I’ve heard several people say that any Christian denomination is as good as any other. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, or anything else, as long as you worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You often find this way of thinking in certain strands of Protestantism, but I’ve seen it in several Catholics too.
So what should we make of it? Can we really belong to any Christian church we want? From a Catholic perspective, the answer is no. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, in the Catholic Church we find “the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head,” which means that it contains “the fullness of the means of salvation” (CCC 830).
In other words, the Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus founded, and it’s the only one that contains all the gifts he gave us to help us stay faithful to him and obtain eternal salvation. More specifically, it means three things. In the Catholic Church, we have the “correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession” (CCC 830). Let’s take a look at each of those three things and see what difference they make.
The Fullness of the Faith
First, we have the “correct and complete confession of faith.” Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus wants his disciples to observe all of his commandments. He didn’t say that we’re good as long as we observe a few essential things or as long as we worship the Trinity. No, he said that we need to observe everything he commanded, and only the Catholic Church hands on everything he taught.
Other churches and denominations get a lot of things right (in fact, they get most of it right!), but every one of them deviates from the deposit of faith handed on by the Apostles at least a little bit. Only the Catholic faith contains the fullness of the revelation that Jesus came to give us, so only in the Catholic Church can we observe everything that he commanded.
The Fullness of the Sacraments
Secondly, there is the “full sacramental life.” This means that the Catholic Church preserves all seven sacraments, which are the principal means by which God imparts his grace to us. Most other Christian churches lack at least some of them (although not all do; some, like the Eastern Orthodox, still have all seven), which means that they lack some of the most important means by which God gives us his grace, and that’s a huge deal.
See, the Christian life is all about grace. Grace is what conforms us to God and brings us closer to him, making us holy and allowing us to live faithful Christian lives. That’s why the sacraments are so important. They’re the greatest and most important gifts that God gives us, the surest means to achieve the very purpose of the Christian life, and most non-Catholic churches lack at least some of them.
The Fullness of Apostolic Succession
Finally, we come to the “ordained ministry in apostolic succession.” This means that in the Catholic Church, we have deacons, priests, and bishops who can trace their lineage back to the Apostles. In other words, if we find out who ordained our clergy, then look at who ordained those people, and then who ordained them, and then go all the way down the line, we’ll eventually get back to the Apostles themselves. So why does that matter? Well, if your sacramental lineage doesn’t go back to the Apostles, your ordination isn’t valid.
And that’s really, really important. Without validly ordained priests, you can’t have most of the sacraments, and we already saw how essential the sacraments are. However, there’s something else here too. Not only are the sacraments the best way to receive God’s grace, but they’re also the best way to worship him.
Specifically, the Mass is the greatest, deepest, most profound worship we can offer him. When we celebrate Mass, we participate in Jesus’ own self-offering to the Father on the cross and unite our worship to his (CCC 1322, 1407), and since Jesus is God, nothing can surpass that. As a result, the Mass allows us to give God the greatest worship possible, and churches that don’t have a valid priesthood (which is most of them except the Orthodox) simply can’t offer this kind of worship.
Not All Churches Are the Same
Now, none of this means that other Christian churches are bad or that non-Catholics are all going to hell. Not at all. Rather, it simply means that not all Christian churches are created equal. Some are closer to the fullness of the means of salvation than others, and only in one of them do we actually find that fullness. Only in the Catholic Church do we have all of the gifts God has given us to help us get to heaven, so ideally, everybody should be Catholic.
And for those of us who are already Catholic, this means that we need to stay Catholic. Sure, we can participate in some non-Catholic worship (for example, there’s nothing wrong with saying a few prayers with a couple of Protestant friends), but we shouldn’t abandon Catholic worship and the Catholic faith. For instance, we can’t substitute a Protestant worship service for Sunday Mass, and we can’t leave the Catholic Church entirely if the people in the Orthodox church down the street are nicer.
Simply put, if we knowingly abandon our Catholic faith, even if it’s for another Christian church, we’re like the son in Jesus’ parable who tells his father that he’ll go work in his vineyard but then changes his mind and doesn’t (Matthew 21:28-30). If we knowingly leave the Catholic Church, we’re rejecting the gifts God has given us to help us get to heaven, and if we do that, we’re also rejecting the God who gave us those gifts.