While walking from St. Luke’s the other day, some out-of-staters pulled up in their car and asked excitedly, “Where is the Christian Church?” “You’re right here in front of one.” I replied, expecting clarification with the name of a specific denomination. Instead, I heard this: “No, that is a Catholic Church, we are looking for a Christian one.”
Should we start saying “Catholics and Christians” to replace our traditional formulation of “Catholics and Protestants”? No, I say! This new classification denies us Catholics our identity as Christians. Now Catholics ARE Christians, no matter the current fad. Still, we Catholics should pay attention to the undercurrents here. It may be something of a quixotic quest, but I always confront this careless use of words. Whether intentional or not on the part of a speaker, it is an expression of anti-Catholic bigotry. We need to stop it in any way we can.
I understand why Protestants feel uncomfortable with their traditional label. “We are not ‘protesting’ anything anymore!” they say. “We are just following the Gospel as Christians.” This is perfectly good logic that finds acceptance in Catholic America. I object only when this term is used as a way to exclude Catholics from the same discipleship. We also deserve the name as “Christians.” If you read the documents of the II Vatican Council, you will also see that the label “Christian” is more common than “Catholic.” No one has grounds to deny Catholics our Christian identity.
Admittedly, history is often unfair in the way it imposes names upon people and movements. “Roman Catholic” began as an insult to the Christians who remained faithful to the pope at the time of the Reformation. Later, there were “English Catholics” who saw themselves as MORE faithful to our religion because they refused to give undue powers to the Bishop of Rome. Instead, they entrusted guidance in matters of dogma to the congress of all the bishops – hence the name “Episcopalian” derived from the bible’s Greek word for bishop, “epi-scopos.” Those called “Lutherans” may have followed the theology of Martin Luther, but they considered themselves more truly Christian on that account, not members of a new religion. The same applies to Calvinists, Wesleyans and Mennonites – Christians all, although with a historically defined theological interpretation of Christianity. Other Christian groups are defined not by “founders” but by approaches or a specific teaching; hence, we get Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Congregationalists and the like. There also are groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses whose theology has teachings about Jesus that some find quirky. I would say that all followers of Christ deserve to be called Christian until their practice proves they are not.
Catholics are taught to respect and include as Christians our “separated brothers and sisters.” While we hold that our beliefs are more in accord with Christ’s teachings (Why else would any one stay Catholic?), we do not see other Christians as destined for Hell. Unfortunately, that feeling is not always reciprocated. Among those who call themselves “Evangelicals” or “Pentecostals,” some (not all) consider Catholics to be reprobates condemned by God. This is what preachers like John Hagee have promoted against Catholicism, made all the more visible by the media that tried to import religion into political campaigns. Catholics don’t have to belong to one or other political side to take offense at the repetition of such bigotry.
I suspect that Mainline Protestant denominations no longer carry such animus against Catholicism, and we often work together just as “Christians.” Most of us believe there is so much of God’s work to be done that we should not postpone working together just to satisfy doctrinal formulations. However, ecumenical yearning is no excuse for tolerating insults from those who hate Catholicism. Confront them whenever they deny us our identity as Christians. In my experience, this becomes a moment to enlighten the uninformed. When told of how offensive these words are, some cease and desist from such categorizations. Speaking the truth, however, can also confront those who will spitefully insist that we Catholics are condemned to Hell. Denouncing their bigotry is not to be avoided just because they don’t like it. Remember how Jesus confronted the false religionists of His day? We Catholics are Christians because we imitate Our Lord, even when we confront bigots.