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Can we “Identify as Catholic”?

“Catholic” describes not a superficial attribute, but an essential one, since we are changed forever when God adopts us as His children through baptism.

(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

“I identify as X” has replaced, in popular parlance, using an adjective to describe a person’s ethnic and sexual self-understanding. Witness, for example, how the New York Timesreports on census and demographic data. Common terms like “Hispanic Americans” and “adult male” have been replaced by “Americans who identify as Hispanic” and “so-and-so, who identifies as male.”

Can we use this expression with Catholicism? Can a person “identify as Catholic?” Or should “Catholic” only be used as an adjective, as in, “I am Catholic?”

The choice of “identify as” reflects in language just how deeply our society has fallen into the quagmire of radical individualism. An adjective describes the characteristics of a noun; it tells us what the thing is, and implies what it is not. Colors provide a helpful perspective. “Blue” describes a property of a car. Even though colors are superficial attributes—they can be changed, and they do not affect the essence of a thing (a car is a car, regardless of its color)—they help define a particular thing as distinct from other things. They help set the terms for how we perceive and understand a thing.

In other words, adjectives are limiting. A blue car is not red; it can become so, but it would lose its blueness and now be limited by its redness.

In using the expression “I identify as X,” the individual asserts his control over the characteristics that an adjective conveys. Instead of the adjective describing, and limiting, the person, the person chooses the adjective for himself. He accepts the limitation, but on his terms; the limit is constructed subjectively within his head rather than imposed on him by the world.

In this framework a person chooses his race or “gender identity” based on his personal will. He does so through a warped conception of freedom understood as the assertion of the individual’s desires over reality. In this way he, not the world, determines what is real.

The doyens of Wikipedia tell us that the “identify as” terminology is used primarily for psychological and sociological associations. We do not hear, for instance, persons saying that they identify as teachers, plumbers, or other occupations; nor does anyone identify as grandmother, brother, or other family relationship. The term, then, applies in the two categories that the leading forces of our society have deemed sacrosanct: race and gender, names which themselves, in a manner illustrative of this shift to subjective appropriation of language, were once called, with a more objective lens, ethnicity and sex.

But terminology carries across barriers, and we have seen “identify as” terminology applied to religion, even by Catholic organizations in a recent survey. It will not be long before we hear “I identify as Catholic” more regularly than “I am Catholic.”

The expression “I identify as Catholic” must be rejected, for it flips the nature of our religion on its head in two ways.

First, it puts the individual in a position of power over the faith by insisting that Catholicism must conform to the individual, and not the individual to Catholicism. Such thinking has already spread as a contagion among Catholic politicians supporting abortion: witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserting, “I think I can use my own judgment” about whether she can receive holy communion.

Catholics do not dictate the terms of faith. Faith is a gift, and we are invited through God’s grace to join a Church that is not ours, but Christ’s. We exercise our freedom within the Church not by imposing our views on reality, but by choosing to accept God’s will for us with a loving heart. To be Catholic is to pray for “God’s will be done,” not “my kingdom come, my will be done, on earth so may it be in heaven.”

Second, to be a Catholic is not a mere association or happenstance condition that describes us externally, as does color. To be Catholic is, by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, constitutive of the person. “Catholic” describes not a superficial attribute, but an essential one, since we are changed forever when God adopts us as His children through baptism.

St. Paul had no interest in making Catholicism a mere attribute of our identity. He commanded the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14) and the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). How do we imitate Christ? Paul explained to the Philippians:

“For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).

The message of Catholicism is directly opposite the modern world’s. Whereas the latter, in an act of hubris, bids all reality to yield to its will, Catholicism asks for humble submission to an unseen, and greater, reality. For the Catholic, “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We “decrease” by willingly accepting the cross: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

To say, “I identify as a Catholic” is to misunderstand the nature of faith. God calls us to conform to Him; we do not call Him to conform to us. The only answer, therefore, for the sincere believer to the question of his religion, is this: “I am a Catholic.”

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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 38 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and Catholic Distance University. He is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.


  1. The most essential problem with the phrase “I identify as (a) Catholic” might not be with either a predicate nominative or predicate adjective, but with the verb itself. The verb “to be” which it seeks to replace has a rich theological history, from the burning bush of Exodus, to the “I Am” statements of Jesus Christ, continuing through Thomistic philosophy. Quite a contrast with the whimsical nature of contemporary “identity.”

  2. Bonagura identifies [there’s that word again] a common dynamic in a world turned within the self rather than outward as an interrelated community within which we find definition. Where we should apprehend commonality in the natural law within we choose unprincipled liberty. Conceptual liberty preached by academia dons long inculcated with Marxist ideology that traditional principles of societal order are imposed by the elite to dominate. Calling attention to one’s identity means as Bonagura describes the person prepared to shed, revise what he perceives as transient. For a Catholic taught the rudiments of faith in Christ Cross Redemption it’s his plaintive bleat.

  3. An addendum on bleating. It’s the cry however subliminal of the lost sheep to which we shepherds are compelled by command better by compassion to retrieve.

  4. I am a cradle convert to Catholicism. Fifty years ago, I accepted the Holy Spirit’s invitation and became Catholic. Reflecting on my life since my first memories, I readily see the Holy Spirit working on this little nominally Methodist soul from the beginning and drawing me home. I believe in the teachings of the Church. I have studied both Scripture and the Catechism through the educational programs that are available to the laity in the Archdiocese of Denver. Jesus founded the Catholic Church through the Apostles. I embrace the words of St. Peter, “Lord, to Whom should we turn? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s not always easy, but it’s truly worth it, despite the challenges from without and from within the Church.

  5. Thank you so much, David G. Bonagura, Jr. for your beautiful article and the clarity of truer words: “Catholics do not dictate the terms of faith. Faith is a gift, and we are invited through God’s grace to join a Church that is not ours, but Christ’s. We exercise our freedom within the Church not by imposing our views on reality, but by choosing to accept God’s will for us with a loving heart. To be Catholic is to pray for “God’s will be done,” not “my kingdom come, my will be done, on earth so may it be in heaven.”

    I am a Catholic and an Author. My comment is not a sermon but a certain clarity of grace that brought me forward in life. There is nothing in this world that has pleased me more than this realization, in this later stage of life, and fearlessly writing about it. I have spent a lifetime being afraid of offending others who were not Catholic, hiding behind my devotion to God and Jesus between the pages. In some of my books, I created characters and stories from real-life experiences, fictionalizing them to avoid putting off people of other religions, even though my heart, mind, and soul related and depended on Christ. While all through the years, pursuing my spiritual needs through the Gospel of Christ.

    I have been off all social media since the beginning of the 2020 Covid pandemic. I stopped writing altogether after my last article was rejected for not properly fitting the platform. For the first time in my life, I became more interested in politics and the Covid virus news. I watched the news while quarantine, cancel culture, and lockdowns became news for everyone. There were new rules to follow. I was familiar with rejection, and I was wounded more, watching this terrible news sweep the nation as more and more people were dying from the virus. I learned not to write anything showing bias, and then I stopped being a writer and I wore my mask. But the year of silence served me well, and it made me take a closer look at the words I was putting out to the public through my articles and books. They were my words in print. They would be here long after I am gone. I needed to get an unchangeable message out to the world, and I found it this year through grace, and by staying closer to Catholic answers like your wonderful article here. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Amen
    Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for your articles! Please keep them coming. We need them.
    God bless you.

  6. True or false? To claim to be “catholic” means that one not only believes Jesus, but must also live by what He taught. Did not Jesus say that if we accept his teaching and live by them, we are His disciples; then we shall know the truth and the truth will make us free? If one accepts contraception, supports abortion, same sex marriage, homosexuality, and my conscience is supreme, that is, it is not bound to be “an informed catholic conscience, one looses ones catholic identity.

  7. “I identify as…” This ought to be the slogan of our new solipsistic world order.

    In the land of the uninsane, what we “identify” as is immaterial. What matters is what we *are*.

    For example, I may identify as a brilliant, Wharton-educated financial analyst. But anyone would be a fool to entrust their fortune to my self-interested custodianship.

    The west is descending into chaos, madness and oppression. It’s all quite astonishing — and utterly needless.

    The lies, the disorder, the illogic — all are signs of the diabolical.

  8. Did Jesus ever say “I identify as the Son of God”? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. And so is using the term “I identify as”. Doing so implies that you can shed your basic and true identity for another identify if you choose. We are what we are, and should be proud of it.

    • Yes, and as our (only) human model, Mary also said “I AM the Immaculate Conception” (not “the product of…”). to BE, is a huge and direct mystery. Something like the Real Presence (“This IS…”).

      But, wait, to some clerics, clarity on Eucharistic coherence is inopportune for an identity-politics audience.

  9. I think that the phrase is appropriate – if one is talking about other people. We are living in a time when it isn’t improper to call a heretic one who “identify’s as (a) Catholic – but who ACTUALLY isn’t.” The latter phrase is a necessary addendum to avoid being a part of the problem.

    It is highly probable that there are less than 10,000 true Catholics in the world. Others, “identify as a Catholic,” but aren’t. This doesn’t mean NECESSARILY that the others are guilty, but it does mean that – objectively speaking – they aren’t Catholic.

    I can see that it is bad form to use the language of one’s enemies, so it isn’t a bad “tactic” to avoid using the phrase at all. I am “on the fence” here.

    While we are on the topic I might as well clear up related confusion.

    I am a (true) Catholic. I am a Christian. I am not a Catholic Christian.

    On the other hand, Protestants AREN’T Christians. They are heretics.

    • “I am a (true) Catholic. … On the other hand, Protestants AREN’T Christians.”

      The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. (LG, 15)

      Well, no, you aren’t being a true Catholic, as you aren’t acknowledging that the Church states that those who believe in Christ and in the Triune God are indeed Christian, even though they do not possess or profess the fulness of the Faith. The irony is how thoroughly Fundamentalist Protestant is your attitude and theological vision.

      • Very well said, dear Carl.

        Sincere Christians – who follow Jesus Christ of The New Testament – discern bigoted religious factions as under the influence of ‘religious demon spirits’. Those occur in every religion and in every race around the world: ready to hate, discriminate, and even murder man, woman, and child, without mercy. Of course, the Nazi’s provided the most horrific example, but those same evils are active everywhere. Think of the obscene atrocities wreaked on innocent Moslem girls by Hindu mobs last year.

        People who are oppressed or even possessed by religious spirits are convinced that THEY have ‘cornered the life-boat to eternal life’. This is their (shaky) confidence and any threat to it subverts their identity and evokes vicious, ‘self-protecting’, ungodly reactions.

        The main observable characteristic of the influence of religious demons is that their subjects have an inordinate and exclusive emphasis on ‘us’. This is to be found, not only in sections of theistic faith communities but in witchcraft covens, freemason lodges, and in an endless variety of cults and cultish religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists, etc. It is even more widely evident in tribal ethnic cultures. Buddhist monks of one persuasion taking baseball bats to those of a different persuasion is shocking to see but easy to explain. Likewise, so-called Protestants and so-called Catholics loathing and even killing each other is spiritual evil manifest.

        All of that is in total disobedience to the inclusiveness of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who befriended women and men, young and old, sinners and saints, lepers, cripples and blind, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, Romans, and Greeks, without limits. Unlike any other leader, Jesus also befriended the dead: Lazarus, ‘Tabitha’, and the widow of Nain’s deceased son – resurrecting them as a prolepsis of His own resurrection (and ours).

        Checking through The New Testament, one is impressed by how many deceptive evil demonic spirits were cast out of people by Jesus Christ and by those He commissioned. Christ openly described the religious leaders and experts of His day as being “children of the devil”, that is controlled by malign religious spirits.

        The modern (& post-modern) fallacy is that science shows us there are no such spirits! Anyone who has gained a deep and broad knowledge of science knows that it has done no such thing. Eluding scientific experimentation, deceptive evil beings conceal themselves by secret rituals, blasphemous oaths, close surveillance and recrimination, and cultivating the appearance of righteousness and mutual care. The devil, the accuser of the faithful, can appear as an angel of light.

        This world has innumerable broad doorways leading to self-deception and damnation; just One narrow doorway that’s found by everyone who seeks for God’s Realm of truth, open transparency, and inclusive love (even of our worst enemies). Jesus Christ invites us: “If anyone turns to Me, I will by no means turn them away.”
        “Let those who want come and take the waters of Life, without charge.”

        The Catholic Church most truly continues Christ’s saving work. That can be seen when so many genuine Catholics humbly proclaim Christ’s mercy-full invitation: “Come to Me all you weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

        Take care everyone; stay safe. Always in the grace of Jesus; blessings from Marty

  10. I commend Prof Bonagura’s attempt to correct the unfortunate phrase “identify as” as an ontological, self-describing claim; however, I object that baptism does not produce a substantial change in the receiver, for we do not cease to be humans to become gods when we receive a valid baptism, but rather receive a “property”, in the technical sense of a “necessary, though not essential predicate”. Stating that we undergo a substantial change makes him liable to be charged with yet another farfetched ontological claim.

    So, to the question: yes, I identify as Catholic, because I am Catholic.

  11. “I die the king’s faithful servant but God’s first.” St.Thomas Moore. My soul, which cannot be separated from my body in eternity, is indelibly marked by my Baptism. Perhaps instead of debating “identity,” we should assert our citizenship in the City of God—with dual citizenship (fill in the nation).

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