Who is a Roman Catholic?

Dan R. Smedra

Strangely, the answer to this question has proven difficult for non-Catholics and Catholics alike.  Author Kenneth R. Samples offers an explanation.

Erroneous understandings of Catholicism frequently fail to grasp the significant diversity within the church.  While Rome's appearance of unity is of central importance, Catholicism contains an incredible diversity -- Catholics are anything but monolithic in their beliefs.  This diversity is illustrated by the six [now seven] major theological types of Catholics:

The average Catholic is typically unaware of their own denominational diversity.  Each brand of Catholic mentioned above seeks to define themselves as normative and attempts to portray other groups as not being truly Catholic.  While Catholics often ridicule non-Catholics for denominational division, they are hypocritically silent and do their best to hide the frequent 'family conflicts', even wars going on between the various "camps" of Catholics.  Make no mistake, Catholics are seriously DIVIDED no matter what image they project to the outside world.   Samples continues:

The following varieties of contemporary Catholics should not be understood as exact classifications.  Not every Catholic fits neatly into one particular type -- there is significant overlapping.

In Europe and North America, the overwhelming majority of Catholics are an "overlap" of the Liberal, Cultural, and Postmodern varieties.  The apologetic "apostolate" groups amongst the Traditionalists represent an intellectual, vocal minority within a minority.  An explanation of these varieties is given below.

Ultratraditionalist Catholics

Ultratraditionalist Catholics consider themselves nonrevisionist Catholics. They are extremely critical of the changes brought about by Vatican II and wish the church would return to its earlier course. They can be somewhat radical in their defense of "old time" Catholicism. For example, they would be happy if the mass (liturgical service centered around the Eucharist) were still recited in Latin. They hold the traditions and hierarchy of the church in highest esteem (except when the hierarchy steps on their nonrevisionist toes). They would strongly affirm classical Catholicism as revealed in the ancient creeds, councils, conciliar documents (i.e., documents produced during councils), and papal encyclicals (i.e., letters). They are generally suspicious and intolerant toward other divergent groups within Catholicism. One of the best examples of an ultratraditionalist was the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of Switzerland who stated that the reforms of Vatican II "spring from heresy and end in heresy." During his reign as archbishop, Lefebvre continued to ordain priests even after the pope ordered him to stop, and he continued to use the form of the mass as prescribed at the Counter Reformation Council of Trent instead of its modern form. While staunch in their beliefs and commitment to nonrevisionist Catholicism, the ultratraditionalists are small in number and their influence within the church is not of great significance. The ultratraditionalists should probably be seen as the more extreme segment within the traditionalist camp.

For a more detailed look (by the radical left-liberal Southern Poverty Law Center) including the issue of anti-Semitism, see THE NEW CRUSADERS.

Traditionalist Catholics

The traditionalist Catholics in many ways make up the backbone of the church hierarchy.  A Christianity Today editorial described the group this way: "This important segment of the church, specially powerful among the laity of the national churches, the older clergy, and the bishops and upper level of the hierarchy, adheres to the whole of creedal Roman Catholicism and obedience to the church as interpreted by the pope." The traditionalists are very critical of liberalism and modernism within the church, but they are generally accepting of the reforms found in Vatican II. Although this group's influence diminished somewhat after Vatican II, they have enjoyed a revival during John Paul II's reign as pope. While Pope John Paul may be considered progressive in many of his decisions concerning the church, at heart his doctrinal views are those of a traditional Catholic. This is especially illustrated in his beliefs concerning the Virgin Mary.

For a deeper look into the so-called "Catholic Right," read the introductory article: The Neo[con] & Paleo[con] Wings of the Catholic Right, by (liberal Catholic) attorney Frank Cocozzelli.  Also, see the 11/22/2009 entry for the withChrist.org Journal.

Liberal Catholics

Liberal Catholics have substantially departed from traditional Catholicism, and one might say from traditional Christianity as a whole. While liberals differ among themselves in the degree to which they depart from classical Catholicism, like their Protestant counterparts they have conceded much to the rationalistic unbelief so prevalent in Western culture since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period. They have in effect replaced the Bible and church authority with the authority of human reason - [Modernism]. Many liberal Catholic scholars, such as the German scholar Hans Kung, have questioned the infallibility of the pope, church councils, and the Bible. Others, going farther, have clearly abandoned traditional Christological beliefs and the miracles of the New Testament, and have forsaken almost completely the orthodoxy of the ecumenical creeds. Liberals also question the ecclesiastical practice of an exclusively male priesthood, and many have cast off the church's teaching regarding such moral issues as birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Some within the liberal camp have been strongly affiliated with liberation theology, especially in Latin America. Liberation theology interprets the gospel in terms of liberation from poverty and social oppression, and the reconstruction of society -- usually along Marxist lines.  Catholics who embrace liberation theology often show an amazing disregard of traditional doctrinal issues.

Another subset within the broader category of liberal Catholics is what might be called "Eastern mystical" or "New Age" Catholicism.  This group seeks to blend Catholic and New Age spirituality.  Orthodox Christian beliefs about God and Christ are, to varying degrees, replaced with distinctive New Age beliefs such as pantheism (God is all and all is God), panentheism (God is intrinsically in the world and the world is intrinsically in God), and emphasis upon the Cosmic Christ (a universal, impersonal spirit or cosmic force).  Probably the leading "Catholic guru" is Dominican priest Matthew Fox with his "creation-centered spirituality."

Since Vatican II, this liberal camp as a whole has grown significantly within the scholarly ranks of the church, and to a lesser degree among the laity (although both the liberation theology and New Age subsets have strong lay components).  Pope John Paul has attempted to curb this influence, however, by disciplining some of the more outspoken liberal scholars (for example, both Kung and Fox have been disciplined by the church).  This crackdown has been met with some resistance, especially in America.

Charismatic/Evangelical Catholics

1992 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. Emerging from humble beginnings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1967, the late 1960s and 1970s saw the Catholic charismatic renewal flourish in the church. While it experienced slow decline in the 1980s, it remains one of the most energetic forces in the Catholic church. It is estimated that 10 million American Catholics have been involved in the renewal, and that worldwide Catholic involvement may be as high as 50 to 65 million. Catholics now make up more than a fifth of the worldwide Pentecostal-charismatic constituency. Like the broader movement, charismatic Catholics emphasize the charisma or gifts of the Holy Spirit, the importance of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit-filled life. Charismatic Catholics tend to be more evangelical in belief, emphasizing personal faith and trust in Christ, and the assurance of salvation. Reformed theologian J. I. Packer comments concerning charismatic Catholic piety: It is a fact that in charismatic Catholicism, joyful trust in Christ as one's sin-bearing Savior and loving fellowship with him in his risen life have shifted the traditional devotional focus away from the somber disciplines of self-denial and suffering and away, too, from the anxieties about merit and destiny to which the formulations of the Council of Trent naturally give rise. Does Catholic doctrine as Trent defined it permit assurance of salvation based on once-for-all justification through faith? Opinions, both Protestant and Catholic, differ about that. Nevertheless, Catholic charismatics do observably enjoy this assurance, while yet maintaining humility, a sense of sin, and a life of repentance often more successfully than do their Protestant counterparts. And Protestant and Catholic charismatic teaching on the Christian life is to all intents and purposes identical. Is this not significant for the Christian future? It is true that many charismatic Catholics describe themselves as "born again, Spirit-filled Catholics." Along with possessing a Pentecostal piety, charismatic Catholics generally tend to give Scripture more of an authoritative place in their personal spiritual lives. However, many (though by no means all) charismatic Catholics also have a strong devotion to Mary. While the issue of Marian devotion tends to be a stumbling block between evangelical Protestants and charismatic Catholics, evangelical Protestants surely have more in common with charismatic Catholics than with any other type of Catholics. (2)

Cultural Catholics

The majority of Catholics in the world probably fit into the category of cultural Catholics. This group is unlike any other type we have considered above. Their identification as "Catholic" is simply more cultural and social than religious. They might rightly be called "womb to tomb Catholics." They often are born in a Hispanic, Irish, Polish, French, or Italian families -- and are therefore baptized, married, and buried in the Catholic church -- but have little or no concern about spiritual matters. Cultural Catholics do not understand Catholicism, nor do they seriously follow its ethical teaching. But they nevertheless have an emotional commitment to the Catholic church. When they attend Mass, it is out of habit or family obligation, not religious conviction. Being Catholic to them is essentially a cultural identity (they may even be secular or humanistic [or postmodernist] in their thinking). This is not unlike how some Jews are merely ethnically or culturally Jewish, rather than adherents to Judaism. It is also like the person who is Lutheran only because he happens to be born into a German family, or the Anglican who is only Anglican because she was born into a British family. You see, it happens in Protestantism as well. Nominal Catholics, like nominal Protestants, do not understand Christianity, and they do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. With all due respect, President John F. Kennedy would seem to have fit well the mold of a cultural Catholic.

Popular Folk Catholics

Popular folk Catholics are found especially in Central and South America. These Catholics are very eclectic in their religious thinking and practice. They often combine elements of an animistic or nature-culture religion (the primitive religious beliefs that associate the forces of nature and culture with myriads of spirits) with a traditional medieval Catholicism. The result is a syncretistic nightmare. People in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina frequently engage in a religion composed of polytheism, occultic spiritism, and a superstitious form of Catholicism. This spiritual smorgasbord enslaves millions of Latin America's peasantry. Certainly, official Catholic teaching does not sanction this kind of syncretistic religiosity. In certain respects, however, the Catholic church remains culpable. First, the Catholic church has been negligent by failing to train these people to reject all forms of paganism and to embrace solely the Triune God of Christianity. Second, the unhealthy and unbiblical aspects of the Catholic understanding of the communion of saints (i.e., the belief in the unity and cooperation among believers in both this world and the next) has contributed to the problem. Even some Catholics in the United States virtually worship saints and the church has failed to take aggressive measures to correct this serious problem of idolatry. It is actually much worse when it comes to devotion to the Virgin Mary, where on a practical level millions of Catholics commit idolatry on a daily basis by worshipping the virgin. This is certainly contrary to official church teaching (i.e., teaching set forth by the Vatican as standard Catholic doctrine), but the Catholic church has been derelict in correcting this serious problem. If the Catholic church wants to convince evangelical Protestants that they merely honor Mary, but do not worship her, then they must step in and stop this gross idolatry. Third, the Second Vatican Council's openness to forms of religious pluralism has greatly exacerbated the problem. Ideas such as the "anonymous Christian" (the belief in the possibility of salvation without explicit Christian faith -- even through non-Christian religions) as set forth by the influential German theologian, Karl Rahner, has acute and distressing repercussions.

The following category represents an update to Kenneth Samples' basic six categories.

Postmodern Catholics

Within the past decade, a rapidly growing number of burned-out, liberal and cultural Catholics have embraced the new and radical paradigm of Postmodernism...with a vengeance!  In contrast to Modernism/Liberalism which views humans as "material machines", postmodernism views humans primarily as social beings..."cogs" in a sociological machine.  One postmodernist describes the Enlightenment as a "failed rationalist project which has run its time but which continues to encumber contemporary thought with illusions of a rational route to knowledge, a faith in science and in progress."

For the postmodernist, there is absolutely no such thing as objective reality...either scientific or religious!  As pure relativists, they believe reality is solely created...in one's mind.  Rationality is simply an expression of Western cultural bias.  People are the product of culture and thus are not self-governing, hence they are often 'oppressed'.  Overarching religious or philosophical systems "commits acts of cultural tyranny by promoting the fiction [called 'metanarratives'] that all knowledge reduces to a set of universally applicable truths" (3).  They further allege that the concept of "progress" is an evil ploy to justify domination by European culture [Catholic, Protestant, and secular Enlightenment] over other cultures.  They adhere to and promote "multiculturalism."

No longer really theist, postmodernist 'Catholics' are typically hostile to most anyone who makes claim to objective truth.  Much of their hostility is rooted in a deep, emotional resentment and rejection of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, similar to cultural Catholics, being a Roman Catholic represents their heritage.  Consequently, outspoken fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who hold to inerrant Scripture are taking the brunt of their vitriol rather than fellow Romanists who posit inerrancy in Papal succession and their church.  In America, much of the growing rage against the 'Religious Right' is being sparked by modernists and postmodernists who often have a Catholic or liberal Jewish background.   DRS

See additional emails below.

  1. Selected quotations from the two-part [1, 2] article, "What Think Ye of Rome?: An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary Catholicism", (Christian Research Journal, Winter 1993) written by Kenneth R. Samples.  Former researcher for the charismatic-oriented Christian Research Institute (CRI) and co-host of "The Bible Answer Man" radio program, Mr. Samples is currently affiliated with Christ Reformed Church, and is Founder and President of Augustine Fellowship Study Center.
  2. We are not in agreement with Mr. Samples' nor J.I. Packer's assessment of the Charismatic/Evangelical Catholic phenomena.  Like numerous other evangelical Protestants, they view Roman Catholicism as still within the bounds of traditional Christianity based on a confusion regarding the core issues touched upon in our article, THE NEW CATHOLIC COUNTER-REFORMATION.
  3. Bible-believing Christians have put together an excellent guide to postmodernism:  THE DEATH OF TRUTH, What's Wrong with Multiculturalism, The Rejection of Reason, and the New Postmodern Diversity.

Hi Dan,

I enjoyed your page "Who is a Roman Catholic?".  There is a serious need to make people aware of these things so that we can build up the Mystical Body instead of hurting it.

You'd probably classify me in your terminology as ultra-traditionalist, but I regard myself as a moderate.  Don't we all?  And believe it or not, some Catholics think I'm a liberal.  You might want to add a couple of categories:

1) Sedevacantists.  These people think that the Pope is a liberal heretic.  Now a heretic can not be a member of the church, let alone a leader of it, therefore John-Paul II is not catholic and is not a Pope.  Hence their label: sede vacans, the seat (of Peter) is vacant.  They can be sub-divided into those who present this view as their private fallible opinion (and are therefore possibly "real" Catholics, if not very good ones) and those who present this view as strict doctrine (possibly a formal heresy, you might like to check this out with a good bishop).  Don't think that these guys are small enough to ignore; they have bishops and seminaries, especially in central & southern USA.

2) Various non-Roman rite catholics.  These (in my limited experience - Maironite, Melkite, Ukrainian) tend to have liberal clergy and traditionalist faithful.  If any of their clergy go traditionalist they should expect persecution from their brethren in the clergy.
God bless,
Ian Smith

Comments regarding the Catholic website -- Examining Protestantism!

Catholics regularly boast of their "unity" and hypocritically ridicule the remainder of Christendom for their "endless divisions", erroneously citing the existence of upward of 30,000 denominations (1).  Nearly all Catholics are of the opinion that their Church is the "One True Church" and no others have the right to exist.  Thus, any number of denominations greater than the One, Roman Catholicism, is too many.  However, Catholics and non-Catholics define unity differently.

The Catholic concept of unity is more outward--all wearing the label of Catholic and to one degree or another acknowledging Rome and its religious hierarchy as the center of Authority.  A great deal of division as always existed under the Roman Catholic umbrella, but with the advent of the 21st century, things appear to have grown worse.  

What's the problem?  According to Catholic webauthor Stephen P. Haws, Protestantism has backwashed into Roman Catholicism!   At Examining Protestantism!, he writes:

It's time that the [Catholic] dissidents - left & right wing - get with the program and give the Pope and Magisterium some respect and support, instead of undercutting Church teaching at almost every point.  If the dissidents cannot get with the program, we will have to send them to the Protestants.

No wonder Catholics are irritated with non-Catholic Christians and have launched a new Counter-Reformation.  They view their internal liberal dissenters as none other than covert Protestants!  Consequently, they need help in separating the true from the false and Peter'sNet has started the task by issuing grade cards on 670 so-called Catholic groups (not to be confused with denominations).  ;-)

Like most web-enabled Catholics, Haws bemoans the "anti-Catholic prejudice" and "amount of anti-Catholicism" on the Internet.  But do the facts support his view?  Or, is the freedom of speech permitted by the WWW frustrating to those who advocate totalitarian religious traditions.  Recently, the popular search engine Google began an information "directory" by category, classifying websites by topic and content.  Under 22,176 identified "denomination" websites, 18,482 or 83 percent were Catholic or pro-Catholic!  Only 40 websites were identified as "Opposing Views".  However, that's forty too many in the opinion of most Catholics.  Catholicism has a very poor track record for dealing with dissenters of any type. 

Stephen's goal -- "To awaken the sleeping giant of dormant/nominal Catholicism; to stop "leakage" from the Church; to recover every single one of the lost Catholics..."  His method includes some 'bare-knuckle' Catholic love.

I am STRONGLY opposed to running from a liberal parish/priest in search of a more orthodox parish/priest...

Make the apostates [heretics] leave...

I guess it's part of my nature to be a "fighter" in a sense (being both an attorney and martial artist), I say DO NOT RUN!  Instead stay and fight!  Confront them!  Expose them!  Why leave and make life easier for them? Instead, make life hard for them!

I know how hard it is to confront a suspected "apostate" priest, especially one who seems to have support from a strong clique in the parish.  As Catholics, we are not conditioned (2) to confront our Church leaders.  But in these times we may have no choice; in fact, it may be our duty to support the Magisterium.

Besides, maybe that "apostate" priest is secretly wishing someone would help deliver him from an apostate clique in the parish!

1)  Catholics regular engage in this polemic nonsense hoping to generate pseudo-guilt (and thus control) over their non-Catholic opponents.  However, the evidence for such a claim simply doesn't exist.

2)  True...maybe because they are strongly "conditioned" not to.  In addition, becoming an attorney and mastering the martial arts, like Stephen, might help correct the problem.  This point doesn't appear to escape the cartoonist Wiley.


Could there be a flaw in how some mega-denominations deal with dissent?

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."  Matthew 23:27,28.

In 2013, reporter Jason Horowitz of the Washington Post wrote a series of investigative articles about Pope Benedict XVI and conditions within the Vatican's political power structure.  Benedict was the first Pope in 600 years to resign from his office, setting off a tsunami of waging tongues.  As stated above, Roman Catholicism has worked hard to maintain an illusion of unity for the outside world, while internally wrestling with political struggles, corruption, and sexual scandals.  You can visit the Washington Post's website and search for these articles.



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