What Are the Different Types of Catholics?

Article ID: DC170-1 | By: Kenneth R. Samples

The following as an excerpt from article DC170-1, “What Think Ye of Rome?” from the Christian Research Journal. The full PDF can be viewed by following the link below the article.


Types of Catholics

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. (Unfortunately, this overlapping has sometimes caused outside observers to lump differing viewpoints together.) In addition, the types reflect both a sociological and theological assessment, and are best understood in terms of a paradigm (an example or model). Types of Catholics- 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.”11 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.12 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. Types of Catholics- 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.”13 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. Types of Catholics- 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. 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.14 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.”15 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. Types of Catholics- 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.16 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.17 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?18

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,19 evangelical Protestants surely have more in common with charismatic Catholics than with any other type of Catholics. Long-time renewal leader, Ralph Martin, is one of the most recognizable American Catholic charismatics/evangelicals. Types of Catholics- 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, or Italian family — 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 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.20 Types of Catholics- 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.21 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.22 We have discussed six different species of the one genus: Roman Catholicism. Certainly there are other viewpoints expressed in today’s Catholicism, but these appear to be the major types of Catholics. We will now turn our attention to the American Catholic church.