "black!" And it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

Just for the record, according to the official teachings of the Catholic Church from the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965), anyone who professes faith in the Trinitarian God, and is baptised in his name, is considered a "Christian" by the Catholic Church, and I am obliged as a Catholic to call such people my "brethren" (Catechism 818). So folks around here can call me a non-Christian all they want, but that doesn't change the fact that they are still my Christian brethren. Disown me if you like, but as far as I'm concerned, you're still my brother/sister in Christ. You're still related to me in Spirit, history and baptism.

If you would like to get some real solid answers to common questions about the Catholic Church, coming straight from the horse's mouth (so to speak), from an Evangelical who became Catholic. Take a look at my book.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Ken said…
Nice job, Shane.
Like 'em or not, they're still family.

your cousin (or something like that),
Morganton Yoga said…
My wife suggested that I read this as it addresses questions about Baptists that I have expressed.

Interestingly enough it also follows on Monday night's RCIA class that addressed this as well. With the same argument, presentation and conclusions. Pretty cool.

Most of the members of that class are Catholics, and most, again converts. Out of 12-14 average one or two are actually considerants (I just made that word up for those of us considering converting).

And the converts are generally better catechized than cradle-Catholics.
Micha Elyi said…
Laughably, the map's key identifies the yellow locations as "Christian Churches...".
Jon Ablin said…
nice! At least you have the wisdom to understand the different religious beliefs and I think that is what every Catholic should do and that is to understand instead of being angered by their accusations
Amfortas said…
I like your style and your heart, my friend.