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Lisa wrote:

Hi, guys —

  1. What, if any, are the differences between Catholics and born again Christians?

  2. What do Catholics think of "born again" Christians?

  3. Can one be a Catholic and a "born again" Christian?

  4. If one was baptized Catholic as an infant, grew up Catholic, then was baptized again
    in a Protestant congregation, and became a "born again", non-Catholic Christian
    would they be excommunicated from the Catholic Church?

Thanks,

Lisa

  { Are Catholics who are baptized again in non-Catholic Christians communities excommunicated? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Lisa —

  1. What, if any, are the differences between Catholics and born again Christians?

Great question.

This comes from John 3:3-5:

"Jesus answered and said to [Nicodemus], “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to Him,

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”

Jesus answered,

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The word used here for "again" is "anothen", which can either mean "from above" (literally) or "again" (metaphorically). Think of "from the top". What Jesus is saying is that "you must be born of Heaven (from above) rather than of earth". That's why he uses the flesh/spirit comparison. Nicodemus misunderstands him. Jesus is not talking about being born again so much as he's talking about being born from above.

  • Now, what does it mean to be born "of water and the Spirit"?

There are a few clues. One, just a few verses later, right after he concludes this discussion with Nicodemus, He baptizes (in verse 22), and we see just two chapters earlier, when Jesus is baptized, the water and Spirit motif shows up again: He goes down into the water and the Spirit descends upon Him. Actually this is a little clearer in the synoptic versions of the Gospels:
Jesus goes down into the water, the Spirit comes down, and the Father says "This is my beloved son on whom my favor rests"; all three of these things happen when each believer is baptized. Thus, "water and Spirit" refers to baptism, and Jesus's own baptism is a pattern of our baptism.

You might want to check out this other posting:

The early Christians associated being born again with baptism, not with accepting Jesus, or a conversion experience, or an emotional event. See this article by Catholic Answers:

  1. Now, to answer your question more directly, what do we think of so-called
    "born again" Christians?

Well, we do acknowledge all those who are baptized (born again in our understanding) as brothers and sisters in Christ. We consider them separated, as we also consider all non-Catholic Christians. We do believe their understanding of baptism and the meaning of "born again" is mistaken,
as I have explained. In general, those who call themselves born-again Christians tend to be morally and theologically conservative, and we'd have much in common in that regard, for example,

  • the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible
  • the historicity of the Gospels
  • the truth and import of the Resurrection
  • the centrality of the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross
  • the reality of miracles
  • opposition to:
    • abortion
    • homosexuality
    • sex outside of marriage, and
    • so forth.

but there are many, many differences, and it's hard to enumerate them because being a
"born-again Christian" is not a denomination with a fixed set of beliefs. We can make some generalizations.

  • First and foremost, they do not recognize the authority of the Pope, neither as head of their church nor as someone who has the ability to speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals.
  • They are not Apostolic churches, meaning that they do not preserve Apostolic Succession: the handing down of Apostolic ordination and authority from bishop to bishop. Often, for them, ordination is a matter of a bunch of congregants or lay elders laying hands on them; many aren't even accountable to a larger church structure, assembling where they will.
  • They are usually very independent, loosely organized, and decentralized. Catholicism,
    in contrast, is very centralized and hierarchical; every bishop must either be expressly appointed by the Pope or in rare cases elected or appointed by someone else and approved by him.
  • Priests are ordained by bishops, who have been ordained by at least three bishops, who have been ordained by three other bishops, all of whom can trace their lineage back to the original Twelve Apostles. Born-again Protestants don't believe in priests, another distinctive.

Doctrine is also very different. Protestantism — of which born-again Christians are typically a part (I am excluding so-called "born again Catholics" which is a travesty of a term) — was founded on a disagreement with Catholicism over the nature of justification, that is, how we are saved.

Luther believed we are justified in a once-for-all manner where we are legally acquitted of our sins but aren't actually healed and transformed from sinfulness.

Catholicism believes that the divine life of God enters our soul, transforms us, and makes us objectively righteous and pleasing to God (and hence worthy of salvation). Some born-again Christians won't have a rigorous Protestant view of this but that's the party line. Let's get to the meat of this though — born-again Christians base their faith around a so-called born-again experience where one acknowledges one's own sinfulness before God and:

  • "accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior"
  • "gives his heart to Jesus"
  • "surrenders his life to Christ" or
  • "establishes a personal relationship with Jesus".

This is sometimes accompanied by a transformative or emotional experience of subjective conversion.

I am not going to pooh-pooh this — I had one of these experiences myself, it was profound, I do not doubt it, it is the experiential turning point of my spiritual life but for Catholics, one's life in Christ begins with water baptism. It is possible for God to work in a person's life before that, and of course God's grace works in our life before baptism; it is also possible, as in my case, that baptism doesn't fully "take" until the person is properly disposed, but theologically and formally,
it is at baptism that we become children of God and are justified.

Among some denominational people (e.g., Episcopalians, and maybe some Presbyterians) who profess to be "born-again Christians" you may find some who agree with this view, but for most born-again Christians, what is central is this born again experience — before that you were a pagan, after that you're a Christian. So for born-again Christians, their faith is based on an experience whether it's a dramatic conversion, a whirlwind of emotion at an altar call, or just a quiet but deliberate confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. This view was entirely unknown in the Christian world until the nineteenth century. All the ancient Christian churches:

  • Catholic
  • Eastern Orthodox
  • Oriental Orthodox
  • Assyrian Church of the East
  • Armenian Apostolic, and
  • the older Reformed-period churches

acknowledge that being born again means being baptized.

  • What's the Catholic view of the born-again Protestant position?

We would certainly encourage everyone to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, to give their heart to Jesus, to establish a personal relationship with Jesus, and to surrender their life to Christ —
you will find such ideas (though perhaps not in the same words) in the writings of our saints and even embodied in our liturgy (public prayer) — but we'd consider the theology and emphasis on experience and/or emotion to be bad. These people, those who have had a born-again experience, also tend to look askance at anyone who hasn't had the same type of experience or who don't use the same language to describe their faith.

  1. Can one be Catholic and born again?

Sure, but again let's be clear about your definition. By our definition, all Catholics are,
by definition, born again, because they are baptized.

  • Have all Catholics had an experience where they realized their own sinfulness, acknowledged it to God, and "accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior"? <No.>

Some have; I'd argue that acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Savior is fundamental to Catholicism, just look at our Creed we say every Sunday. I think there are Catholics who are genuine, intentional followers of Christ but who wouldn't use the same language to describe their faith as born-again Protestants do. As for myself, I consider myself "born again" by any definition. In any case, it is possible for Catholics to be born again, even by the Protestant definition. It's just not proper to call it "born again".

  1. If one was baptized Catholic as an infant, grew up Catholic, then was baptized again in a Protestant congregation, and became a "born again", non-Catholic Christian would they be excommunicated from the Catholic Church?

A person baptized Catholic as an infant who gets re-baptized in another church commits the sin of sacrilege, but wouldn't be excommunicated and their guilt would probably be mitigated by their ignorance or conscience. If they realize their error they need only go to Confession to have it absolved.

Hope this isn't too lengthy for you. There are a lot ... a lot of differences between born-again Protestant beliefs and Catholic beliefs. I only highlighted a very few.

Write back if you have any questions.

Eric

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