Catholicism generally has similar beliefs, practices, and historical ties with other Christian denominations. However, the Catholic population easily outnumbers Christian denominations worldwide. Catholic beliefs on issues such as sufficiency of Scripture, papal pre-eminence, salvation, and what happens to someone immediately after they die are also so different from those of Protestants and Evangelicals that one may wonder, “Is Catholicism a religion or denomination?”
Catholicism is considered a denomination and not a religion because, just like Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, it has roots in the Christian faith. It also shares many beliefs with these two branches of Christianity.
So, how is a religion different from a denomination? Why do some people believe that Catholicism is a religion? Why do some people believe that Catholicism is a denomination? Does theology define Catholicism as a religion or a denomination? Read on for answers.
How is a religion different from a denomination?
Religion is a collection of beliefs and rituals observed by a group of people. It involves human connection to what they consider sacred, divine, holy, spiritual, absolute, or worthy of special reverence. People are said to be of the same religion if they attribute these values to the same entity.
At its most basic, the Christian religion has been seen as the faith tradition that centers on the figure of Jesus Christ. Christianity is said to be more than a set of religious beliefs—over time, it has produced a culture, a collection of concepts and ways of life, practices, and artifacts passed from one generation to the next. Thus, Christianity is a living religious tradition and the culture it leaves behind. The church, which is the community of believers, is the agent of Christianity.
A religious denomination can be defined as a community within a religion that exists and operates under a common name and has a prescribed code of doctrine, regulations, and religious ceremonies. Almost every religion has variations due to differing interpretations of foundational scriptures, customs, or teachings. These differences lead to what we call “denominations.” Denominations typically have some form of unitary administration and legal hierarchy.
Why do some people believe that Catholicism is a religion?
Reasons given by people who believe Catholicism is a religion include the age of the institution, its size, and its unique beliefs and practices, which some surmise set it so far apart that it can only be regarded as a different religion.
Catholic traditions hold that the church has been around for nearly 2,000 years and has been around since the time of the Apostles. Others hold that Roman Catholicism arose during the reign of Constantine, in the years between 306 and 337 CE. According to historians, Catholicism is one of the world’s oldest international organizations and has played a significant role in the history and growth of Western civilization. By comparison, Islam, which is considered a religion, was founded by Mohamed the Prophet around 622 CE, which makes it 1,400 years old. Regardless of the accuracy of Catholic assertions on the date the institution was formed, there is evidence that Catholic beliefs predate the existence of Islam. Based on the age of its existence as a unitary body with distinct practices and in comparison to Islam, some feel that Catholicism should be regarded as a religion in its own right.
Catholicism is also widespread and is the longest continuously functioning unitary body and the second-largest religious group. According to a University of Southern California report quoting Vatican sources, Catholic membership worldwide reached 1.36 billion in 2020, which is 17 percent of the world’s population. The rest of the Christians are said to be about 1 billion. This data implies Catholics are more numerous than Hindu adherents, who were reported to be 1.16 billion in 2020. It seems that it is only the Sunni Muslims who outnumber the Catholics. According to statistics, the world population of Muslims is about 1.9 billion, with the Sunnis making up about 90 percent of them. Having so many followers under one leadership makes some want to count Catholics as a separate religion.
The unique beliefs and practices of Catholicism are the most compelling reasons for considering it a separate religion. Many consider the differences significant enough to call Catholicism a different religion. Some of these beliefs include the belief that the pope is the invisible head of the universal church, while most Christians detest the idea of any other head of the church apart from Christ himself. Catholics hold that scripture and tradition collectively form the Word of God, while most Christians hold that scripture alone (“sola scriptura”) is the authority and is sufficient.
Catholics seek the help of Mary as a co-mediator; their belief in primary justification is by baptism, then through good works and faith once one grows up. For most Christians, Mary has no role in mediation, and justification is by faith. Whereas for most Christians, good works are a result rather than the cause of salvation, Catholics hold that salvation is reached through a collaboration of grace through faith, participation in the sacraments, and good works.
There are also differences on the issue of the Eucharist, where Catholics believe that the real body and blood of Christ exist in every piece of bread and glass of wine in every Catholic Church; they also believe that the sacrifice of the cross is continued in the Mass celebration. Everyone else seems to hold that the communion bread and wine represent Christ’s body and blood and that the sacrifice was done once and for all on the cross. Catholics also believe in the existence of purgatory, the condition or place of purification where the souls of those who die in grace are made ready for heaven. Most Christians do not believe in such a place.
Why do some people believe that Catholicism is a denomination?
Many believe Catholicism is a part of Christianity and, therefore, a denomination rather than a separate religion. They find areas of shared beliefs in the Bible—about God, Christ, creation, humanity, salvation, the church, and eschatology—to be good enough to make Catholicism a denomination.
According to them, just like other Christians, Catholics hold a high view of Scripture and believe it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Just like the Protestants, they believe in the trinity of God in three distinct persons, that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and deny tritheism, which sees the three as separate gods. God is universally regarded as perfect, righteous, holy, truthful, just, loving, merciful, and jealous.
Catholics believe in Christ as both human and divine, born without sin and morally perfect. They are said to believe, like other Christians, that God created the universe out of nothing, that the world was created good but evil, and that death resulted from the fall.
Although there are several differences in the Catholics’ take on salvation, just like the Protestants, they both agreed on the belief that God got involved in salvation by sending His Son. Jesus Christ is said to be the head of the church, just like other Christians, though for them, he is the invisible head, whereas the pope is the visible one.
Regarding death, Catholics and Protestants believe there’s no possibility for salvation after death and that there is a heaven and a hell. They also believe in Christ’s bodily return from heaven in his second coming.
Does theology define Catholicism as a religion or a denomination?
Theology defines Catholicism as a denomination. According to theologians, Christian religion and theology comprise three main branches: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. From this, one can surmise that they hold Catholicism at the same level as other denominations and not as a separate religion.
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