Hello there Rosary Lovers! In this post we will be looking at the question: What is a Catholic?
Along the way, we will answer lots of other related questions. I hope you find this article useful.
Are Catholics Christians?
We get asked this a lot. YES, Catholics are Christians!
This is almost a laughable question, since Catholics were the first Christians. The Catholic Church was the first Church.
St Ignatius of Antioch was Bishop of Antioch in the 1st century (yes, 1st century), and he knew the Apostle John (yes, the Apostle John).
St Ignatius left 7 authentic letters on his way to being martyred for the faith in about 107 AD. In these, he speaks of ‘the Catholic Church’: ‘Wherever the Bishop is, there let the people be, just as wherever Christ Jesus is, so is the Catholic Church.‘
This is no run-away comment. St Ignatius isn’t making up a phrase here. He is using a well-established phrase: ‘the Catholic Church.’
It’s obvious that the term ‘Catholic’ had been around for a long while, perhaps going all the way back to the Apostles themselves. Even the Apostle John would have owned the word ‘Catholic’ as belonging to himself.
The phrase ‘the Catholic Church’ was very important since in the early days of Christianity, there were many, many false forms of Christianity. Many Christians were being led astray to forms of Christianity that were not true and not founded by Jesus Christ.
The Gnostics were a very large part of these false forms of Christianity. They had different gospels, differents letters, different ‘sacred’ writings, and preached a different gospel and a different Jesus.
They would also have thought of themselves as the true church of God.
Of course, the Gnostics all thought they were right and that the Catholics were wrong.
So how were people to know where the true Chruch was?
Enter the phrase: ‘the Catholic Church’. This phrase effectively meant: the true Church, the pure Church, the universal Church.
St Augustine once said that no heretic would ever dream of saying that they attend a Catholic Church, because no heretic owns the word Catholic for themselves.
This is still true today. There are many Christians in the world, but only the Catholics actually own the word ‘Catholic’. And only the Catholic Church owns the title ‘the Catholic Church’. No other Church refers to itself by this title.
So yes, Catholics are Christians, and in fact, to be Catholic is the only way to be a complete Christian.
This doesn’t mean that the many other Christians in the world who are not Catholic are not really Christian. Anyone who has been baptised in water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is a real Christian. But they may not be fully Christian. There is a difference between being a real Christian and a full Christian.
Those who are merely Christian but not Catholic still have a real need to be confirmed (to receive the Holy Spirit fully) and to receive the Holy Eucharist (the flesh and blood of Jesus, without which we cannot be saved, as Jesus himself taught in John 6:53-58).
Anyone who is a Christian but not a Catholic also has a real need to confess their mortal sins to a Catholic priest or bishop, if they are guilty of having committed any mortal sins since being baptised. We will look at mortal sins later in this post.
How does someone become a Catholic? And why is it important?
A Catholic adult is someone who has received holy Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist.
These are the sacraments of initiation into the Catholic Church and these sacraments automatically make someone a Catholic and a full-blown Christian.
It is not possible to follow God or Christ properly without receiving these sacraments offered by the Bishops and priests of the Catholic Church.
Are the sacraments all that’s needed to make someone a Catholic?
Yes and no.
In one sense, any adult who has received baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist is a full-blown Catholic. In body, at least. No-one can take away the fact that you have received baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. No-one can take away the fact that you are and will always be a Catholic.
This is where we get the phrase: ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.’
However, it is very possible – and very common, sadly – to be Catholic merely in body, but not in spirit. To use the words of St Pope Pius X, there are many who are in the Church in body but not in spirit.
To be Catholic in body but not in spirit means that someone has received all the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist), and yet does not believe and/or obey all that the Church dogmatically teaches.
For instance, this could be any of the following examples (this list is NOT comprehensive):
- The precepts of the Church (see later in this post)
- What the Church teaches about sexual sins
- What the Church teaches about divorce and remarriage
- What the Church teaches about the authority of the Pope
- What the Church teaches about the sacraments
- What the Church teaches about the Scriptures
- What the Church teaches about the Holy Trinity
- What the Church teaches about Jesus Christ and Mary
A Catholic who rejects or seriously doubts any of these teachings as the Church teaches them is internally forfeited faith.
It is also possible to internally forfeit the faith in other ways, such as through not obeying the precepts of the Church (see later in this post), or by not being in a state of grace, that is, being guilty of mortal sin (also see later in this post).
What does a Catholic do if they are guilty of internally forfeiting faith?
- Pray for contrition (repentance, sorrow towards God)
- Go to Confession and confess this very serious sin, with the determination not to sin again
You make it sound very easy for a Catholic to be restored to faith.
Yes, it is very easy for Catholics to be completely restored to the Church and to faith. It is the Church’s faith which saves us, not primarily our own faith.
That’s why it’s so important for us to ‘let the Church have her way’ with us. This is how we know we are in the faith.
As St Thomas Aquinas teaches, faith is simply submission of intellect and will to the teachings of Holy Mother Church.
The Church is heading for heaven, and she goes there teaching the way of salvation. The Church will get to heaven. Whether we do is up to us: do we submit our reason and our choice/will to what the Church teaches?
Is it possible to be a Catholic internally but not externally?
Yes. St Pope Pius X in his famous Catechism addresses this. It is possible to be in the Church in spirit, but not in body.
This is an interesting concept which opens the door for the Church to accept the possibility that those who are not Catholic sacramentally can in fact be saved, even people from other religions.
The Church does not know for sure whether this is the case, but it is possible.
The Church teaches that anyone who, through no fault of their own, has never heard of the gospel or the claims of the Catholic Church, might be saved if they follow the dictates of their own conscience.
However, those who have heard the teachings of the Catholic Church and know that it is the truth and yet still reject it will be lost forever.
Is it better to be a faithless Catholic than not a Catholic?
In one sense, it is better to be a faithless Catholic than not a Catholic at all.
A faithless Catholic is in a dangerous condition and risks going to hell, but it is a relatively small step for them to re-embrace their faith. All they need to do is go to Confession and receive the Eucharist again.
Someone who is not Catholic has a much longer and challenging journey ahead of them to be fully reconciled to God. They must be baptised if they have never been. They must then receive Confirmation, and finally the Eucharist.
If they have already been baptised, they must prepare for a life-confession and go to Confession. This is followed by Confirmation and the Eucharist.
All of this takes a long time, because the Church will want to train them in the teachings of the Church before fully receiving them into the faith. This takes at least a few months, but usually about a year.
Of course, someone who is on this journey of joining the Church need not fear: internally they are Catholic, because they have the desire to join the Church. It is not their problem that they haven’t joined yet.
On the other hand, let’s say you have a Catholic who remains permanently faithless to the Church.
Let’s take the example of a Catholic who knows the Church teaches that abortion is a serious evil, and yet this Catholic decides to reject what the Church teaches and embraces pro-choice/abortion. Nothing the Church or anyone else says can get them to change their mind.
That Catholic is going to lose their soul if they do not repent before their death. The sacraments will not save them in this instance.
In fact, the very fact that they are Catholic and knew the teachings of the Church and had received the sacraments and yet STILL rejected the way of light means that their condemnation will be all the more severe than the person who knew very little about the Church and rejected it.
We are all going to be judged for the light we received or knew about.
What is being ‘in a state of grace’?
This is a vital part of being Catholic. Only Catholics who are ‘in a state of grace’ can receive the Holy Eucharist.
To be in a state of grace means that you are not guilty of mortal sin. You are still in a relationship with God and are not guilty, so far as you are aware, of any sin which has ruined your relationship with God.
What sins ruin one’s relationship with God?
Mortal sins destroy charity in someone’s soul and thereby destroy one’s relationship with God. Such a Catholic is still Catholic, but they have forfeited faith and are in serious need of Confession and restoration to God and the Church.
A mortal sin is a sin which fulfils three criteria:
- Grave matter (like murdering someone, or lying in court, or stealing, or committing adultery, or fornication, etc. there are many examples)
- Full knowledge of the evil of the sin
- Full consent of the will
If any of these things is missing, then someone is not guilty of mortal sin.
Let’s use an example. Say someone has murdered someone. But they did it without any planning, it was spur of the moment through passion.
Did they know this was a very bad thing to do? Yes. But they lost their temper and found themselves very carried away with their emotions and anger.
Such an act may be a venial sin (that is, a relatively non-serious sin), not a mortal sin. It may be mortal, because perhaps there was full consent of the will, but it may also not be.
By venial sin, we mean a sin which either didn’t involve serious/grave matter, or which did involve grave matter, but was committed without full knowledge of the evil of the act, and/or full consent of the will.
So a venial sin isn’t a big deal, right? Just a mortal sin?
A mortal sin is definitely relatively far worse because it cuts us off from God completely. If we remain in this state, we will go to hell forever, because we have effectively chosen to be without God permanently.
Venial sins are relatively not as bad because even when we commit them, our relationship with God remains intact. It depends on all sorts of things as to whether venial sins slightly damage or seriously damage someone’s relationship with God.
But venial sins are still BAD. They are damaging to our faith, and sometimes highly damaging to our relationship with God and charity in our hearts.
Venial sins also dispose us to be more likely to commit mortal sin.
Flee mortal sin for sure, but also do a good job of conquering venial sins, or they will eat away at your faith and love for God and neighbour.
I still don’t quite understand the difference between mortal sin and venial sin…?
Even the law of many nations recognises this distinction. This is why we have 1st degree murder, 2nd degree murder and 3rd degree murder.
1st degree murder is the worst because this is murder that is planned. 2nd degree murder is a crime of passion, when the person basically ‘loses it’ in the moment and kills someone without really planning to do it. 3rd degree murder is man-slaughter: you kill someone but it was an accident, you didn’t mean to do this.
The bottomline is this: your intent when you do something wrong REALLY matters.
Anyway, to keep it simple, you can know you are guilty of mortal sin if you have done something really bad, you knew it was really bad at the time of doing it, and you freely and fully chose to do it anyway. This is called mortal sin.
But this all sounds so abstract. How can I know whether or not I am guilty of mortal sin?
A lot of Catholics worry that they might be guilty of mortal sin without knowing it, but this is probably not the case.
It would be very hard for a Catholic to genuinely forget or not know that they were guilty of a mortal sin, because the matter is so grave, and they knew it was very evil when they freely chose to do it.
It isn’t likely we could just forget those times when we have freely chosen to spurn God’s love for us and spit at him in the face, so to speak.
As my priest once told me: ‘You would know if you were guilty of mortal sin.’
Also, it’s actually quite hard to commit a mortal sin. The Church describes it as ‘a radical possibility’. Radical because it’s unlikely, unusual, not supposed to happen for someone whose hearts has been cleansed by the Spirit of God.
And yet: it is possible, however unusual.
Usually when people do very bad things, they either don’t mean to do them, or don’t know how bad these things are, or perhaps they were coerced/pressured into doing them.
None of this is mortal sin, but venial sin.
And in any case. Suppose it were possible that years ago someone did commit a mortal sin, and yet somehow they have long forgotten this sin. They aren’t aware anymore of having committed a mortal sin.
This person should still go to Confession and confess the sins they are aware of, but even if they don’t confess the mortal sin (because they have forgotten), they are now in a perfect state of grace!
Is Confession the only way mortal sin can be erased?
Mortal sins can also be cleansed entirely by an act of perfect love towards God – perfect contrition.
This is sorrow for one’s sins solely because the person has offended such a Good God of Love. This is a gift of grace, and it wipes all sins away, even mortal ones.
This is perhaps a rare gift, and the individual still needs to get to confession, but the difference is they are fully forgiven all sins even BEFORE going to Confession.
So how do I get into a ‘state of grace’?
To be in a state of grace, one needs either:
- To not be guilty of any mortal sin, or
- To Confess one’s mortal sins if they are guilty of such sins.
Anyone in a state of grace can receive Christ in the Eucharist, and is reconciled to the Catholic Church.
Do I have to confess my venial sins?
Strictly speaking, no, you don’t have to confess venial sins, since Confession is primarily aimed at erasing mortal sin and restoring people to the faith who have fallen away from it.
However, the Church highly recommends that we do confess our venial sins.
It is perhaps a good idea to ask God what sins he wants us to confess, and to confess those at Confession, without giving too much thought as to whether they are mortal or venial.
You can’t go wrong with just confessing whatever is on your heart and whatever is bothering you. Don’t overthink all of this.
One more thing: the precepts of the Church
The last thing that makes someone a Catholic in body and spirit is following the precepts of the Church.
If you wish to find out about these in detail, see this post.
These precepts must be obeyed, at a minimum, if someone is to be a full Catholic in obedience to the Church.
In short, these are:
- Attend Mass and abstain from ‘servile labour’ on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
- Receive the Eucharist at least once a year, at Easter.
- Confess your sins at least once a year.
- Give what you can materially to the Church.
- Keep the Church’s fasts and days of abstinence.
To fail to follow these basic precepts makes a Catholic guilty of grave sin, unless there is seriously good reason for not doing so.
For instance, a Catholic may fail to get to Easter Mass and receive the Eucharist because their child is ill. There is no sin here.
But if a Catholic cannot be bothered to attend Easter Mass and receive the Eucharist, this is a very serious problem, and that person needs to get to Confession to confess such a grave sin against God and his Church.
Following these precepts is the bare minimum of what is required to make someone a practicing Catholic.
When someone says they are a practicing Catholic, it means they follow these basic rules of the Church.
In short, to be a full-blown Catholic, in body and in spirit, you must:
- Be Baptised
- Be Confirmed
- Receive Jesus in the Eucharist
- Consent with the intellect and will to all that the Catholic Church teaches
- Be in a state of grace (no mortal sin, otherwise get to Confession)
- Follow the precepts of the Catholic Church.
I hope you’ve found this rather long post useful. If you have any questions, please get back to us through the comments or via email.
Love in Christ, through Mary, Queen of the most holy Rosary.