Why do Catholics refer to themselves as “Catholic” and not as “Christians”? For instance, when I am asked what I believe, I don’t say I’m Lutheran or Presbyterian, I say I am Christian. But I have noticed that my Catholic friends identify themselves not as Christian, but as Catholic.
Do not we all believe that Christ died for sins and rose again, and that this is the essence of our faith? So then why does there seem to be this distinction between us? I know that there are many theological and liturgical differences that separate Catholics from the denominations, but I think that we should all come under one umbrella on one point: that we are all professors of Christ’s redeeming grace and, therefore, all Christians.
This is not to say that Catholics are not Christians, but to ask why I do not hear my friends who are Catholic referring to themselves as Christians.
Thanks for the question!
First of all, you are absolutely right. Catholics are Christian. In fact, before the Protestant Reformation, most people who identified themselves as Christians were Catholic-Christians (give or take a few heretics). Saint Peter was the first Pope of the Catholic Church (and I don’t think anyone would argue that he wasn’t a follower of Christ!), and we have had an unbroken line of popes since Saint Peter, that goes all the way to our current pope, Pope Benedict XVI.
Catholic actually means “universal,” so when someone says, “I belong to the Catholic Church,” they are really saying, “I belong to the universal church.” So it’s a little ironic that nowadays it can sometimes feel divisive among other Christians. Our earliest written record of the term “catholic” to describe the Church is from Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in AD 107. Ignatius was a bishop who, like a lot of the early Christians, was arrested and killed for his faith. In his final letter to his fellow Christians in Smyrna (a city in modern-day Turkey), he wrote, “Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic [universal] Church” (To the Smyrnaeans 8:2). The term sort of caught on after that.
Why don’t your Catholic friends refer to themselves as Christians, you ask? I can’t be sure. It could be that they don’t know for sure whether Catholics really are Christian. I’ve been asked this question a lot by kids on retreats or at youth group, and I often get the sense that most of these young people know that Catholics are Christian, but they also know that our brand of Christianity is different than a lot of their friends’, and they’re not really sure how to articulate why that is.
For me, if someone asks if I am a Christian, I unhesitatingly tell them yes. I am a proud believer in Jesus Christ. But if asked what faith I am or religion I am apart of, I proudly say that I am a Catholic. Why? Because while all Catholics are Christian, not all Christians are Catholic. To be a Catholic means that I am under the authority of the Church that Christ established over 2,000 years ago when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:18). To be a Catholic means that I can run to Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation when I have sinned, and truly know that I have been forgiven. To be a Catholic means that I believe that Christ meant it at the Last Supper when He said the words, “This is my body…take and eat,” and I get to receive Him on a regular basis in the Eucharist. Jesus commanded us to follow Him, but I believe He gave us the Catholic Church as a means to do that in the fullest way possible.
You are right, though. It was Christ’s prayer that we “may all be one,” as He is one with the Father (John 17:21). There is definitely a balance to strike between only focusing on our differences, and ignoring them completely. In the end, we will only ever be truly united when we all believe in the one truth that Christ Himself meant for us to believe in. Until then, we love each other as Christ has commanded us to