What Is a Catholic, Anyway?

This article appears on the website Peregrinations. The author, writing under the name of Peregrinus, lives in Toronto.

Those of us considering the Ordinariate (a structure for Anglicans coming into full communion with the Holy See) ponder what we believe, what we have been and what we are becoming in terms of our membership in the Body of Christ. We must also consider what a Catholic Christian affirms as distinct from those of other faiths or of no faith.

Catholics are not . . .

First of all it may be helpful to consider what being or becoming a Catholic is not, despite what popular opinion and prejudice may say.

1. Entering or being received into the full communion of the Catholic Church does not mean being “re-baptized”. If one is already baptized by water in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one is already a member of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Here is a helpful thought from Fr. Sam Edwards, an Anglican priest who is entering the Ordinariate:

Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and it is a part of me. I was baptized into the Great Belonging of Christ’s body in the Methodist Church, but that act did not make me a Methodist, but a catholic Christian. This is true in the case of all baptisms administered with water “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Methodism claims nothing less; the Catholic Church entirely agrees, for while she teaches that the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists” visibly and most fully in that body whose bishops are in full communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome, she does not thereby deny the reality of the Christian identity and commitment of those who are outside those limits, but instead invites them inside . . .)

2. Being a Catholic does not only mean you must be a member of the Western Roman Catholic Church. Catholics may equally be members of Eastern churches – in fact Christianity, like Judaism is originally an oriental religion. Some Eastern churches are in full communion with Rome e.g. Ukrainian, Melkite (Arab) and Maronite (Syrian/ Lebanese) Catholics along with many other Eastern churches in a variety of countries using a variety of liturgies and languages.

3. All those who are not in full communion with Rome are not considered heretics. There are degrees of communion since all the baptized are part, by definition, of the one universal Catholic Church of Christ on the most basic level. A number of Eastern churches, apart from those mentioned above, are not yet in full communion with Rome but have bishops, priests and deacons who are recognized by the Pope as legitimately ordained sacred ministers. These clergy hold the Orthodox Christian faith and celebrate what Rome considers valid sacraments but are not yet in full communion with the Holy See e.g. the Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian Orthodox, the Orthodox Church of America and other Orthodox churches as well as the Assyrian Church of the East, amongst others. These people and their churches along with others in the West would affirm that they are Catholic but for a variety of reasons are not yet in full communion with Rome.

4. These churches professing Catholic faith but not in full communion with Rome are not excommunicated. As noted, they participate in a degree of unity or communion and may, in certain circumstances, share in or even administer the sacraments to Roman Catholics. Canon 671 of the 1991 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, states:

"If necessity requires it or genuine spiritual advantage suggests it and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is permitted for Catholic Christian faithful, for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers, in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. Likewise Catholic ministers licitly administer the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to Christian faithful of Eastern Churches, who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask for them on their own and are properly disposed."

5. Being a Catholic does not mean practising every tradition or custom found in the various churches which are part of Catholic Church. There is a difference between doctrine as set forth in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the devotions or practices of various groups in the Catholic Church. For example, nothing requires a Catholic to say the rosary, go on a pilgrimage, venerate relics, kiss icons or light candles at shrines to saints. Blessed John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican who was received by Rome, did not like some of the practices, attitudes or some of the art of continental European Catholicism. On the other hand, every Catholic is required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation unless hindered by sickness or another legitimate reason and to prepare for and receive Holy Communion at least once a year at Easter.

So there are customs and spiritual practices that vary from place to place as well as doctrinal rules that apply to all Catholics. The former are a matter of taste and preference and are not obligatory, the latter are the basic rules of membership in the Body of Christ and so are for all. Many outside the church confuse popular piety and the sometimes mistaken emphasis given by some Catholics to certain practices with the actual teaching of the Church.

So, what does a Catholic believe?

Catholics like other Christians are followers of Jesus Christ believing that Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Son of God and their Lord and Saviour.

Catholics believe that Jesus Christ commissioned the leadership of his Church, which it is, in a mystical way, his body. Jesus insisted upon the unity of the Church based upon the rock of Peter. (Matthew chapter 16 verse 18). Those who hold the Catholic faith are called to unity with each other in that body with all Christians and indeed with all humanity through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian unity reflects the unity of the one God, perfectly united in Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit and so it is the vocation of every Christian to pray for, seek and serve unity in the Church.

Catholic unity requires both allegiance and sacrifice. There are levels of unity between people and with God. The Catholic faith requires that we join our Lord in his prayer ut unum sint – that they all may be one. We join in his sacrifice, his self-giving for the life of the world by seeking to nurture the unity for which he gives his life through the Church and the ministry of all baptized people for the life of the world (John 6:51).

If one holds the Catholic Faith it is imperative, then, to find ways to grow in unity with the leadership of the one Church commissioned by Jesus and to bring others into that unity. The principle ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope or Holy Father, is to nurture this unity. It is central to the Catholic faith that all bishops also seek and nurture unity and that bishops be in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the centre of unity and successor of St. Peter of whom our Lord said, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

This is a contentious issue for some because they profess Catholic faith but have difficulty with the history of the papacy or with the history of the Catholic Church as they understand it or have been misinformed about it. These are understandable concerns as there is much of fallen human nature that has wounded humanity and the witness of the Church. Yet the principle of unity is essential since there is one God, one Christ and one Church and Jesus commands it.

How do we square the fallen nature of humanity, the fallenness and corruption of some people in the Church, indeed at times of some at the highest levels of the Church, with the holiness of the Church as proclaimed in the Catholic creeds. How is this possible when we have the promise of Jesus to Peter and to us, his followers that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church? (Matthew 16:18)

This question is pertinent to what it means to be a Catholic Christian and requires a fuller treatment elsewhere. We need say here, however, that the Church, the centre of unity for humanity, is the Body of Christ but the body has been and continues to be wounded by the sinful actions of human beings – “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23; cf. Romans 1:18-3:20; 11:32; Gal 3:22).

Since all have sinned, this includes all those in the Church and those leading the Church. Jesus did not say that Satan would not be able to influence some in the Church, but that evil would not prevail against the mission of Christ and his Church. The struggle goes on.

This struggle and the occasional defeat does not and will not stop Christ’s reconciling love and his giving himself for us and others in and through the Church – the Bride of Christ. Christ continues to give us his very life – his body and blood in the Eucharist bringing healing and unity through the proclamation of the Word and Sacraments in and through the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church despite the fallen nature of those who serve the Church.

Forgiveness is always available and always necessary for members of the Church especially as they prepare to receive and offer Christ in the sacraments. The sacraments are the outward and visible signs of his love for us and are the assured means of his grace for those who will receive and, in turn, minister his love to others. This constant need for forgiveness does not affect the Church’s call to holiness or the ideal of perfection which she holds out to all those who seek the City of God. In a family no member is perfect but all are called to serve the good and the unity of the family by seeking forgiveness from God and from one another so that the family may continue to pursue its ideals and help others.

So, being a Catholic means recognizing the holiness and vocation of the Church (which is God’s doing and grace) to bring others to reconciliation with God and with one another as a witness to the world that God so loves (John 3:16).

As stated recently in an article here on Confession, “The Seal of the Confessional”, unity in the vocation to holiness requires that the Sacrament of Penance i.e. the ministry of justice, forgiveness and healing be participated in by every member of the Church including the Pope and those leading the Church. This sacrament of reconciliation is a witness to the world, a sign of unity and a call to the rest of humanity to seek the same unity that Christ wills for all. This is entirely the work and power of God conveyed through ‘earthen vessels’ (2 Corinthians 4:7), by frail human beings whom God has chosen to be his partners in the ministry of his justice and love.

To be a Catholic means, then, to be a penitent receiving God’s forgiveness and then forgiving others by the power of the Holy Spirit, a power which is communicated in the assurance of the healing sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Unction (anointing of for healing) and in various other acts of love and mercy.

This recognition of the fallen nature of humanity is widely rejected in the West today, but remains true and all the more necessary because it is so widely denied. Ironically, those who stand outside of the Church to judge her do so based upon the very principles of the Christian faith, which they have absorbed but failed to attribute to Christ and his Catholic Church. The standards of justice and mercy in the West are directly attributable to Christianity (see Rene Girard: Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press; and The Scapegoat, CBC Ideas:)

What about Protestant Objections?

This issue of God’s justifying us through faith and our continuing participation in the life of Christ or sanctification and growth in love and service goes to the root of the thorny problem of justification and sanctification that has been an obstacle for Protestants since the Reformation.

The justification/ sanctification issue is a very large topic to be dealt in another article but is one that has been discussed extensively in recent years and has been discerned not to be an insuperable barrier to further unity in Christ. In recent Lutheran-RC dialogues and in the discussions that the Catholic Church continues to have with other Christian ecclesial communities these matters bring forth agreements leading to a deepening of Christian unity.

A Catholic Christian believes that by God’s forgiving and justifying grace we are open to the goodness of God’s creation and sanctifying grace. Though imperfect as human beings, we are forgiven for our sins and empowered by the Holy Spirit to seek God and the good of others by means of faith, hope and love. We accept grace by faith in Christ. This faith is freely bestowed as a gift by which we are empowered to co-operate and so bring forth the fruit of God’s love in works of mercy for the good of all.

Grace abounds and as members of the Body of Christ, the universal Catholic Church, we participate as free human beings growing in grace now and beyond the grave as we are purified by God’s burning love along with the prayers of all the faithful here (the Church Militant), those in the Church Expectant (those who have gone before us in faith) and those in the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven).

One recent example of the reconciling negotiations on this and other matters is The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a document created by and agreed to by the Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. It affirms that the Lutherans, Catholics and others now share "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ." This agreement resolves the conflict over the nature of justification that was at the root of the Protestant Reformation and removes another barrier to unity in Christ.

The excommunications relating to the doctrine of justification by the Council of Trent do no longer apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches and others who affirm the agreement. In 2006 the World Methodist Council, meeting in South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt this document. Anglicans who did not share the same level of doctrinal concern on this issue generally accept the text as well.

This kind of agreement is important because it removes another barrier to unity and contributes to acceptance of the Petrine ministry, the ministry of unity exercised by the Pope and the Catholic Church for all Christians. Discussions continue about various aspects of universal Catholic Christian faith and how it may be more widely accepted by all those bodies separated from full communion with the Holy See.


A Catholic affirms all efforts to bring about co-operation and increase communion with people of faith and good will who affirm life, seek healing for themselves and others and are open to dialogue and co-operation with the Holy See. Being in communion with the Catholic Church links us to the largest and most universal community of all time and one which seeks the good of every human being from conception to natural death, affirming that everything good in human nature and the world comes from and returns to God who loves and holds the universe in being.

Author: Fr. Christopher Phillips

Fr. Christopher G. Phillips is the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served for the past twenty-eight years. He is the founding pastor of the first Anglican Use parish, erected in 1983 under the terms of the Pastoral Provision. Fr. Phillips was ordained as an Anglican for the Diocese of Bristol, England, in 1975. After serving as Curate for three years at St. Stephen Southmead, he returned to the United States and served in two Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Rhode Island. In 1981 he left the Episcopal Church and moved with his family to Texas, where he was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in 1983. Fr. Phillips and his wife, JoAnn, have been married for forty years. They have five children, all grown and married, and three grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “What Is a Catholic, Anyway?”

  1. I'm not trying to be a thorn but it seems that Mary and her relationship to the Church is a major distinctive in RC. More than a 'side show' or a popular devotion, it seems to be universal way of understanding the church's identity and flavor–the Mother Church. I would find it odd if I became a Catholic and they told me that I didn't need to believe any of that 'Mary stuff,' particularly when three of the days of obligation are to celebrate Mary, her assumption, and immaculate conception.

    I'm actually a Mary-lovin' Anglican so I don't say this as an attack–I was just surprised at the absence.

    1. That is an excellent point and precisely what we need to consider as we journey together into full communion. There would be a number of other doctrinal issues that I might have dealt with.

      I too am a devoted son of Mary and, in fact, the previous blog entry on PEREGRINATIONS is entitled "The Blessed Virgin Mary in Anglican and Catholic devotions".


      The article notes that we, in Toronto, are planning a Novena with the following intention from Sept. 8 (Nativity of our Lady) to Sept. 16 using material on the Pondering Heart website and invoking the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham; please join us:

      "For the appointment of ordinaries to serve those from the Anglican tradition in North America in the patrimony which our Holy Father Benedict XVI has welcomed into the full communion of the Catholic Church."

  2. The Marian dogmas have their equivalents in Orthodoxy (without getting into whether they are identical to belief in Mary's all-holiness and dormition). As such, it is belief that the Petrine function of the bishop of Rome is of the Church's esse that is the distinguishing mark of Catholicism, not the "Mary stuff."

  3. A Catholic is someone who is in full communion with the See of Rome. The reason is that the Bishop of Rome has received the mandate from our Lord which guarantees unity in the universal Church. He has to feed the sheep, all of them.

    The Second Vatican Council teaches us that even the separated Churches and ecclesial communities are already in communion with the Bishop of Rome. However this communion isn't in its full extent or perfected. But we see this in evidence when the Pope speaks. The Pope of Rome is recognised by our separated brethren to speak and witness for the whole Church, especially on issues about the dignity of the human person and of human life.

  4. Nothing to do with this article, but this is important: the wretched Chuck Bennison seems to have won the trial against Good Shepherd, Rosemont and Bishop Moyer. The only piece of news about this in on Virtue Online, and as it is heavily prejudiced against the ordinariate, we can't trust it. Moreover, there is an association apparently opposed to Bp. Moyer, called "Friends of Good Shepherd" whose role is not very clear.

    Anybody knows what is really happening, and what will happen in the near future to Bp. Moyer and his congregation?

    Let us pray.

    + PAX et BONUM

  5. “How do we square the fallen nature of humanity, the fallenness and corruption of some people in the Church, indeed at times of some at the highest levels of the Church, with the holiness of the Church as proclaimed in the Catholic creeds?”

    Whenever I hear this type of question, I’m reminded of two quotes.

    Tim Staples, a relatively well-known Catholic Apologist and former evangelical, said, “Don’t leave Peter because of Judas.”

    Faith M., a relatively unknown former coworker of mine, said, “I tell people I’m a practicing Catholic because I still don’t have it exactly right.”

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