Are Roman Catholics Christians?

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism, Evangelism, Roman Catholicism, Unity of the Church

Yes, the question at the head of this post is one that I am still asked. Admittedly, it is asked of me less frequently these days, since most who really know me realize how amazed I am that people still ask the question.

blogSpan Dave Lipsiea, an encouraging Catholic reader of this blog, recently (July 14) thanked me for my commitment to true ecumenism and then asked: “Do you see wasted effort and money by different Christian denominations who try in earnest to steal sheep from other Christian groups?” Dave added that Muslims, atheists and pagans are not evangelized in some countries, as much as they should be, because so much effort is focused on missionaries reaching Catholics. He added that part of his frustration is “with those who believe Catholics are not really Christian.” He added that he meets “friendly evangelicals” but when push comes to shove they “really believe Catholics are not Christian. Until that changes true ecumenism will be stifled.”

Well, I have to agree with Dave. I want to respond to his question but I also want to reflect on the evangelical impulse, both pro and con.

First, it utterly amazes me that there are evangelicals (more likely they are fundamentalists if this distinction is properly nuanced) who still think Catholics are not members of the Christian church. Some even think Roman Catholicism is a massive cult or “the synagogue of Satan.” This was not the view of the magisterial Reformers. And it most certainly was not the view of many Protestants since the 16th century; e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, etc. The eccentric stance of fundamentalism played a huge role in promoting an anti-Catholic stance in America and thereby kept the prejudice and hatred of Catholics in America alive until the present century. Slowly this has changed but one of America’s most virulent dirty secrets is the hatred of Catholics throughout our history. (Catholics could not vote in Massachusetts until 1833 and until my lifetime held no high national office or served on the Supreme Court.)

The language used about Rome in the sixteenth century often fell into the trap of heated and unfortunate rhetoric. But Rome’s response to the Reformers, especially at Trent and in the centuries following, did not help either. Catholic polemicists have also stoked the fires on many occasions.

On the whole the earliest Protestants saw Rome as a church that had lost, or fallen from, certain important aspects of biblical doctrine; e.g. justification and the authority of Scripture over the church.  But the Protestant Reformers, and many of their heirs, knew that they came from Rome, not from some a-historical (mythological) past. Calvin and Luther make interesting reading here since they struggled against Rome yet still held some doctrinal beliefs that modern evangelicals remain uncomfortable with (views about Mary, etc.).

Second, it amazes me to still hear anti-Catholic rhetoric and misunderstanding. I have never met an evangelical who really knows the Catholics that I personally know who remains persuaded of this type of response. The Catholics I know personally love Christ as their Lord and remain faithfully Catholic. But certain evangelicals think this is simply impossible, preferring their form of logic to love. Their reasoning proceeds in this way: Catholics deny justification by faith alone thus they deny the article that the true church stands or falls upon. No Catholic can truly know Christ unless they renounce the Catholic Church or (odd as it really seems) remains a poor Catholic who doesn’t really know what the Roman Catholic Church believes. (As odd as it seems, this becomes salvation by ignorance of the church and her faith!) The one experience that most changed my perspective about this was meeting real Catholics who clearly love Christ! Add to that my reading of thousands of pages of reputable Catholic theology, as well as modern Catholic magazines and popular papers, and you have the two most powerful influences in my life for change: knowing all of Christ’s people, regardless of their church communion, and reading theology with an open Bible and a teachable spirit. I came to my understanding by two routes: listening and learning. It really isn’t that difficult if you are willing to put yourself in the place of your brother, which Scripture commands you to do. You can then say, “I want to learn from you what it means to follow Christ as you understand his call in your life.” You do not have to agree about every doctrinal issue if Christ is truly at the center of your faith and life. You are both being drawn toward him alone.

Third, evangelicals are part of a renewal movement inside the church. The very word evangelical means “people who love and share the gospel.” Thus evangelicals can be found in every church. We have limited this word to “our” group when we think that we alone know the truth, all of it and all the time. Evangelicalism is a renewal movement, thus is it not particularly given to serious ecclesiology. It has been used by God to renew Anglicanism, Lutheranism, the Reformed (and others). It is really more of an impulse of the Holy Spirit leading people to return to the simple, biblical message of Christ’s love and grace and thus to his kingdom being advanced through loving action and gospel proclamation. Many Catholics are evangelicals in this sense of the word, though only a few like the term since it has been used against them for so long.

Evangelicals tend to have a low-church view of the  baptized community. They downplay sacraments and corporate responsibility because they favor personal faith. For this reason their faith and practice has done well in democratic societies but this is changing in the 21st century. Evangelicals strength has been their focus on proclaiming the gospel to all, both inside and outside the church. They generally do not think that being a baptized member of any church makes you a true follower of Jesus. I will develop this further tomorrow.