Are You Christian or Catholic?

When people use the term “Christian, not Catholic,” they perpetuate an old anti-Catholic prejudice in America.

Jan van Eyck, detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, c. 1431
Jan van Eyck, detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, c. 1431 (photo: Register Files)

Soon after I converted to the Catholic faith a dear old Dominican sister gave me a word of advice, “I think it is generally a good idea,” she said, “to not refer to yourself any longer as a ‘Christian’ but use ‘Catholic'.”

I was rather flabbergasted by her suggestion since to my mind in becoming a Catholic I was becoming the most fulfilled and complete Christian. What she meant, however, was that in many people’s minds to be a Christian means to be a Protestant. To be a Catholic is, well, something else.

I understood that she was only seeking clarity for my witness as a Catholic, but unfortunately, such a distinction plays into the hands of non-Catholics who have hijacked the term “Christian”. 

So here in the deep South you will find people who say, “I used to be Catholic, but now I’m Christian.” What they mean is that they have left the Catholic faith of their baptism and become Protestant. I heard another Protestant say, “I really like nuns. I’d love to be a nun, if only there were Christian nuns!”

By saying that they are “Christian, not Catholic,” our Protestant neighbors perpetuate the anti-Catholic prejudice that abounds in America. The implication is that Catholics are not Christians. The suggestion is that Catholics are not followers of Jesus Christ, but the devotees of a strange and dangerous cult. 

Indeed, when I was a student at Bob Jones University, the Catholic Church was regularly referred to as a cult. Catholics were in the same category as Mormons and Moonies and Scientologists, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, some at Bob Jones taught that the Catholic Church was not just a cult, it was the great granddaddy of all cults. They believed it was condemned in the Book of Revelation, for goodness sake! 

Sure enough, when you read the Book of Revelation, there it seems to be— plain as day: the great harlot sat astride the city of seven hills, whose princes wore robes of scarlet and purple, who drank the blood of the saints from golden goblets…”

“Why how can anyone avoid the conclusion that this is the great whore of Babylon the Church of Rome?” thundered Dr. Bob. “The city of Rome is famous for being perched on seven hills and the Catholic bishops and cardinals wear robes of scarlet and purple and the drink blood from golden goblets on their altars.”

They missed the point that there is a historical context for the Book of Revelation. St John was referring to the decadent Roman emperors and their court—not to Catholic prelates.

Nevertheless, too many of the Protestant protests about the Catholic Church have some mileage to them. If we have too much emphasis on beautiful vestments, sacred vessels, beautiful (and expensive) art and all the extras of Catholic worship it can seem like we have lost the plot.

I’m in favor of beautiful, traditional and reverent worship, but maybe we need to be ready to give a good explanation for our religion. Catholics should understand Catholic liturgy. We should explain why we build beautiful churches, maintain fine worship and invest in vestments, vessels and art that is worthy. We should not be ashamed of our Catholic traditions and we should celebrate them with due pleasure and proper pride in the worthy worship we offer.

But along with this we need to also cultivate the primitive and primary aspects of the Christian faith. One of the strengths of popular Protestantism is that it is simple, direct and on target with its emphasis on the personal encounter with Christ.

This is one of the things I am learning from Pope Francis: to be Catholic, but also to be Christian. In other words, to be joyful in my expression of the basic gospel story. I want to be with the people and share their lives as the Pope calls us to. I want to see the gospel lived out not just talked out. I want that message to be vital, vibrant and victorious in the world today through the ministry of the church in the world today. 

The simple message of compassion and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and joy is the message of Christ Jesus and the message we are called to live out. If we did this consistently then there would be no question of whether we are Christian or a Catholic Cult. It would be obvious that we, as Catholics, were living out the gospel of Jesus Christ more faithfully than anyone else.

This is also, however, where I give thanks for Pope Benedict. If Francis is showing us the way to follow Jesus Christ in the path of St. Francis, then Benedict still shows us how to follow Jesus Christ in the path of St. Benedict. His way is one of beauty, tradition, scholarship, liturgy, contemplation, prayer and study. This way cannot be neglected in the Church. It is just as important as Francis’ way.

Therefore, the balance of Benedict and Francis show us a way to be fully Catholic and fully Christian. In the world we live out the simple life of service, love and evangelization. In worship we live out the words of liturgy, prayer and the divine sacrifice. One fuels and fulfills the other, and vice versa. The two complement each other.

Therefore, when confronted with the question of whether we are Catholic or Christian we must say we are both. For ‘Catholic’ we mean that we fully embrace all the riches of Catholic tradition in worship, theology, dogma, moral teaching and devotions. For ‘Christian’ we mean a simple, heartfelt relationship with the living Lord and living out a life and witness of compassion, teaching, evangelizing and caring.

One or the other? No. Like St. Thérèse cried I cry out, “I will have all!”

Nicaraguan police place Bishop Rolando José Álvarez under house arrest Aug. 4 at the diocesan chancery in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

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