A Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
Are all Catholics pretty much the same? Is it true that “once a Catholic always a Catholic?” The authors examine some of the factors that make discussing Roman Catholic belief difficult.

The Different Categories of Modern Roman Catholicism

The problems of contemporary Catholic authority are compounded by the fact there are some nine categories of Roman Catholicism around the world. The distinctions between them are often not clear because they may tend to overlap and merge or blur into one another. Nor would individual Catholics necessarily appreciate or agree with such labels. But they will serve as a convenient grouping for purposes of illustration:

  1. Nominal or Social Catholicism—the Roman Catholicism of the largely uncommitted—perhaps those born or married into the Church but who have little knowledge of theology. In practice, they are principally Catholics in name only.
  2. Syncretistic/eclectic Catholicism—the Roman Catholicism that is, to varying degrees, combined with and/or absorbed by the pagan religion of the indigenous culture in which it exists (e.g., as in South America and Africa).
  3. Traditional or orthodox Catholicism—the powerful conservative branch of Roman Catholicism that holds to papal authority and historic church doctrines such as those reasserted at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Among this group may be classified the ultra traditionalist Catholics who adamantly reject Vatican II and generally distrust modern changes (e.g., abandoning the Mass in Latin). Also included are traditionalist Catholics who, while adhering to the entirety of creedal Catholicism and papal authority, more or less accept Vatican II reforms while yet staunchly rejecting liberalism.
  4. “Moderate” Catholicism—the Roman Catholicism of post-Vatican II that is neither entirely traditional nor entirely liberal.
  5. Modernist, liberal Catholicism—the post-Vatican II “progressive” Roman Catholicism that to varying degrees rejects traditional doctrine.
  6. Ethnic or cultural Catholicism—the Roman Catholicism often retained by migrants to America who use “their religion to provide a sense of belonging. They feel that not to be Roman Catholic is not to belong and to lose [their] nationality and roots.”[1]
  7. Lapsed or Apostate Catholicism—the Roman Catholicism that involves alienated, backslidden or apostate Catholics who are largely indifferent to the Catholic Church and its God.
  8. Charismatic Catholicism—the Roman Catholicism which seeks to accept the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts as signs of a deeper Catholic spirituality. (This illustrates the related, if largely distinct, category of Mystical Catholicism under girded by the mystical writings of the Church.)
  9. “Evangelical” Catholicism—former Protestant Evangelicals who may retain some of their former beliefs but who now accept Roman Catholicism as the one true Church and its doctrines as authoritative.
  10. Evangelical “Catholicism”—the branch of former Roman Catholics who are truly Evangelical and who have rejected the unbiblical teachings of Rome, often deciding to remain in the Church as a means to evangelize other Catholics.

If we consider several of these categories in a bit more detail, we will be better able to understand modern Catholicism. First, it should be noted that for Rome, once a person is baptized a Catholic, they are officially held to remain a Catholic, regardless of their degree of variation from Rome. Thus, even the nominal, pagan and evangelical “Catholics” (point 10 above) may be deemed genuinely Catholic irrespective of spiritual condition or belief. This is so because of what Catholics maintain happens in baptism and through other Church sacraments: in essence, with few exceptions once baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Nominal, modernist, and cultural Roman Catholics comprise millions of persons and possibly the majority of American Catholics. In large measure they are born Catholic and have become emotionally attached to the “Mother Church.” Characteristically, however, they do not understand or reject its authority and are not too concerned with obedience to the ethics or practices of the Church. Like many liberal Protestants, they remain Catholics primarily because of social convenience, religious needs, or perhaps, personal guilt rather than conviction concerning Rome’s authority.

Syncretistic/eclectic Catholics are possibly more representatively described as “pagan” Catholics because, while accepting the Catholic faith to some degree, they have also retained much or most of their indigenous pagan religion. As a result, Catholic beliefs and practices are combined with animistic beliefs and practices so that a blending of the two occurs.

The traditionalists are arguably the most influential segment of the Church because through the Pope, bishops and orthodox priests, they occupy the center of power in Catholicism. Traditionalists believe that by being obedient to the Church they are, in essence, being obedient to God and Christ. Why? Because they have been taught that whatever the Church decrees as orthodox belief and practice through its tradition is, by definition, the will of God.[2] Thus, to obey the Church is equivalent to submitting to what God has revealed as His will for a person’s life. As a result, the traditional Catholic feels no need to examine the Bible for himself to determine whether or not what the Church teaches is actually biblical. Why? He has been taught that the Church has been granted divine power to interpret the Bible infallibly. As a result, he completely trusts whatever the Church tells him that the Bible teaches.

The liberal branch of the Church is “liberal” largely in relationship to the authority of Rome and not necessarily liberal in the Protestant sense of being primarily rationalistic. Liberal Catholics vary widely in the degree to which they have departed from traditional Catholicism. One example would be Catholic theologians who may question the legitimacy of papal infallibility, or the Church’s teaching on justification, or birth control—but who otherwise seek to remain loyal to Rome. Another example would be the Marxist oriented “liberation theology” of many Central and South American priests and theologians whose primary concern is more “political liberation” and “social justice” than anything principally biblical or spiritual.

Nevertheless, although the term “liberal” is used specifically in relationship to the authority of Rome, there are also many Catholic leaders who are more or less liberal in a Protestant sense in that they reject biblical authority, deny Christ’s deity, teach universalism, etc.

Charismatic Catholics emphasize faith as a personal commitment to Jesus and loyalty to Scripture. This branch of Catholicism frequently encourages Bible studies, speaking in tongues, and oftentimes a “born again or Baptism in the Spirit” experience. But more frequently than not, it remains Roman Catholic, attempting to integrate this newfound faith and experience with traditional doctrines involving Mary, papal authority, and the sacraments. In fact, in practice the Catholic experience of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” actually seems to lead most often to greater devotion to Catholic beliefs and practice. For example, thousands of Catholics have reported how the “baptism in the Spirit” affected them in terms like the following: “the mother of God has become more special”; “I have a deeper devotion to Mary,” and “I have taken up the Rosary since baptism in the Spirit.”[3]

The Evangelical “Catholic” is truly an Evangelical believer and not a Catholic. In other words, he is not a committed Roman Catholic who merely appropriates the title of Evangelical Christian. He understands the issues doctrinally and spiritually and attempts to walk what can be a very difficult, and to some people’s minds, inconsistent, line of fidelity to the Bible while remaining a member of the Roman Catholic Church. That this can, occasionally, be successfully negotiated is known personally to co-author Weldon. A friend of his in Bible School had such a love for Catholics that he not only found a parish which accepted his Evangelical training as priestly ordination but whose superiors permitted him to teach the Bible in its entirety on the basis of personal conscience—i.e., as an Evangelical Protestant. Not that it was easy: his parish got so much Bible that many of them decided that they were no longer Catholics while others attempted a synthesis of Evangelical Catholicism. Nevertheless, how the situation finally ended, we were unable to determine.


  1. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, Christian Witness to Nominal Christians Among Roman Catholics, no. 10 Thailand Report, (Wheaton, III: Lausanne Committee, 1980), 10.
  2. Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, revised and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), 372.
  3. H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 36; cf., Broderick, ed., 107, 469, 521-522; James Neher, A Christian’s Guide to Today’s Catholic Charismatic Movement (Hatfield, PA: James Neher, 1977).

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