Catholic or Christian?

Recently I was talking to a non-Catholic friend when I mentioned an acquaintance. “He’s a good man,” I said. “He’s a good Catholic.” My friend took offense. “Why do you have to say Catholic? Why not just say Christian? It seems divisive to insist on being Catholic.” It’s a good question. Why distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic? Why not focus instead on what we all share?

To begin with, it’s important to recognize that the Catholic Church does celebrate what all Christians have in common. In fact, she even celebrates what all humans have in common (Christian or not) and rejects nothing that is truly good or beautiful wherever it may be found. There are elements of truth and sanctification in many traditions, and these are pointers towards our common origin and destiny in God. The Second Vatican Council took great pains to emphasize this point. (See especially the declaration Nostra Aetate.)

But if the Church rejects a narrow exclusivism, she also rejects a facile relativism. To the post-modern mind, one religious tradition is as good as another. Some Christians regard one denomination as good as another. The Catholic, by contrast, regards the fullness of grace and truth to be found in Christ and in the Church he established. In brief, it makes a difference what you believe, how you worship, and how you live.

I would like to focus on three respects in which the Catholic Church contains the fullness of Christian religion. The Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth, the fullness of grace, and the fullness of Christian holiness. These elements subsist together in a visible structure, a society, the Church, founded by Christ and given to us for our salvation. This Church will endure to the end, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. (Math 16:18-19)

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he appeared to eleven disciples and charged them, “Make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything I have commanded you . . . I will be with you to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28: 16-20) Christ left a body of oral teaching, ritual, and example. He transmitted this tradition to authorized teachers, not to a text or a document. The apostles themselves appointed successors charged in perpetuity with the same task. (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:2, Titus 1:7-9) Thus, the Church hands on the fullness of apostolic teaching.

Christ demanded that his apostles teach, but also that they celebrate the sacraments. “Do this in memory of me,” he said. “Baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he commanded. “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven,” he promised. As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14), we cannot neglect those gifts received by the laying on of hands. (Holy Orders, confirmation).

The Church’s sacraments are real means of grace. Scripture teaches we “abide in Christ” by eating his flesh, which is real food, and that by abiding in him, we can bear “much fruit.” (John 6:53-59) By baptism, moreover, we are “clothed with Christ,” we die with him and are raised again. (Romans 6; Galatians 3:27) When we confess our sins, St. James says, we will be forgiven and healed.” (James 5:15-16) In her seven sacraments, the Church fully transmits the means of grace.

The perfection of holiness is charity, the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3) Christian love demands agreement on all things. (1 Cor. 1:10) According to Christ, we cannot be perfect until we are one. (John 17:21) This unity in the faith is more than simple benevolence or good will. It is a visible unity that all men can see. The aim of the gospel is more than individual salvation. It is the reconciliation of all things in Christ. (Ephesians 1:10) Adhering in charity to the unity of the faith, the Church exhibits the fullness of Christian holiness.

We cannot enjoy the fullness of Christian faith without the fullness of truth, grace, and holiness. For that reason, Christ founded a Church with the power to teach, sacraments to heal, and a visible society in which to reconcile all men. He founded it upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) To one apostle, he gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” He charged Peter with the care of his sheep. (John. 21:17) This society is more than an invisible association of the elect. It is a body from which one can be ejected and into which one can be admitted. (Mattew 18:18) The mystery of the Gospel, says Paul, is that we are to be members together in one body, the Church. (Ephesians 3:10)

7 thoughts on “Catholic or Christian?

  1. Eric

    David–

    I was just thinking about this the other day. Why on earth emphasize “Catholic” to the exclusion of “Christian” unless you actually want to be perceived NOT as the height of Christian thought but as parochial and marginalized.

    As it is, if one hears of someone becoming a “Christian,” one immediately thinks “Evangelical.” When one thinks of Christian apologetics, other than Lewis and Chesterton and Kreeft, one thinks Evangelical (and both Lewis and Kreeft are quite Evangelical “friendly”). When one thinks Christian holiness, we could run a poll, but I doubt Catholicism would draw much support aside from Mother Teresa. (Catholic lack of spiritual vitality is displayed in the multifarious ways they imitate Evangelical missions, worship, and ministry. They KNOW where the vitality is.)

    Whenever I spend time around Catholics, holiness is hardly a word that would come to mind. Superstitious. Chain-smoking. Drunk. Foul-mouthed. These would be far more prevalent words. You have carried the theme of a mixed church of tares and wheat to its extreme. Very little wheat remains in a field full of tares. No farmer would bother harvesting.

    Edwin Markham wrote:

    “He drew a circle that shut me out:
    Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle and took him in!”

    I genuinely believe that Rome was schismatic in how she dealt with the Reformation. She drew a circle to shut out much of Christendom. Like Diotrephes, in John’s third epistle, rather than a love for the brethren, she had a “love to be first.” She doesn’t want her doctrine to be placed on the crucible and judged according to the truth. Catholic truth is to be considered true merely because she says it is true.

    The more I study, the closer I get to believing that much of Catholic dogma is NOT technically heretical (or that at least it can be interpreted in orthodox ways). But her absolute adoration of disunity unnerves me. She has no humility in her, and so the light of her supposed Lord is not reflected off her into the darkness of the world.

    Reply
  2. Phil

    Hi Eric.

    I totally get you. I spent 35 years as an Evangelical and then came back to the CC. I find it in not deplorable condition, but certainly not vibrant. But, your observations are in many ways spot on. It took some time for me to find the community of Catholic men with whom I associate. Many are rough, but they are devout. They study, pray and serve wonderfully. They sin and repent and start again. And I’m not talking just one or two other guys, I’m talking nearly 40 in my group.
    In my 35 Protestant years I found a lot of hypocrisy. There was a lot of showmanship, a lot of pride, a lot of cheerleading. I watched “worship” get redefined many times to the extent that now it means swaying with holy thoughts to the beat of a rock band. I saw men use and abuse their power and popularity. I saw smokers, and drinkers, and cussers.
    What they seem to do well is teach. That is something Catholics are learning. If the CC made a mistake it was to stop faith formation after Confirmation. Many Catholics just don’t dig any deeper. They hear the sermon, eat and leave. It sucks.
    But, there is an absolutely massive resurgence of Catholic faith going on. At a grassroots level the Church is coming alive like I never dreamed possible. People are returning by the hundreds and thousands because She embodies the fullness of the Christian faith. The greatest Catholics are former Protestants. They get it. I get it. You get it.
    I wish we could talk some time. I’ve done 7 years of homework on the Catholic Church. I could never go back to Evangelicalism. It just is too ….. empty.

    phil

    Reply
  3. Eric

    Phil—

    According to a Pew Forum study conducted in 2008, 32% of Americans who were born Catholic have left the church. If they were a denomination of their own, they would comprise the third largest in the country. We’re talking about 23 MILLION who have left, the greatest net loss of ANY faith group.

    With a transfusion of Evangelical enthusiasm and vitality, you have indeed recouped a few of these under the aegis of the New Evangelization. I don’t see how that reflects particularly well on Catholicism itself. But I at least have to give you kudos for your ability to recruit top-notch Protestant academics (like Hahn and Kreeft and Neuhaus and Staples and Akin and Cross and Anders).

    I don’t have to go hunting to find a vibrant Evangelical church. I can find you a community of devout Evangelical men like your Catholic one in just about every town in the U.S. (and in just about every neighborhood in the red states).

    I agree with you. Evangelicalism is a total mess. But not because it’s moribund like Rome or the Protestant mainlines. (It’s kind of difficult to find “showmanship” on your side of the Tiber when so few of your leaders are strong speakers/teachers…as you yourself admitted.) If Catholics “hear the [homily], eat, and leave,” it’s because they don’t know any better. That part has been drummed into their ears. It’s what being Catholic is all about for them.

    Evangelical churches aren’t spiritually “empty” so much as “superficial.” By and large, they’ve left their moorings and are adrift in the culture. This is far less true in confessional Protestantism (conservative Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians).

    I’ve put in tens of thousands of hours studying Catholicism, myself. I don’t understand the appeal, quite frankly. Yes, I know some absolutely wonderful Catholics, but I could say the same thing about practically every religion I have encountered. Taken as a whole, Catholicism doesn’t appear to nurture holiness, or even really care to. That cannot be said of Evangelicalism, or at least not as quickly.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, Evangelicalism does have deep problems. It has been infiltrated by the culture in a major way. It has not held its ground morally or theologically. If it doesn’t begin to reform (and soon), it will join the mainlines as spiritually irrelevant. There is a ton of hypocrisy and apathy and ignorance and arrogance. But, if you were to ask me, it is still a far sight better than Rome.

    Do you have your own blog? Find us an amenable forum, and we’ll talk.

    Reply
    1. Brian G Young

      Well the “appeal” is what one would call the “search for truth,” why would I want to spend my life doing something or believing in something that is possibly wrong or contain error? If one can show me where my belief system has led me astray I would want to see it. If one can show me and I refuse seeing it, then it might be pointed out to me I’m holding on to that belief system or faith for some reason other than the truth…maybe cultural reasons, maybe family, etc.

      Reply
  4. Tyler

    Hello Eric,
    At the end of the day we all must answer according to what Christ has established my prayer for you is that you will find what is your calling in the one, visible, eternal Kingdom while here on earth. May I humbly suggest a look at 2 Corinthians 5 as well as Mytici Corpus Christi (Pius XII). Many others who have gone before have shared the same laments. Many of Cardinal St John Henry Newman’s writings address your concerns also.

    Reply
  5. Ryan

    Eric,

    You appear to be well studied and open to conversation. I would love to hear you call into Called to Communion on EWTN and explain why you are not Catholic. I think we (the listeners) would really benefit in hearing your case. It would be great to hear a lengthy conversation between Dr. Anders and a protestant apologist.

    Ryan

    Reply
  6. Douglas Brown

    We as Christians are all on a journey from the moment of our birth, our acceptance of Christ as our savior and embracing him through our faith and our works that Christ fully expects from each of us. Faith without the willingness to do the work that Christ demands from us is meaningless as is works without faith. A Christian Protestant / Christian Catholic must do both. If you are a Christian, you will embrace the work that Jesus demands of us. We cannot sit on the sidelines.

    It sickens me to the core to hear all of those who say they are Christian that are so quick to send those who do not walk in lock step with them to hell because they think they are right. This is so wrong, so, so wrong. We have to stop dead in our tracks are realize we are human and not demi-gods as I like to say that have the power to condemn others to hell. If each Christian would wake up and have before him/her the letters WWJD ? (What would Jesus do?) We do this and spend time on our knees sincerely asking this and meaning this with all of our heart, the world would not know what hit it. I think Jesus would look down and smile and say, “my children, I love you and will lead you today like never before.” However, as a warning, each day you fail to do this, the world will not be a better place because you did not ask and wait for the answer of WWJD? Jesus transcends all human failure and can make things right if we let him open our hearts with love and peace and a willingness of that as a servant.

    Catholics will be in Heaven as well as Christian Protestants. By this I mean all who are Christians first and Catholic & Protestants last. Satan loves nothing more than to pit us against each other. He does such a great but horrific job of this.

    Reply

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