Christianity is, at its base, following Christ's teachings. And within Christianity, there are countless offshoots—or denominations—of differing WAYS to practice or prioritize different aspects of the Christian faith. Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, Anglican, Episcopalian, and more are all different categories and “styles” of Christianity throughout the world. That is, they all have different ways of following Christ's teachings. Some emphasize traditional rituals more. Some emphasize spiritual gifts more. Some emphasize literal biblical interpretations more. And it even goes beyond these few differences.
Another way these groups are broken up is through the terms of “High Church” and “Low Church." High Church is more formal and guided by ritual in their liturgies (church services). Catholic, Episcopalian, and Anglican churches tend to fall under various categories of High Church. Low Church places less emphasis on rituals or traditions and has a more casual and loose worship style. Baptist, Evangelical, Independent, Pentecostal, and Non-Denominational churches often fall under a Low Church structure. Neither is better or worse—just different.
That said, neither denomination, nor worship style, nor church service structure can determine whether a person has saving faith in Christ. Asking, “Are Catholics saved?” is like asking, "Are Baptists saved?" Aligning with a specific church does not grant salvation. Calling oneself a Christian out of cultural familiarity or expectation does not automatically mean that person has a saving faith in Christ. Likewise, there are people who may not go to church or even understand what “denomination” their beliefs would fall under, and they are still children of God (Matthew 7:21-23).
Salvation comes from having faith in the truth and miraculous grace of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (John 14:6; Acts 16:31). Period. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us that it is "by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
OK, now that we have established that a person's salvation has nothing to do with what church a person attends, let's clear up what it means to be Catholic in the first place...
The word “catholic,” on its own, refers to something universal or all-encompassing. When Americans refer to the Catholic faith, they're generally referring to the Roman Catholic Church based out of Rome, Italy. Most Catholic churches in America are part of the Roman Catholic "rite," which is just one of 23 different sets of traditions that make up the entirety of the Catholic Church, all of which report to the Pope in Rome.
A quick bit of church history: For about the first thousand years after the resurrection of Christ, the Christian Church was ONE Church (Romans 12:5). In the 1050s, the Great Schism happened, which divided the Christian Church into two distinct set of practices. In the west, there was the modern-day Catholic Church. In the east, the Eastern Orthodox Church. (It's important to note that, today, these two branches of Christianity consider the other as full members of the family of God, even though the differences in tradition still exist.)
This is an extremely short summary, but can you see why it’s important NOT to make assumptions about other peoples’ personal relationship with God based on their denominational label? History is such a rich, complex thing, full of varied convictions, power struggles, and more.
Depending on who you ask, one person (Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, whatever) may explain doctrine one way while another person (of the same denomination) explains it another way. Oftentimes, these misunderstandings are a case of semantics. Two people might actually believe the same thing but communicate it so radically differently to each other that it seems like they disagree.
A huge reason for these conflicting accounts of doctrine stem from “Vatican I” or “Vatican II” Catholic foundation. These were Council meetings that took place in the 19th and 20th centuries and consisted of declarations by the Pope of the time, determining official Church stances on contemporary issues. There are Catholics who fiercely adhere to tradition and terminology from Vatican I and reject the “updated” wording of Vatican II, and there are Catholics who abide by, and agree with, the revised statements from Vatican II. You could almost consider these "denominations" of Catholicism.
Personally, I have several Catholic friends, and each one initially gives me what seems like a different definition of what is required for salvation according to the Roman Catholic Church. However, for many, upon breaking down and defining terms more clearly, we agree on more than we disagree on.
It's critical that we do not assume to know the state of another person’s relationship to God—especially not because of a religious label (Luke 10:25-37; 1 Samuel 16:7; Titus 3:5). If we are truly concerned for the state of a friend’s soul, we must ask God for wisdom and be open to however He may direct us to proceed (James 1:5). Our own humility is key (Proverbs 11:2; Colossians 3:12).
Regardless of a person’s spiritual state, it is so, SO important that we treat every human being with dignity and respect. Maybe we don’t understand, agree, or even know if we agree or not! But unity is still possible (Romans 12:18). By remembering that salvation is ultimately a gift from God (John 14:6; Romans 6:23) and remaining humble and loving toward others, we can be examples of Christ in the world. Pray that God will clearly guide those who are seeking the Truth (Matthew 7:7), and do not judge another person's salvation. That decision is between each person and God.
Children of God are human beings who have realized they cannot earn salvation and that they have done nothing to "earn" their salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). People are saved through their faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the One who paid for our sin against a sinless and perfect God (Romans 3). When they choose to follow Christ, they call themselves Christians.
Asking if Catholics are saved is like asking if Baptists are saved. A manmade label or category does not determine an individual’s salvation (Titus 3:5). It's critical that we do not assume we know the state of another person’s relationship to God—especially not because of a religious or cultural label (Luke 10:25-37). Church history is filled with nuance, and different people have different ways of expressing their dedication to Christ. Only God knows the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
Salvation comes to those who acknowledge it is a gift from God through Christ and not by anything good they have done (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:14-26; Matthew 25:31-46). Pray that God will clearly guide those who are seeking the Truth (Matthew 7:7), and do not judge another person's salvation. That decision is between each person and God.
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.