Is the Catholic Church part of Christianity or is it a separate religion?
There are a few large branches that fall under the technical heading of Christianity as a world religion: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. So in the technical sense of religious categorization, Roman Catholicism is classified as Christian. While the Roman Catholic Church traces its start back to the times of Jesus and the apostles, and believes itself to be the only "true" church, not all of its doctrines are actually biblically sound. Following Jesus Christ, or being a Christian in the true sense of the term, is not about joining a religious organization. Rather, it is about being "born again" and entering into a relationship with God in which we are justified by His grace and transformed through His Holy Spirit.
What are the essential doctrines of biblical Christianity? First, it is essential to believe that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Mark 12:29–30) and that He is a Trinity (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 12:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14). Jesus, as God incarnate, was fully God and fully man (John 1:1, 14; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 4:1–4). He was born of the virgin Mary (Matthew 1:25). He was crucified, died, was buried, and physically resurrected three days later (John 2:19–21; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, 14). Finally, it is crucial to acknowledge that salvation is only received by grace through faith (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:8–9).
When Jesus was speaking with Nicodemus, He told him that a person must be "born again" (John 3:3). Upon salvation, a person's spirit is reborn and they are filled with the Holy Spirit who helps them to walk out their salvation (John 14:26; Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Being born again is an experience that happens by faith and with a repentant heart; there is nothing anyone could do that would earn them salvation: "For 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" (Ephesians 2:8–9).
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it teaches, "…so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments" (CCC, par 2068). This is a works-based approach to salvation and is unbiblical. There is a works component to Christianity, but it is not for the purpose of our becoming saved. Before being saved, we were all enslaved to sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:16). The Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by grace through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Titus 3:5–7). When we have been born again, our new nature leads to righteous living as an overflow of the salvation that has already taken place (1 John 3:7–10; Ephesians 2:10). Prior to salvation, we do not have the power we need to be able to live righteously before God. Baptism and obedience to God are not means of salvation or ways in which we receive grace; rather they are things we do in response to God's grace and His saving work in our lives.
Within Catholicism, there have been extra-biblical beliefs and practices such as the above that create a religion that is different than biblical Christianity. This does not mean that Catholics cannot be born again Christians, but it does show us that following the rules of Catholicism does not make one a Christian. This is an example of "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men," which is something Pharisees of Jesus' day did, as well (Mark 7:7). Jesus had harsh words for such Pharisees (Matthew 23).
Another Catholic belief that makes it a separate religion is the idolization of Mary and the veneration of her to deity and other notable believers to that of sainthood. As has been established, there is only one God and it is the sin of idolatry to worship any other person or thing in addition to Him. Catholicism has exalted Mary to the point of praying to her and needing her as an intermediary by which people are able to reach Christ. According to Pope Leo XIII, "By the will of God, Mary is the intermediary through whom is distributed unto us this immense treasure of mercies gathered by God, for mercy and truth were created by Jesus Christ. Thus as no man goeth to the Father but by the Son, so no man goeth to Christ but by His Mother" (Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, On the Rosary, Octobri mense, September 22, 1891).
Pope Leo XIII's statement is in direct contradiction to the word of Jesus who always invited people to come directly to Him: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). He spoke of being one with His Father (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 7:28–29) and kept Mary on the same level as everyone else around Him (Mark 3:32–34). Jesus never venerated Mary or gave any sort of indication that she was anything other than a normal human being, nor did the early church. There is no biblical basis for veneration of Mary or viewing her as any sort of co-redemptrix. Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone (John 14:6) and people are invited to come directly to Him in order to receive it (Romans 10:9; Hebrews 4:14–16).
Finally, another key difference between Catholicism and orthodox Christianity is the Catholic belief that a priest is necessary to be an intermediary between us and God. First Timothy 2:5 says: "There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." When Jesus was crucified, upon His death, the veil within the temple was torn in two (Matthew 27:51). Historically, the veil separated the innermost holy of holies from the rest of the temple—this was an area that only the priest could pass beyond. The tearing of the veil symbolized how we now have direct access to God the Father through Christ's death and the Holy Spirit's presence in our lives: "For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18; see also John 14:6; Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:19–23).
There are certainly born-again Catholics who love God and do not worship Mary. However, inherent within the Catholic doctrines mentioned in this article are the underlying issues of: works-based salvation, the exaltation of Mary, and the claim that a human priest is necessary to be the mediator between humans and God. These key factors seem to distinguish Catholicism as its own separate religion, rather than just a denomination within Christianity.
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