Understanding Terms: Christian, Catholic & Protestant

This morning I read an article (see here) that made me laugh, because it relayed a story about a cardinal in the Catholic Church who doesn’t seem to understand some very basic terms. He suggested that Catholics who protest some actions of the pope ought to become Protestants, because that’s what they essentially are. I couldn’t contain myself. I laughed so hard I nearly spilled my coffee. What made this story particularly funny to me was that just yesterday I had an email exchange with a Protestant about this very same topic. Our exchange was cordial and intelligent, unlike the rhetoric I see coming from liberal clergy in the Catholic Church these days. Without getting into the details of the exchange itself, or delving too deeply into the problems with the cardinal’s assertion, I think it’s time to go through some basic terminology.

Terms are important because they mean something, and if we use the wrong terms, we tend to create more problems than we solve. I point the finger at myself on this one. I’m guilty of it too, from time to time, especially when I get a little hot-headed. So let’s go into the terms that need to be reviewed and clarified…

  1. CHRISTIAN: A Christian is any person who has received a Trinitarian baptism. Trinitarian baptisms, done in the “Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” are essentially Catholic baptisms, and are fully recognized by the Catholic Church as 100% valid. A Trinitarian baptism performed in a Baptist Church (for example) is just as “Catholic” as one performed in the Catholic Church. This is why candidates from Protestantism are not “re-baptized” upon entering the Catholic Church. Their baptisms in their Protestant churches are considered fully valid and Catholic. What Protestants usually lack are the sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist, as well as a Catholic profession of faith. However, their baptisms are fully Catholic. So, in review, a Trinitarian baptism is a Catholic baptism, and that’s what makes you a Christian. It all starts there. Essentially, a Christian is a baptized Catholic, but that doesn’t mean a Christian will remain Catholic.
  2. CATHOLIC: A Catholic is any person who has received a Trinitarian baptism, as well as the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist in the Catholic Church, and is in communion with the Bishop of Rome (Pope), as evidenced by accepting all the teachings of the Catholic Church (a profession of faith). This is important. What makes you a Catholic is not just the sacraments or saying you’re in communion with the Pope. These things are part of it, but the real key is accepting all the teachings of the Catholic Church. One can be an active Catholic, or a lapsed Catholic, but so long as one still accepts the teachings of the Catholic Church, one is still Catholic.
  3. PROTESTANT: A Protestant is any person who has received Trinitarian baptism and still believes in the Trinity (making him/her technically a “baptized Catholic” or “Christian”), but who simultaneously rejects some or most of the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is the very definition of the word “Protestant” which means “one who protests.” The word “protest” is written right into the word “PROTESTant.” This is important, because a Protestant is always a “baptized Catholic” or “Christian,” meaning one who received a Trinitarian baptism and still believes in the Trinity, but rejects other Catholic teachings. It doesn’t really matter what these teachings are. It could be teachings about the Pope, Eucharist, Saints, Purgatory, or such things as artificial contraception, abortion, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” and female ordination. If one “protests” Catholic teaching on these things, one ceases to be Catholic and becomes PROTESTant.

Understanding these terms is important. This is why Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Protestants. They’re not Protestants because they don’t have Trinitarian (Catholic) baptism. They reject the teaching of the Trinity, and they don’t baptize in the Name of the Trinity. Therefore, they lack a proper Catholic baptism. This means they’re not technically Christians either, in a doctrinal sense, because as the definition of the word “Christian” above states: “A Christian is any person who has received a Trinitarian (Catholic) baptism” and professes faith in the Trinitarian God. There are basically only three types of Christians in the world…

  1. CATHOLIC — A validly baptized person who accepts the teachings of the Catholic Church and submits to the authority of the Pope.
  2. ORTHODOX — A validly baptized person who accepts the teachings of the Catholic Church but does not submit to the authority of the Pope. This is known as schism.
  3. PROTESTANT — A validly baptized person who does not accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is known as heresy. And does not submit to the authority of the Pope. This is known as schism.

So Orthodox Christians are basically Catholics who are in schism with the pope. While Protestant Christians are basically Catholics who “protest” Catholic teaching (heresy) and are also in schism with the pope.

Understanding this is important when dealing with Orthodox and Protestant Christians. While Orthodox Christians usually know the Catholic Church accepts their Trinitarian baptisms as fully valid and “Catholic,” most Protestants are completely unaware of this. Pointing it out to them can be an ice-breaker. For example; when a Protestant says “I’ll never be Catholic,” a good comeback can be: “Technically you already are at some level. You’ve received a Catholic baptism, and the Catholic Church recognizes that. So it’s like you’ve already got your foot in the door. That Trinitarian baptism ties you to the Catholic Church like a boat moored to a dock. You can’t leave the Catholic Church entirely unless you cut the mooring of your Trinitarian baptism, but if you do that you’ll cease to be Christian as well.”

As you can imagine, a comeback like that throws them on their heels. The concept of being connected, or tied, to the Catholic Church probably never occurred to them before. Now depending on how anti-Catholic they are, they may or may not accept this. But it doesn’t matter. The seed has been planted, and if it doesn’t sprout in their minds, it might sprout in others who overheard it.

This is an important clarification that came out of the Second Vatican Council, but Vatican II did not invent it. It was taught prior to the council, by popes and bishops, and even in some catechisms. But it wasn’t clearly defined until the Second Vatican Council. I know some Catholics have a problem with Vatican II, and truth be told, I have some minor problems with it too. But I’m not in the habit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I interpret Vatican II within the Hermeneutic of Continuity, as Pope Paul VI and Pope Benedict XVI taught us. There is no other valid interpretation of Vatican II. It must be in continuity with the historical Church, and this teaching about Protestants and baptism is.


If we think of the Catholic Church like a dock, then Catholics are those people freely walking up and down the dock on to shore. Orthodox Christians are like boats fully docked to the dock, like being berthed in a boat slip, tied on all corners and secured. While Protestant Christians are moored to the dock, tied on one end (usually by the bow of the boat), to a post on the dock. The stern of the boat may move about, and be unsecured, but the boat is still tied (moored), at least on one end, to something on the dock, or something connected to the dock. The connection is real and it is secure. The boat may move about much more than one that is fully docked or berthed, but it’s still attached to the dock.


This is the situation Protestants find themselves in. The Catholic Church is like a dock. Protestants are attached to the Catholic Church by the Sacrament of Trinitarian Baptism, like a rope, which is what the Catholic Church herself recognizes as initiation into the Catholic Church. But at the same time, these Protestants refuse to be connected to the Catholic Church in any other way. The only way they can be truly independent and free of Rome is to cut the “rope” of Trinitarian baptism that ties them to the “dock” of the Catholic Church. But if they do that, they cease to be Christian entirely, and are no different than Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s quite a pickle, actually, especially for those Protestants who happen to be very anti-Catholic. They hate the dock. They curse the dock. They may even spit on the dock. Yet they are tied to the dock whether they like it or not, and they cannot leave unless they give up their faith in the Trinity.

Giving this illustration to Protestants helps them better understand their relationship to the Catholic Church, as well as their dependence upon it. This is how we can better understand the Catholic teaching of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus or “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Protestants are indeed connected to the Catholic Church, even if it’s just by one “rope” so to speak, which is Trinitarian baptism, but their loose affiliation puts them in a very precarious and vulnerable position, subject to the waves and storms of life. They would be better off fully docked or berthed like the Orthodox, or better yet, walking freely on the dock itself as a Catholic. As the Universal Catechism of St. John Paul II teaches…

“Outside the Church there is no salvation”

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

838 “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.” With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church

These highlighted statements in Catechism 846 & 838 is a direct reference to Protestants who have received Trinitarian baptism. Their baptism is essentially “Catholic” in every sense, and they have therefore been initiated into the Catholic Church, but their initiation is incomplete because they “protest” Catholic teaching. Thus, a Protestant is a baptized Catholic who protests Catholic teaching.

What made me laugh about the cardinal’s statement in the referenced article above was that he equated Protestantism with protest of a man or his actions, rather than protesting doctrine. It causes me to question if the cardinal understands what the word “Protestant” actually means.

I spent the first 30 years of my life in Protestantism. I think I know a thing or two about it. My Protestantism was based on doctrine, always on doctrine, and never on people. I never had a problem with the person of Pope St. John Paul II. I always thought he was a pretty cool guy. When he kissed the Koran that one time, I thought “well, that’s weird” and he really shouldn’t have done it, but I basically ignored it. My separation from Rome was never contingent on what any pope did or didn’t do. Frankly, I didn’t care. My schism with Rome was based on things like Purgatory, Prayer to Saints, Mary, the Eucharist, and Faith vs. Works. I really didn’t give a hoot about the Pope and what he did or didn’t do.

I know many Protestants who absolutely LOVE Pope Francis, and think he’s the greatest thing since the invention of the printing press, but they still protest Catholic doctrine on the Saints, Purgatory, Eucharist, etc. Does that mean they’re Catholic now? They love the pope! So does that make them Catholic? Of course not.

On the other hand, I know many Catholics who don’t like Pope Francis at all, namely because of the things he’s done. So they protest his actions, and the direction of his papacy, but they simultaneously adhere to all Catholic teaching and vigorously defend it, including Catholic teaching on the authority and primacy of the Pope. So does that make them Protestant now? They believe and practice everything Catholic, but they don’t like this particular pope. Does that make them Protestant? Of course not.

Being Protestant means rejecting Catholic teaching. Whether you like the Pope or not has nothing to do with it. Historically speaking, some popes were scoundrels, and some were criminals. At least one was a known heretic. I’m sure many Catholics during their day didn’t particularly like them. Does that mean they ceased to be Catholic? I hope not. Being Catholic isn’t dependent upon whether or not you like a particular pope, or agree with the way he’s doing things. Being Catholic means adhering to Catholic teaching, and practicing Catholic religion, and not protesting Catholic doctrine.

I know many Catholics who are faithful and active Catholics. I know many Catholics who are lapsed Catholics, but they’re still Catholic. A lapsed Catholic is a Catholic who no longer practices the faith, but still believes it to be true. His lapsed status can be because of sin, depression, anger, fear, or any number of things. But he’s still a Catholic. A Catholic doesn’t become a Protestant until he starts “protesting” Catholic teaching. I know a few of those too. Some of them can’t admit they’re Protestants yet. They like to call themselves “Catholic,” but they protest just about everything the Catholic Church teaches. These people are in denial. These are closet Protestants camping out in Catholic parishes. They deny Church teaching on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” women’s ordination and some of them even deny Church teaching on the Eucharist! There’s your closet Protestants, Your Eminence, not Catholics who just have a little beef with Pope Francis on this issue or that.

The whole thing has been rather serendipitous to me. On the one hand, I had a conversation with a Protestant over her connection to the Catholic Church through baptism. Then on the other hand, I read about a cardinal who calls Catholics “Protestants” because they don’t like this pope. What a world! Yet one good came out. It broke through my writer’s block and gave me something to blog about this week. I hope it helps you in some way.


  1. This is so well explained. Thank you for the clarity and confirmation of a feeling I’ve been having ever since I started reading Catholic history and the church fathers. I am a Seventh-Day-Adventist’s. I was born into it and if you know anything about SDA, then you will know they are probably the worst anti-Catholic Protestant denomination. The Adventist prophet, Ellen G White, wrote an entire series specifically against the Catholic Church. So it’s a struggle for me, yet I’ve always had this “feeling” that the Catholic stuff I’m reading is actually true. I just could never put my finger on why that feeling keeps coming up.
    Then you write this and bam! It all makes sense because I’ve had a Catholic baptism and believe in the trinity.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Correct. Through this baptism in the Trinity you’ve already been initiated into the Catholic Church. You just find yourself in the awkward position of being moored to the dock with a 30-foot rope. Nevertheless, you are connected to the dock. My advice is to grab the rope (your Trinitarian baptism), pull the boat into the dock. Get out and walk around a bit. See what it’s like. If you don’t like it, you can always get back in the boat and think about it some more. God bless. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Any advice on how to go about studying the formation of the belief in the trinity? Do I just keep reading through the church fathers? Would be amazing to have some cemented, foundational knowledge that the Catholic Church developed that and not the Protestants.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are plenty of references to the Trinity in the writings of the Church Fathers, but where you see the doctrine crystallize is during the Council of Nicea (AD 325). Read about that.

        Also, the writings and Creed of St. Athanasius, who effectively opposed the Arians (ancient precursor to Jehovah’s Witneses), and formulated the canon of our New Testament, are very helpful. He was a Catholic Bishop. The synods of Rome, Hippo and Carthage (late 4th century) used St. Athanasius’ canon to give us the New Testament we all use today.

        Protestants are late comers. They wouldn’t enter the conversation until over a thousand years later.


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