Are Catholics Really Christians?

 Latin Mass, Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston
April 2009 photo by John Stephen Dwyer.

I've explored this question many times on this blog, and in my book Catholicism for Protestants. However, I want to take a little time here to explore this question from a strictly Evangelical perspective. As a former Evangelical, I get it. I understand the difficulties many Evangelicals have with Catholicism, so I have a perspective that might help.

Are Catholics Really Christians?

In order to answer this question, we must first understand what it really means to be a Christian in the first place. Obviously, if we define Christianity as being a member of the First Baptist Church down the road, then the answer would be no. But is that really what it means to be a Christian? Let's go through the common Evangelical understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and if you don't know what the word "Evangelical" means, it comes from the world "gospel" in Greek. To say that one is an Evangelical Christians is to say that one is a "Gospel Christian," in other words, a Christian who believes in the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ. So what is the Evangelical (Gospel) Christian understanding of what it means to be a Christian? There are many denominations that would like to apply lots of their own qualifiers, that would narrow it down to just their denomination, but most Evangelicals agree on the following. A Christian is...
  1. One who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,
  2. One who believes that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh,
  3. One who believes that God is a Trinity of three equally divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  4. One who believes that God the Son, Jesus Christ, lived a perfect sinless life.
  5. One who believes that God the Son, Jesus Christ, died on the cross for our sins, and then rose from the dead conquering death.
  6. One who believes that only God the Son, Jesus Christ, can save us from our sins and bring us into heaven.
That's pretty much the very bare bones basics of the Evangelical understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Don't believe me? All you need do is ask a pastor of any one of the major Protestant denominations in the United States...
  1. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.2 million members
  2. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million members
  3. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million members
  4. National Baptist Convention: 5.0 million members
  5. Evangelical Lutheran Church, U.S.A.: 4.5 million members
  6. National Baptist Convention of America: 3.5 million members
  7. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million members
  8. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): 2.8 million members
  9. African Methodist Episcopal Church: 2.5 million members
  10. National Missionary Baptist Convention of America: 2.5 million members
  11. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS): 2.3 million members
  12. The Episcopal Church: 2.0 million members
  13. Churches of Christ: 1.6 million members
  14. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World: 1.5 million members
  15. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: 1.4 million members
Pastors and ministers from any one of these denominations will agree that belief in all 6 essential doctrines I described above would definitely qualify one as a Christian. Again, don't believe me? Try me. Check it out. Go to any one of the denominations I listed above, and ask the pastor. If I'm wrong, let me know.

So based on the teachings of all 15 of these above denominations, anyone who believes in all six of the essentials listed above, is a Christian.

Would it surprise you to learn that Catholics believe in all six!
  1. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,
  2. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh,
  3. Catholics believe that God is a Trinity of three equally divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  4. Catholics believe that God the Son, Jesus Christ, lived a perfect sinless life.
  5. Catholics believe that God the Son, Jesus Christ, died on the cross for our sins, and then rose from the dead conquering death.
  6. Catholics believe that only God the Son, Jesus Christ, can save us from our sins and bring us into heaven.
What? You mean to tell me that Catholics believe in all six of those above statements? Yes, as a matter of fact, if a particular Catholic doesn't believe in all six of those above statements, that particular Catholic is not in good standing with the Church, and could risk disciplinary action if he doesn't repent and accept those teachings. In order to be a Catholic Christian in good standing, one MUST accept all six of the above teachings.

But what about Mary? Don't Catholics worship Mary?

Well, no, Catholics don't worship Mary. That's a very common misunderstanding. You see a Catholic who worships Mary could actually be excommunicated from the Catholic Church for idolatry. In fact, the Catholic Church actually has excommunicated people for this. It is forbidden by the Catholic Church to worship anyone but the Trinitarian God.

Catholics actually venerate Mary. They don't worship her. Veneration means a high level of respect. It's sort of like the kind of respect our nation pays to America's founding fathers. A simple trip around Washington DC will reveal statues and paintings of them everywhere. You can also find such statues and paintings on school campuses, college campuses, courthouses, libraries, city halls and state capitals. Does that mean that Americans actually worship these founding fathers? Well, no, of course not. Just because we have statues of these men, and we respect those statues, doesn't mean we worship them. So why do we have them? It's simple really. We have statues and portraits of our nation's founding fathers to help us remember them and what they represented. The same is true in the Catholic Church. Statues of Mary and the Saints are designed to help Catholics remember them and what they represented. It's a way of showing honour and respect.

Of course, this raises questions about the commandment not to make graven images and worship them. The commandment comes from Exodus 20 and reads like this...
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 
-- Exodus 20:2-6
From this, most Protestants count two of the Ten Commandments...
  1. You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not make graven images.
However, if you take a closer look at the actual Biblical passage, you'll notice that the Bible does not actually number the Ten Commandments. It tells us there are ten, but it doesn't tell us where one commandment ends and another begins. This is left up to TRADITION, and the truth is, everyone has their own traditions concerning the Ten Commandments. The Jews have their own tradition, which don't match anyone else. Protestants have their tradition, and yes, Catholics have their own tradition too. The truth is, more people follow the Catholic tradition of numbering the Ten Commandments than anyone else. What is the Catholic tradition? The entire passage above is listed under just one commandment, the first commandment.
  1. You shall have no other gods, you shall not make idols of them, nor shall you worship them.
That's it. The Catholic tradition links all the above passages together under one commandment -- the first commandment. To balance the whole thing out into an even ten, the Catholic tradition divides the two "thou shalt not covet" passages into two separate commandments at the end of the Decalogue. One for "thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife" (lust), and the other for "thou shalt not covet thy neighbours goods" (envy or greed). 

The fact is, no one way of numbering the commandments is better than another, because the Bible doesn't tell us how to number them. However, the Catholic method does make logical sense, because the above passage seems to be a universal condemnation of idolatry, and idolatry can cover many things, from worshipping false gods, to making images of them, etc. The rest of Exodus 20 deals with other behaviours all together different from idolatry.

The prohibition against making statues, and other "graven images," is specific to idols of false gods, otherwise all statues and graven images (including coins, woodcuts, paintings and even photographs) would be forbidden. Clearly they are not, because just five chapters later, God actually commanded Moses to make "graven images."
And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.  
-- Exodus 25:18-20
If God commanded Moses to make graven images, then obviously the graven images he forbade in chapter 20 must have been strictly those images (idols) related to false gods. Any other interpretation makes God contradict himself.

Catholics make images of Mary, and other Saints, for the same reason that Americans make images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They are to honour who they represent and show them respect. This is NOT prohibited by the Bible. Any attempt to say the Bible prohibits all graven images is to make God contradict himself.

Catholics also pray to Mary and the Saints, but this is not worship. Nowhere does the Bible equate prayer to worship. Prayer is simply the act of asking somebody for something. One can "pray" to a neighbour, as Shakespeare might put it: "I pray thee sir, couldest thou spare a bottle of ink? I should like to finish writing my latest play."

Catholics take the resurrection of Christ very seriously, and believe that he has truly conquered death. This means that those who have died in Christ are not really dead, and we are all still connected, and able to communicate, through the Holy Spirit of God. That means they can hear our prayers and pray for us as well. (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 8:4) Evangelicals may not agree with this assessment, but they most certainly cannot say Catholics aren't Christians because of it.

But what about works? Don't Catholics believe they have to earn their way to heaven by good works?

Believing that one can EARN his own salvation through works is often called "works-related righteousness." It's condemned by most Protestant and Evangelical churches as "a Catholic heresy."

Actually, that's a huge misunderstanding that is constantly repeated. But the fact that it's repeated, over and over again, doesn't make it true. No, Catholics don't believe they EARN their way to heaven through good works (works-related righteousness). In fact, the Council of Trent, in AD 1545, specifically condemned this idea as heretical...
If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema. 
-- Council of Trent, Decree Concerning Justification, Canon 1
The Catholic Church has condemned works-related righteousness, by name, for the last 500 years! This was done in the strongest language possible, invoking the condemnation of anathema. What that means is this. If any Catholic says that we are justified by our own works, without grace through Jesus Christ, that is objective heresy. It cannot ever be anything but heresy. Any Catholic who does that would have to be corrected, and if he failed to repent, he could face Church discipline over it -- even excommunication in the most extreme cases! Catholics simply aren't allowed to believe in works-related righteousness. They've never been allowed to, and over the last 5 centuries, they been specifically forbidden to by name.

It's ironic really. In the 16th century, Martin Luther condemned Rome for teaching works-related righteousness. Rome agreed that this is heresy, said it never taught that, then specifically condemned that teaching in the strongest language possible. In response, Luther and his followers continued to tell people that Rome teaches work-related righteousness. Go figure! I guess you just can't please some people.

Now by the same token, Rome also repudiated Martin Luther and his followers for their anti-Biblical belief in justification by "faith alone."
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. 
-- Council of Trent, Decree Concerning Justification, Canon 9
Now this is probably why Luther's followers continued to condemn the Catholic Church, because Canon 9 directly attacks the Lutheran teaching that justification comes through "faith alone." However, this canon is based entirely in Scripture...
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. -- James 2:24 
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. -- Philippians 2:12 
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. -- Galatians 5:6 
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. -- Romans 2:6-8 
Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. -- Matthew 7:21
You see those Protestants who say that justification before God comes through "faith alone" without any works, are directly contradicting Scripture. But nobody is saying that "works alone," without grace or faith, save us. Everyone is in agreement (Catholics and Protestants alike) that we are not saved by works alone. Granted, many Protestants still accuse Catholics of works-related righteousness, but they do so in ignorance of Catholic teaching.

The real disagreement is over "faith alone." Does "faith alone" save us? The Bible says no. The Catholic Council of Trent said no. So the Bible and Trent are in full agreement on this. It is Luther and his followers (many Protestants and Evangelicals) who are off base here. They're still Christian, of course, but they're off base. What we learn from Scripture, and the Catholic Church, is that Jesus Christ saves us. It is the grace obtained through this finished work on the cross that justifies us before God. We are justified by being "in Christ," and we know we are "in Christ" by both our faith and our works. We will have faith in Christ, and we will want to do good things for Christ, living according to the way he wants us to. That's it folks. That's what the Catholic Church teaches. I think most Evangelicals probably agree with this.

Conclusion

Catholics are Christians even by most Evangelical standards. To say otherwise is uncharitable and goes against common sense. If we believe what the Bible says, then we must agree that Catholics are Christians. Maybe Evangelicals might not agree with every teaching from the Catholic Church, but they must admit that Catholics are Christians too, and that the Catholic Church teaches Christianity. I covered this in greater detail in my book Catholicism for Protestants. I've also covered many more topics about specific Catholic teachings on my Apologetics Page.

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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 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' 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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