An Atheist Explains why Catholics are Christians

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are a number of Christian groups that claim Catholics are not Christians, and the more I encounter this nonsensical idea, the more I bang my head against the wall.

Disclaimer:  I was raised Catholic and am now atheist, so that’s the experience I’m coming from with this. The arguments I’m using do come from Catholic apologetics, but in this particular instance, I think they actually hold some water.

Here’s the definition of “Christian” I was taught:  a Christian is someone who is a Christ-follower.

Simple. Basic. To-the-point. I think this is an extremely inclusive definition, to the point where fringe groups that Catholicism doesn’t recognize as Christian, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, still fall under the category of “Christian.” I think there can be some argument made for both sides when it comes to those groups,  but when it comes to Catholicism, there’s really no question about it.

To get into more specific details in order to narrow down a definition of Christianity, Christians worship the Abrahamic God, and use the Bible, both the New and Old Testaments, as their holy book. While not all take the entire Bible literally, especially certain parts of the Old Testament, Christians generally take the Gospel literally–it’s the story of Christ, after all. Christians believe Jesus is the son of God, and they believe he was crucified, died, rose from the dead, and will come again someday when it’s time for the world to end.

You will get some variation on things like the Eucharist (literal flesh and blood or a sign?), Mary’s virginity, creationism vs. actual science, religious icons, age of Baptism (adults or babies?), the garden of Eden (was it literal or figurative?), is there such a thing as Purgatory, and position on social issues like abortion, access to contraception, marriage equality, etc. There’s a pretty long list of differences. But if there’s one thing all Christians agree on, it’s Jesus. Jesus is the savior. Jesus is the reason for the season, and all that hooey.

Catholics believe in all those things. Catholicism is the trunk from which Protestantism branched out. To call Catholicism “not Christianity” is like calling a root “not part of the tree.” That’s such a Catholic thing to say that I’m a little embarrassed to write it, but I think in this case the analogy stands. You can read about Martin Luther and Henry VIII. The Protestant Reformation brought about the many branches of Christianity we see today. The Anglicans, (also known as the Church of England) hold a worship service that’s nearly identical to the Catholic mass. The Lutheran services are pretty darn close too (I’ve been to one). This is because their faiths branched directly off of Catholicism, and they retained a lot of the same practices and rituals. Then other churches branched off from them, and with each new branch that got further and further from the earliest one, new traditions were added and old ones were rejected. That’s why you can go to a megachurch and watch the preacher on a big screen between Christian Rock songs, you can go to a Pentecostal church and watch people “speak in tongues,” and you can visit the Amish and leave the 21st century behind. Christianity is practiced in vastly different ways from church to church, but they all believe they’re following Christ, so they’re all Christian.

This is the point where Catholics generally state that Catholicism is the form Christianity founded by Jesus, and its traditions have been carried on by the apostles through the priests and the hierarchy. I am among those who wonder whether or not Jesus even existed, but regardless of whether it was founded by Jesus or just a group of human beings, everyone generally agrees that Christianity had a beginning. It had early adherents. It had to start somewhere. Before the reformation, there was just “Christianity.” There was no need to have a separate name like “Catholicism.” There were no “Catholics” in 300 AD, or 500 AD, or even 1000 AD because it had always been one group (I’m oversimplifying a bit to skip the orthodox churches, but you get the idea.) Once the split happened, there needed to be a unique name for the religion that stayed as it had always been.

While I’ve made plenty of posts bemoaning the Catholic Church’s refusal to keep up with the times, their rigidity really helps this particular argument. If you’ve ever sat in a western civilizations history class, you’ve probably learned about the church hierarchy as part of your study of medieval times. And you know what? The church has the same hierarchy today, the same structures, and the same basic rituals with only minor changes (like saying mass in the vernacular instead of Latin). All in all, Catholicism is as Christian as the Anglican church, and its people are as Christian as the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherens, the Evangelicals, the Amish, the Mennonites, and the whole kit and kaboodle.

Don’t get me wrong. I despise the Catholic church, and wish they would get with the times and stop raping children and covering it up, but if there’s one thing I’d like to impart to its critics, humanists included, it’s that they are definitely, without a doubt, Christian.

Have any of you encountered this “Catholics aren’t Christians” idea in person? I seem to only encounter it online, at least where I live. Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy