“Are Catholics Christian?”
It’s a question many evangelicals and former evangelicals are familiar with. Not all of them answer, “no”. But the question is begged in the first place because the Catholic approach to the Christian faith is sufficiently foreign to that of evangelicalism that one might justly wonder whether evangelical Christianity and Catholicism occupy a similar religious space.
I would argue that the Catholic religion is not compatible with evangelical Christianity as historically understood, and to this degree, evangelicals who say that Catholics are not “Christian” are certainly speaking within their rights. If evangelicalism is Christianity in its fullness, then Catholicism is not.
Jacques Maritain, in the context of his dialogue with perennial philosophers like Martin Lings, asserted that Gnosticism is the “mother of all heresies”. Gnosticism was that old Hellenic interpretation of Christianity that saw in Christ a salvation from the material world. To a gnostic, matter (the body) is fallen, but spirit is hallowed, and this is why that special Pauline assertion that Christ came in the “likeness” of human flesh was interpreted by Gnostics to mean only that Christ appeared to be human. As a divine, He could certainly not have been “true man” (Nicene Creed); hence the heresy of Docetism. In the minds of Docetic Gnostics, the true God did not become a true man. Indeed, He could not have, for that would have been for the spiritual God to cooperate with the evil of matter.
Gnostics also asserted that the origin of religious knowledge is through a secret process (“gnosis”), rather than by means of an incarnational revelation. So it was that, according to St Irenaeus of Lyons, the refutation of Gnosticism is accomplished by appealing to the Bishops, who can trace their line of ordination to the apostles themselves. Irenaeus argued that if Christ had truly given secret knowledge, He would have revealed it in a clear manner to the apostles, and the apostles would have passed it on to the Bishops they appointed. For Irenaeus, no knowledge derived in isolation from the Body of Christ — the institutional Catholic Church — could be relied upon. For the one who would deny the mother of heresies, Tradition is a necessary precondition of biblical exegesis. Anything else would ultimately be a form of the Gnostic hubris that preferred secret knowledge to the religion openly proclaimed by the apostles and their historical successors.
In many ways, Catholicism constitutes a powerful rejection of Gnostic tendencies. It denies that spiritual knowledge can be determined by the individual, but affirms that all rely on the historical link to the revelation of Christ provided by the institutional Church. By asserting seven sacraments, each with a necessary accompanying physical signification, the Catholic Church denies the old intuition that matter is the source of evil in the cosmos. This is arguably why the Council of Trent firmly reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s faith in the role of the sacraments in the economy of salvation. Similarly, Vladimir Solovyov wrote that the Bishop of Rome, a controversial figure throughout the Christian world, is a kind of universal (catholic) icon, without whom the Christian faith risks falling into what Solovyov termed Caesaropapism, whereby the interests of a given state ultimately control the Church. St John of Damascus’s treatise on the validity of religious images praised God’s decision to use the material world in the economy of salvation. Christ, true God and true man, suffered and rose again to deliver us from our sins, and, according to the Catholic Church, we recognize his sacrifice for us in the celebration of Holy Communion, and are incorporated into His Body the Church through baptism, which is the second birth.
Are Catholics “Christian”? Depends on what your concept of Christianity is. Is it a Gnostic one, or an Incarnational one?