'Catholic' vs 'Christian': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on September 9, 2023

‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’: What’s the difference? Sometimes words that were originally part of something, evolve to represent more in a social context. Let’s explore the evolution of ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian.

In a rush? Here’s a short version of what’s to come:

  • ‘Catholic’ is a word that describes someone of the Roman Catholic faith.
  • ‘Christian’ is a word that describes a person who practices Christianity

What’s the Difference Between ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’?

The biggest difference between these two words is that ‘Christian’ or Christianity represents a religion, while ‘Catholic’ or Catholicism represents a religious denomination. Religion is a particular system of faith and worship. Meanwhile, a denomination is a recognized autonomous branch, specifically of the Christian Church. 

For example:

  • ‘Christianity’, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism are all religions.
  • Presbyterian, Methodist, Mormon, and ‘Catholic’ are all denominations. 

This is the primary difference between these two words, but in a social context, these two entities have grown to have more political meaning as well. 

  • ‘Catholic’ is known as the opposite of Protestant, and this has split to, in many ways, represent opposition between conservative and liberal views, respectively.
    • Note that this is not a hard line, but rather is a trend. 
  • ‘Catholic’ also refers to the Roman Catholic Church and The Vatican City, which is where the Pope resides and works from. 

We will dive into the individual meanings of ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’ shortly, but to remember this starting point, think of the rule of rectangles:

  • All rectangles are squares, but not all squares are rectangles. In the same sense, all Catholics are ‘Christian,’ but not all Christians are ‘Catholic’. 

Definition of ‘Catholic’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Catholic’ is an adjective which means: 

  • Of the Roman Catholic faith
    • “They attended a Catholic church.”
  • Of or relating to all Christians
  • Relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church
    • “The Church of England must not compromise its Catholic principles.”

As a noun, ‘Catholic’ can also mean:

  • A member of the Roman Catholic Church
    • “He was a Catholic.”

Now, ‘catholic’ with a lowercase “c” — as in not a proper noun — has a different meaning. According to Oxford Languages, ‘catholic’ is an adjective defined as: 

  • Including a wide variety of things, all-embracing
    • “Her tastes are pretty catholic.”

History and Origin of ‘Catholic’

The word ‘Catholic’ comes from the Greek ‘katholikos’, which meant “universal” and was derived from the words ‘kata’ meaning “in respect of,” and ‘holos’ meaning “whole.” The ‘Catholic’ Church was founded on humanist Hellenistic beliefs and stems from the teachings of Christianity and Jesus Christ.

  • Conflicts involving authority led to the East-West schism that resulted in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. 

After becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, Catholicism continued to thrive into the modern age, with the Church being a dominant influence on Western civilization. This was challenged by the Protestant Reformation when other denominations of Christianity rose in popularity and rallied against the Catholic Church and the Pope. 

Today, the Catholic Church still holds influence over most of Europe and has a strong presence in the United States. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, formally known as Pope Frances, is the current Pope. 

‘Catholic’ Beliefs

  • God is one person in three parts, known as the Holy Trinity
  • Jesus Christ is the son of God
  • You must pray daily and attend weekly mass
  • Participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion
  • Go to confession, at a minimum, annually
  • Obey the marriage laws of the church — the Catholic Church does not formally recognize divorce.
  • Obey the moral law, known as the Ten Commandments

Definition of ‘Christian’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Christian’ is an adjective that means:

  • Relating to or professing Christianity or its teachings
    • “The Christian Church.”

As a noun, ‘Christian’ can also mean:

  • A person who has received a Christian baptism or is a believer in Christianity
    • “A born-again Christian.”

History and Origin of ‘Christian’

The word ‘Christian’ comes from the Latin word ‘christus’ which means “anointed one,” and also stems from the name of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ. Christianity developed in Judea in the mid-first century CE based on the teachings of Jesus and later the missionary work of Paul of Tarsus.

  • Early ‘Christians’ believed in the same God as the Jews, but they diverted their beliefs to acknowledging Jesus as the son of God.

The Apostle Paul was responsible for spreading Christianity to the Roman Empire, which then formally became Christian under the Edict of Milan issued in 313 CE by Emperor Constantine and the Edict of Thessalonica under Theodosius. 

Modern Christianity has split into a variety of denominations, which are all based on the original Roman Nicene Creed but have their own interpretations of Jesus’ and the Bible’s teachings. 

‘Christian’ Beliefs

  • There is one God, and Jesus Christ is his Son
  • There is life after earthly death
  • You must attend Church and pray 
  • Christians partake in baptism and communion 
  • Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself
  • Christians seek to follow the Ten Commandments of Moses
  • The cross is the symbol of Christianity, and the Bible is the sacred text 

Pronunciations: How to Pronounce ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’

While these religious terms are widely written about, they more often appear in a spoken or sung context. Follow the guides below to practice saying these words aloud so you feel confident pronouncing them correctly.

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Catholic’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Kath-lik’ or ‘ka-thuh-lik’ (the first syllable has a wide “a” as in “apple,” and if the second syllable appears as in the second spelling, it is pronounced “uh” like ‘run’)

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Christian’ as a guide:

  • ‘Krih-sh-tee-uhn’ (note the first syllable has a short “i” as in ‘spin,’ which is different than the tall “i” in ‘Christ’ which sounds like ‘rice’)

How to Use ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’ in a Sentence

The final step to mastering these words is feeling comfortable using them in your own scenarios. Read the sample sentences below to get a sense of how ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’ might appear in a variety of contexts. 

‘Catholic’ Example Sentences

  • Most of her family belonged to the Catholic Church, but she decided to identify as an atheist and didn’t attend services. 
  • The Pope is one of the most iconic figures in the Catholic Church, but he is still sometimes considered only a figurehead. 
  • He hated his Catholic school uniforms because they were itchy and hot, especially in the warmer months. 

‘Christian’ Example Sentences

  • A born-again Christian is someone who turned their life around and essentially started a new life by repenting their sins and committing to Jesus. 
  • There has been a movement by many school boards to not just give days off for Christian holidays but for other religious holidays as well. 
  • Although their family was Christian, they never really gave up anything for Lent. 

‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’ Example Sentences

  • Being Catholic means you’re a Christian who follows a certain doctrine. 
  • Catholic churches hold mass for sometimes up to four hours, while many other Christian services are much shorter. 
  • Throughout history, there have been many conflicts between Catholics and Protestants even though their followers are all Christian

Final Advice on ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’

Sometimes, to learn new words, we have to move beyond definitions and learn their history to get the full picture. This helps us understand how words are related — like how ‘Catholic’ vs ‘Christian’ are not antonyms, but that Catholicism is a form of Christianity. 

Need a recap? Here’s a review of what was covered:

  • ‘Catholic’ is an adjective that describes someone of the Roman Catholic faith,
  • While ‘Christian’ is an adjective that means someone who practices Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Want to learn more about the history of common words? Be sure to check out other confusing word articles, which won’t just teach you basic definitions and pronunciations, but history and culture as well. Learning new vocabulary can expand your knowledge in all types of ways, so stay curious.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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