Are Catholics Christian?

Living in the Bible Belt has its moments. There’s a gritty reality to the religion in the South, and fairly often you feel like  you really are living in a Flannery O’Connor story.

One of the crunchy parts of living here are the “separated brethren” who seriously ask, “Are Catholics Christian?” It’s a difficult question to answer, not because there is no answer, but because the answer is on the one hand so obvious, yet if the question is being asked you realize that the answer is not obvious at all. In fact, you realize that the person asking the question is only doing so because he already truly believes that Catholics are not Christian.

The way forward is to define what we mean by “Christian”. Catholics define “Christian” as any person who is baptized and who has faith in Jesus Christ. Insofar as this goes, most Christians from every denomination would agree. This definition of “Christian” is a baseline. It’s the foundation.

The problem comes with Evangelical, Biblicists who don’t actually have a clear definition of what a Christian is except to say that a “Christian” is someone who has “accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” or someone who has “been saved” or someone who has “asked Jesus into their heart.” The problem with this definition is that there is no objectivity to it. Just what does it mean to “accept Jesus into your heart” to “get saved” or “accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior”?

Very often this means that the person in question has had a particular type of religious experience. They have gone forward at a revival meeting or prayed the sinner’s prayer or wept for their sins and turned to Jesus. It doesn’t take long to see that if this is the criteria for being a “Christian” then (allowing for a few slight differences in language) that most Catholics have done precisely this. If the sinner’s prayer is a way of rejecting the world, the flesh and the devil and believing in Christ as Savior and Lord, then this is precisely what happens within the Catholic baptism rite. Repenting of one’s sins and accepting the forgiveness of Christ is precisely what happens when a Catholic goes to confession. Repenting of sins and accepting Christ is precisely what happens at Mass.

The Evangelical is not comfortable with this because it all happens with “somebody just reading prayers out of a book.” But why should the Catholic liturgy with set prayers and set music and hymns be any worse than the “liturgy” of the Evangelical preacher who follows a set formula for preaching, for giving the altar call and using the same emotional music (Just As I Am Without One Plea) Are not both liturgical set pieces? I think they are.

So, are Catholics Christian? Of course. They’ve repented of their sins. They’ve accepted the forgiveness of Christ. They’ve rejected the world, the flesh and the devil. They’ decided to follow Christ within the faith of the Church.

This comparison between Evangelical and Catholic Christianity is something I have written on extensively in my book More Christianity. In it I compare the Evangelical way of looking at some aspect of Christian tradition and show how Catholicism does not contradict the Evangelical’s faith, but fulfills and complete it.

The question therefore is not, “Are Catholics Christian” or “Are Evangelical Protestants Christian” but How much of the Christian faith do you embrace? Evangelicals tend to follow a reduced, minimalist version of the faith.

Catholics wish to have it all.

Think a cheese cracker and water or a five course Italian banquet.

I know which I’d prefer.




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  • Julie Culshaw

    I have to disagree with you here, Father. I know many Catholics who do not understand what it is to be a Christian. They are raised in the Church, but they have not taken on the faith personally. They are “cultural” Catholics, just as there are “cultural” Jews.
    Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be “born again”, even though Nicodemus was a believing Jew. He had to be born of the Spirit and come to a personal belief in God.
    I think this is what evangelicals mean when they ask are Catholics Christian. In my experience, many Catholics are not. However, those who have had an experience whereby their inherited Catholic faith becomes real for them, are “born again”.
    I see charismatic Catholics and they have no problem with evangelicals. In fact, they find that they often have more in common with their Protestant brethren than with fellow Catholics. The life of faith has become real and living, bearing fruit in their lives. When I see Catholics with no fruit, I have to wonder indeed whether they are Christians.

  • Morrie

    I grew up across the street from the son of a Baptist preacher who went on to become head of the Southern Baptist Convention. They were a good family and I never heard one comment about our Catholic Faith. BUT I do notice one commonality between many evangelicals that I come across. They are quick to point out that someone is going to hell.

  • Scotty Ellis

    As someone who grew up and now lives in the South, I totally agree with that life is often like a Flannery O’Connor story. I am also familiar with the attitude in question, the notion that Catholics do not qualify as Christians. I think that the overall framework of the question is the rejection of liturgical or ritualistic elements of organized religion as intrinsically insincere or ineffectual (hence you will often hear Catholicism condemned for its “empty rituals” and for its pre-written prayers which, according to evangelical sentiment, are inferior to spontaneous prayers “from the heart”). What is overlooked by these Christians, well-meaning as they may be, is that they have their own rituals, their own liturgies, and even their “spontaneous prayers” typically have their own predictable patters and phrases.

  • Robb

    I have a problem with evangelical “prayers from the Heart”. Especially when they
    bring up pre trib rapture, eternal security of the believer etc.

  • Renato

    Well said Fr. One of the hardest thing is when our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ do not accept us as being Christian. It all begins with getting to know each other with a humility that states “innocent until God proves guilty”. God bless.

  • Jim

    One of the reasons for the set prayers, and Fr. Longenecker or another member of clergy may expand upon this, is truly rooted in scripture: we are one Church, worldwide. Where much of Protestantism is congregationalist and defines the church at that level, we see the entire Church as one, or, as St. Paul often put it, the many parts of the one Body of Christ. By having set prayers, the entire Church may pray together, as one, regardless of where on the globe we are, regardless of how many different buildings we may be in.

  • Kate

    It is funny how location makes all the difference. I have heard that Evangelicals don’t believe we are Christian. I even know a few Evangelicals, but this has never come up- not once. I live in the northwest, and my experience has been so different. There are many more non-believers here.

  • Johnrob Bantang

    Catholics do not “reject” the flesh but overcomes it, as catholics believe that Man has to embrace his humanity raising it to holiness. Catholics wanted to heal concupiscence, the inordinate interaction (result of Original and Personal Sins) between the will and passion of Man.

  • kim

    Is your book available in Kindle format?

  • Cashel Maher

    The question by evangelical Christians arises from their ignorance. Many of them have no idea of history. The obvious retort is that the Catholic Church is the Church that was founded by Jesus Christ, who ordained the first Pope, Simon Peter, 2000 years ago. The other religions were founded by various men, some good, some not so good, some in the Reformation years, (about 500 years ago) and some even more recently. It is essential to the mindset of many of these religions that they demonise the Catholic Church as it is a political disapproval that in fact justifies their existence – after all, if the Catholic Church is accepted, then they are just recently invented religions. The Catholic Church is the foundation of our legal system and our morality – it has existed for 2000 years and was the founder of the first schools and hospitals. The framework of our culture and everything that we believe makes us noble in our treatement of each other is the result of the morality that was instituted by the Catholic Church. It certainly did not occur as the result of the evangelicals!

  • Howard

    The first thing to ask yourself is whether it is worth dignifying the question with a response. As Proverbs 26:4 (KJV!) says,

    Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

    So, for instance, one often meets people who make up their own private definitions for words and think that these are binding on everyone. This has the advantage, from their point of view, of reducing all necessary proofs to tautologies. A fairly common one defines religion as “man reaching up to God, which inevitably fails like the Tower of Babel”, and Christianity as “God reaching down to man”. Of course, everything other than their little church (with a congregation of perhaps 4 families) or maybe similar little churches with precisely the same views (which condition restricts the worldwide population of “true Christians” to rather less than what it was the day after the first Pentecost), what you have is religion, which means by definition that you are going to Hell.

    There really is nothing to be gained in talking to such people. They have closed themselves off so much that they cannot be reached by any words in the English language, and even if they could understand you, they would not trust any facts you might bring to the table. They often have a dismal view of reason itself, which explains a good deal about their theology.

    All conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, and cases such as these make the miracle quite explicit. All that we can do is to persevere in prayer and good works towards them, all the while hoping that these will be more effective than reason.

  • Lisa

    I live in the south as well. It is frustrating when people do not believe you are Christian. The problem is that these people do not understand anything about Catholicism. For instance, we are not restricted to prayers that are already written. In fact, spontaneous prayer is encouraged, especially after holy communion. It makes me sad that our separated brethren simply aren’t familiar with Catholic teaching. On to the new evangelization!!!

  • Waldo

    Does is mean that all catholics are nominaly catholics ? That is false. I am a catholic that follows to catholic precepts, under the lidership of The Pope and my bishop. Thera are many nominaly catholics. The Call for them and every human being is: came to the encounter with Christ in the Catholic Church. The Church is going through a period of crisis, but we will overcame it, note because of our human power, but because of Him: Our Lord Jesus
    Are all evangelicals perfect ?

  • Ellen AAR

    I live in the South too. Ever meet a die-hard member of The Church of Christ? They are not Evangelicals, but they are firmly convinced that Catholics are all going to hell. They believe in the Bible and ONLY the Bible, but I’ve never met one yet who could tell me where we got the Bible, if not for the Church.


    Fr. I think my video on this subject is worth noting. Are Catholics Christian?

    You can check out the blog on this same topic over here God bless you and greetings from Ghana, West Africa.

  • shadowlands(ros)

    We are powerless over any religious person or institutions view of our souls (be they Catholic or Protestant), some Catholics reject Protestants as being Christian. Heck some Catholics reject fellow Catholics!

    Jesus inquired as to who people said He is, but ended with the question “Who do you say that I AM?”

    Who we say He Is and who He says we are, is more eternally important than any man’s temporary fleeting view of us.

  • Joe Christenson

    Hello Father Longenecker,

    I agree with your article… mostly. I am writing as an evangelical protestant. But, I have great love and admiration for the Catholic Church and I have been deeply enriched in my Christian walk by Catholic teaching. I read the Cathecism frequently and listen to Relevant Radio. In many ways, yes, the Catholic Church is a 5 course Italian banquet and evangelical protetantism is cheese and crackers. But, it seems that some of the menu items added over the centuries into that 5 course Italian banquet may have gotten off track and some may be very extra biblical. For example, why does the Catholic Church teach that Jesus had no brothers and sisters and that Mary, the Mother of our Lord was a virgin throughout her eartly life despite living as the wife of Joseph?

    Respectfully… Your Brother in Christ…

  • Momma Kyle

    Are Catholic Christians?
    Heck Yes!!!! We are the original Christians. To believe oftherwise is to believe that Our Lord, Jesus became incarnate, died for our sins—then waited 1500 years to found a huge variety of churchs?
    Here in Pennsylvania Evangelicals think the same thing–but are often too polite to say it out loud.

  • Chardin

    @ Julie Culshaw:

    The piece isn’t about lukewarm Christians, it’s about the fulness of truth of Catholicism and the pared down Christianity of Protestantism. Without teaching authority, Protestants can’t say just what “a Christian” really is without tacitly admitting that they have no hard and fast basis for the definition. I know plenty of cultural Protestants, believe me.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    As early as around the year 120 we have documents from the Christians in Jerusalem that show that they recognized the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is only much later that Protestant Christians began to deny this truth. This is therefore not a case of Catholics adding something to the faith of the early church, but a case of Protestants denying something that was part of the faith from the very beginning.

    All the Protestant Reformers and the Wesleys believed in the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin. It was only later, extreme Protestants who denied this truth.

    You can learn more about this by reading my book Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate. In this book I discuss all the Marian dogmas with a an Evangelical friend. It can be ordered from by going to the Browse My Books tab in the header.

  • Agape

    Am I a Christian? I surely accepted the Lord and I am trying to the best of my human abillity to follow Him, but… I don’t believe in Trinity, in hell, an immortality of soul. I believe that God is the Father only (YHWH) I believe that death is a state of cessation of all senses until resurection, the dead are not aware of anything, furthermore I believe that the time for salvation of mankind is not now but in the future in the Millennium when Christ will rule over Earth and all those who will obey Him will receive eternal life to live on Earth. Now is time for the Church only, the Levites who will assist Him in the Millennium. They are the only ones to be taken to Heaven and experience a change from human nature to spiritual nature
    So…am I a Christian?

  • Jack

    \\I have to disagree with you here, Father. I know many Catholics who do not understand what it is to be a Christian. They are raised in the Church, but they have not taken on the faith personally. They are “cultural” Catholics, just as there are “cultural” Jews\\

    I was raised a Baptist before I got saved and became Orthodox.

    Trust me, the same thing you deplore about Catholics happen among Baptists. They make the pro=forma act of “accepting Christ,” and then live the same way they did before.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The Catholic Church teaches that if you have faith in Jesus Christ and have been baptized in water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, then you may claim the name of Christian.

    Whether you are a Catholic Christian or are a Christian in heresy or schism is a different question.

  • jim

    Julie, Why do you assume there are cultural Catholics and Jews but no protestants? I personally know many who are. They profess one thing but behave otherwise, because they are “saved”, and no matter what they do they can’t lose their salvation. This is especially true within evangelicalism. Believe me, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on being “cultural”. It exists all over.

  • jim

    I sometimes prefer to be called “Catholic” instead of “Christian” because of the conglomeration of the protestant denominations that all disagree with each other. The infighting that goes on within some of these churches in incredible. The term “Catholic” was used as far back as A.D. 110 with Ignatius of Antioc.

  • kirsten

    i think its fair to ask if any individual, in any church, is a “Christian”.

    if someone asks if Catholics are Christian my answer can only be to quote that the wheat and the tares both grow in the same field, and go to the same church….

    is everyone in any church “Christian”? i doubt it, but you know its not my place to judge… being but a poor sinner myself. i do try to be though.

    if you only worry about being baptized, and accepting Jesus as your personal savior, than ANY church i know of is Christian.
    if you worry about how well they adhere to the Nicene Creed, well you knock a few out but the Catholics and Evangelicals are still there…

    if you go by the words of Jesus :those are my brothers and sisters who do the work of my father.. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc etc..
    well we have a LOT of non Christians sitting in pews in every church of every denomination.

  • Dana Whtite

    As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, moved away from it and all religion and now am back in the Catholic Church, I will say that there is some truth to this post. While I can not speak for everyone, there is a tendency among cradle Catholics to simply go to church every once in a while, take communion and go home. It is a routine.

    You are baptized as an infant. You do first communion, confession, and confirmation as a very young child. Now, I vaguely remember these sacraments and had no idea what they meant, to the extent I thought about it at all, at the time. Faith, hope, charity, Jesus as savior and God, redemption, I had no idea what these things were and I would venture to guess that no one in my family, including my parents, had any idea what these things were as well. Again, it was all routine, you didn’t think about it.

    All this also lead to a kind of trivial morality. I remember many times, that parents and grand parents would say don’t do this or that because Father wouldn’t like it. I remember no attempt to explain sin through scripture. We never had a bible at home. We never discussed God or sin or anything at all about religion. It was assumed that going to church on Sundays was all you had to do.

    Now is the Catholic Church “wrong” to do things the way it does? Not at all! I firmly believe that the Catholic Church is the true church, the one that Christ built on Peter, the first Bishop of Rome.

    So what went wrong? Cradle Catholics of that generation were extremely lazy about things!

  • Jeffrey Boyd

    I like your reply. I myself became evangelical at age 19, and at age 30 entered the one holy catholic and apostolic church. I had to ask those diffiult questions dealing with sola scriptura and sola fide ( by faith alone) I found that history and scripture did not support this. Sometimes us modern Catholics are too eucunemical. We should come out and state the truth. There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. All the early Church Fathers stated very clearly. Without Apostolic succession you are not considered a true Church. Let us pray that they may become Christian.

  • Taylor

    That’s right. Thanks for bringing up the fact that the early Protestants believed in the Blessed Mother’s perpetual virginity. Protestantism has continued to fracture exponentially making it difficult for anyone outside of the Catholic Church to know what truth really is. “What is truth?” Answer: it’s way back there where you left it. Come back home! :-)

  • Taylor

    Indeed, when we rely upon our own imaginations as to what we are to believe, we act with pride. We all must humble ourselves under Christ’s authority which He established on Peter and in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church which Christ established Himself and to which He gave the Holy Spirit to guide it in all truth.

  • David Paggi

    Fr Longenecker: I greatly enjoy your writing and look forward to reading your new book. Here in Charleston we enjoy something of an oasis of tolerance; six-term Mayor Joe Riley serves as a Minister of Holy Communion at the Cathedral. Here is a working definition I borrowed from Karl Keating with which many evangelical friends agree: An evangelical believes it may be possible (however remotely) a Catholic could be saved; a fundementalist is quite certain he cannot.

  • Agape

    I am still unclear…according to some I may be considered a Christian, others don’t think so. What do you think it’s the fate of those who see differently as I see? I mean I believe in Christ, that He is the promised Messiah who takes away the sins of all. But… I can’t accept Trinity, I think our Lord was created by Father and was not God himself. Neither I can accept that God tortures people in Hell, I think Hell is the equivalent of Sheol (grave, tomb). I disagree about the fate of people who don’t accept Christian faith. I think they will have the opportunity to be saved during Millennium. To accept the Catholic view on these, or protestant as they are similar, would be to go against my own convictions. When I read the Bible I see things as I described above, I can’t say otherwise. But I am curious what do you think my fate would be? I mean I am labeled as heretic that I understand but what can I do if I can’t see God torturing people? What can I do if I read that those who die think not, act not, feel nought? In other words death means out of existence.
    What can I do if I understand that the Church/Bride will have the role of Levites pictured in OT?

  • Katherine

    Agape: God Never tortures anyone,on earth or in hell. God is love; period.
    We have a choice to either accept or reject God and live as He wants us to live-a life of love for one another. If we rejcet Him and spend our life rejecting the many invitations he gives us come to Him He will respect our choice-
    We’ve spent our life without Him we will spend eternity without Him-that is Hell. Eternity without God’s love is hell..

  • Dave from San Juan Capistrano

    Evangelicals are Protestants. Protestants are “Protestors” of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus of Nazareth. The more than 26,000 Evangelical churches were founded by pastor Bill, Fred, Jim or Don (even pastor Jane) but not by Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. End of Story.

  • Katherine

    Agape: God is a genleman, He respects the choice(s) we make. If we spend our life rejecting His many invitations to become His loving child He will allow us to spend eternity without Him–that is hell.
    God neither tortures anyone nore doe He “send” anyone to hell. Ever human being’s life is full of choices-man’s inhumanity to man-means torture, murder, war etc. These are the result of man’s choices not God’s doing.

  • Agape

    So, I guess the temperature has cooled down meanwhile. When I was younger I learned that hell is a really hot place where unbelievers spent eternity screaming in pain. On the other side of the chasm the saved and the angels are watching their pain while enjoying a life of hapiness. That is heaven. Or is it?
    Now, I have another question: What do you think is the fate of the hindus and muslims and all other non-christian religions? They don’t accept Christ now, they follow their old practices handed down from generations. What is the Catholic view about their final fate?

  • Shamrock

    Julie ..You seem to be trying to define Catholics by using the poorest examples you can find. Would you consider it fair if I defined evangelical Christians using the same method? Of course the answer is no! Try re-reading Father’s excellent definition of what it means to be Catholic and also studying the history of religion and you will find that the Catholics were the first Christians. All the evangelical sects came much later. We can both find examples of poor Christians in the Catholic Church as well as in all the denominations.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The Catholic Church teaches that there is goodness, truth and light in all religions to a greater or lesser extent and inasumuch as a devotee of that religion follows the light that he has, he is following the light of Christ, and his obedience and faith may save him.

    However, we are also called to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all so that the vague yearnings and glimmers of truth they have in their religion will be fulfilled as they come to the full understanding of the Christian gospel.

  • Agape

    I understand now. We are all brothers in Christ and we are called to spread the Good News to all. But…, how do we agree what Good News is?
    We believe that the original Good News preached by the Lord and His apostles was: God has forgiven us through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. Now He is looking for a Heavenly class of people to become His priests and kings, to teach in the future the rest of mankind (those who are not partakers of Heavenly calling Heb 3:1) to obey God and thus live forever on Earth in perfect human bodies as father Adam had before the fall. We also believe that those who will refuse to listen to the Christ (Head and body) will be punished with death (not eternal torture) as we believe that the Scripture teaches that the soul (person) who sinneth shall die. Thus we believe that the soul dies, as these are the words of God given to Ezekiel, given to us.
    So, this is what I tell others when I have a chance to talk about God’s plan for the human race.
    Is it okay to spread this message?

  • Anna

    IN the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
    (John 1:1-5 Douay-Rheims Bible)
    Our Blessed Lord Jesus is the Word of God. He IS God.

  • Lee

    I am a lifelong Southerner. I’ve been in succession a Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and am an evangelical. Yes, many evangicals don’t get Catholics and have a historical view of Christianity dating back less than 20 years instead of 2000 years. I am reading Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home and considering Catholicism. These posts and website are helpful to Holy Spirit’s stirring my heart.

  • Confederate Papist

    I grew up in the South as a Catholic. It was hard, but I made it hard because of my own ignorance and the poor catechesis of the 1970′s and 1980′s. I was angry for a long time at protestants because of their (I realise now) ignorance. After all, we were kids, and with some exceptions, what kid completely understands their faith?

    Anyway, I had to go away from religion to realise where my home really was and I came back to the Church as an adult, ready to learn and re-learn. I consider myself a “born again Catholic”, have a love for the TLM, glad they revised the Novus Ordo Mass, and I consider my protestant friends Catholics who haven’t fully embraced the Faith yet.

    I enjoyed the article, and although it was a tough time of my life, it did stir up many fond memories of my youth.

  • Chip

    Grew up in the south myself (born in Athens, GA — Go Dawgs!), and my parents were converts, which the extended family never really understood. So I can relate to everything being said here.

    But, I have to add, it forged my Catholic identity. I probably wouldn’t be as devout as I am today if I didn’t run the gauntlet when I was a kid. Thanks protestant brethr’n!

  • Chip

    We’re all sinners

  • Jeremy Hopkins

    The Blessed Virgin Mary is not an addition to Catholicism at all. Everything from Catholicism is either carried directly from Judaism or translated from Judaism.

    The center of Jewish practice is the Torah. The Torah was kept in the Ark of the Covenant until it was pulled out and put into use.

    Jesus is the Word made flesh. As such, Mary is the ‘new’ Ark of the Covenant.

    All of the rest of the so-called additions are of this same nature.

    Jesus actually offered very little of anything that was new. He mostly just re-stated everything that was already in the Old Testament. And he did actually very little to change the religion that was already in practice.

    The difference between Catholicism and Judaism are the specific changes made by Jesus. Every thing else was left the same.

  • Jeremy Hopkins

    I mostly refer to myself as Catholic and rarely as Catholic Christian. I never refer to myself as Christian though for the same reasons. The word Christian is now being used to identify adherents to very wide range of belief systems, most of which I reject as being unbiblical and demonstrably false and I do not wish to be identified with those groups

  • Everett

    From the time of Pope Boniface VIII (pontifiicate – 1294-1303) to Vatican II, the official teaching of the Catholic Church was there’s no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. During the years of Vatican II (1962-1965), that changed and baptised Protestants were allowed admission to the kingdom of heaven. Are you saying that the Magesterium got it wrong?
    When the early church fathers refered to apostolic succession, they were not thinking in terms of ecclesiastical authority; they were thinking in terms of the truth. When Tertullian, for exammple, used apostolic succession against the gnostics, he was saying the Church was teaching what the apostles taught, and, therefore it was true.
    Any church that teaches what the apostles taught is a member of the Church of God.