Are Catholics Christians?

It seems strange to have to say that Catholics are Christian but to a growing number of Evangelicals (particularly in the English-speaking world) it needs to be pointed out. Catholic Christianity is Complete Christianity. In fact, we Catholics were the first Christians because we Catholics were the original Christians. Sadly, a lot of Catholics have apparently played into this word-trap as well, referring to Catholics as “Catholics” and to Evangelicals as “Christians.” What they’re doing, inadvertently, is giving credit to the false notion that Catholics are not Christians and Evangelicals are.

The word Evangelical is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “Protestant” or a type of Western Christian: “emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.” (source) It’s the form of Christianity, in the Western world, that is not Catholic, and looks to the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.) as its spiritual heritage. Here’s how to know if you’re an Evangelical. Look in your Bible. If it contains a total of 66 books, you’re probably an Evangelical Christian, or at the very least, a traditional Protestant Christian. If it contains 73 books, chances are you’re a Catholic Christian. (You can learn more about the differences in Catholic and Protestant Bible here: Why Do Catholic Bibles Have More Books?)

The word Catholic, however, simply means “universal” or “all-embracing” or “including a wide variety of things.” In other words: “complete.” It was used in the late first-century to describe the actual Church established by Christ and his apostles, which spanned the ancient world, in contrast to many sectarian groups which only followed the teachings of a specific leader or were limited in membership to geography or ethnicity. For example, some groups, in the late first century, which claimed to be Christian, were followers of specific teachers, who taught doctrines opposed to the teachings of Christ and his apostles. Other groups, also claiming to be Christian, demanded that Christianity was only for the Jews and that Gentiles, who wanted to become Christian, must first convert to Judaism. In contrast, the word “Catholic,” coming from the Greek word καθολικός (katholikos), was an adjective that meant those Christians who were everywhere, of all nationalities and ethnicities, embracing the whole teaching of Christ and his apostles.

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8, written in AD 105

Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop in the early Church. He was ordained a bishop by the Apostle John who wrote the Gospel According to John, three short New Testament epistles bearing his name, and the Book of Revelation. The Apostle John was the youngest of Christ’s original twelve apostles, and he is referred as the “disciples whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John. It is believed that John was a distant relative of Jesus Christ. Ignatius was one of John’s proteges later in his life, and John left the Church of Antioch, and surrounding regions, to his pastoral care.

Ignatius wrote a number of letters to his flock as he was being led away to martyrdom in Rome. The above is an excerpt from one such letter. Herein he clearly outlined the authority structure of the early Church, claiming that nothing can be lawfully done in the Church without the approval of a local bishop and that this especially applied to the celebration of the Eucharist (meaning the Holy Mass).

He also instructed the faithful believers to follow the presbytery, which is an office of ministry just beneath a bishop, exercising the bishop’s authority in his absence. Such a member of this order is called a presbyter, and today the common word “priest” is used as a substitute for this word. So here, Ignatius of Antioch (a direct disciple of the Apostle John) clearly lays out the authority structure of the early Church. The bishop is the undisputed leader of the early Church, acting in place of the apostles following the death of the apostles. Next, the presbyters exercise the bishop’s authority in his absence, and the Christian faithful are expected to follow them as well.

Finally, he states that wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. The word, Catholic is used as an adjective here, with the meaning described above, and it was used in such a casual way in this sentence as if his readers had heard it many times before. He couldn’t have been introducing a new phrase. If he had, he would have needed to explain it. Rather, he just wrote the word “Catholic” in the most nonchalant way, as if his audience should already know exactly what he’s talking about. Thus we can conclude, with all reasonable certainty, that the word “Catholic” was used in the late first century to describe the Church Jesus and the apostles founded. It was likely used by the Apostle John as well, even though we don’t see it in any of his Biblical writings.

Members of the Catholic Church are properly called “Catholic Christians” because the word “Catholic” comes from the Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos). Thus the word “Catholic” is itself an adjective in a proper sense. However, over the centuries, the word “Catholic” has evolved into a noun itself and was used interchangeably with the word “Christian.” It is still used this way today. This the word “Catholic” means “Catholic Christian,” which also just means “Christian.” So Catholic and Christian mean essentially the same thing, though to say “Catholic” is to narrow it down to a specific kind of Christian, meaning one who is universal in belief and practice, embracing all things Christian, and in unity with Christians around the world.

In modern times, within the last 200 years or so, groups of Protestants began breaking away from their mainline denominations and national churches, and a good number of them began calling themselves Evangelical. Later, they began using the terms “nondenominational” or “Born-Again” or “Bible Christians.” Some of them insisted on just calling themselves “Christians” without any adjective to describe or define them. In time these non-descriptive Evangelicals started using the word “Christian” to compare/contrast themselves with other Christians using different names. A large number of these non-descriptive Evangelicals referred to themselves as “Christian” and to members of the Catholic Church simply as “Catholics” as if these two words (Christian and Catholic) has nothing in common at all. Thus, in great swaths of English-speaking societies, many Evangelicals do not believe that Catholics are Christian. They cite different reasons to justify this, but in the end, what it comes down to is banding. Some Evangelicals have simply branded themselves as “Christians” and everyone else (non-Evangelicals) as “not Christian.”

More answers to questions such as these can be found in the book “Are Catholics Christian?: A Guide to Evangelical Questions about the Catholic Church,” available both in digital and paperback. Learn more here. Priests and catechists, throughout the United States and Canada, have already used portions of this book in their regular RCIA material, and some simply read portions of the book to their class. It’s highly recommended by priests and catechists alike.


  1. This is what happens when you change or redefine words. When the Church refers to itself as ‘Catholic Christianity’, it believes that it separates itself from other branches of Christianity such as the Orthodox; but they are just as catholic as those who are under the pope. They also have apostolic succession. Notice that Ignatius of Antioch said that wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. He did not say that it is where Peter is. Are Lutheran bishops also part of the catholic church? What about the others who adhere to Scripture, even though they may not interpret it in the same way as the Roman church does?
    The word ‘priest’ should never have been substituted for the word ‘presbyter’ because there is no two-tiered priesthood in Christianity. This reinforces clericalism. We all participate in the one priesthood of Christ.

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    1. Jesus founded one church, and he is the head of the church. There have been heresies from the word go, and the new testament is not shy in condemning them. From the first century onwards there have been many sects which claim to follow Christ. That in itself does not make them part of the church.


      1. Absolutely, God is the only judge, it is not enough to be “Catholic”, “Born Again” or “Christian”,
        John 10:27 “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice.” We have to listen to what Jesus says.
        As Mary tells the servants in John 2: “Do whatever he tells you”. We have to what Jesus asks.
        John 6:45 ” to hear the teaching of the Father and learn from it is to come to me” . We have to learn from God’s teaching.
        Peter says in Acts 5:32 ” the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him.
        Jeremiah 17:10 ” I, Yahweh, search the heart, test the motives, to give each person what his conduct and his actions deserve.”
        Only God knows who are the elect, him and those he chooses to reveal it to.


      2. Agreed. But with them the Christian grows in virtue and love. We are co-workers with God, and a good work can only be initiated by God, we only respond to God’s prompting. That is why those who do not respond to that prompting obstinately are destined to hell.
        Matt 25:41-43 “41 Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
        42 For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink,
        43 I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”


  2. The Apòstles Creed mentions the Catholic Church. The reason for this we find in various places in the New Testament, but it is especially clear in Gal 1:6ff). There we see that there were Christians who were preaching a different doctrine from Paul. The solution to this was to add the word Catholic (i.e.,what is found not just in this place or that, but everywhere). When the Church finally was no longer persecuted by the Romans, they met together at Nicea to decide if the disciples of Arius were members of the Catholic Church. They said no. As far as they were concerned in 325, the only truly Christian Church (teaching the doctrines of Christ) was the Catholic Church. There were no others. More dissidents showed up later, but as St.Augustine (died 420) said, if you ask for directions to the Catholic Church, the dissidents will not dare to take you to their own.

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      1. What is your point? At the council of Florence in ca. 1440 the Catholic church included many churches which a century later had broken off from Rome. There always have been heresies and schisms, right from the time of the apostles.


      2. The Catholic church always includes all destined to be saved, the elect, who may indeed be Protestant or “pagan”, but not heretical churches themselves, although they have a link, sometimes strong, to the Catholic church, or pagan religions.


  3. People who say Catholics aren’t Christians are just ignorant of history. It’s especially funny to hear it from Christians with newish denominations.

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