Should Roman Catholicism Be Considered a Christian Religion?
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Should Roman Catholicism really be classified as a Christian religion? No.
Roman Catholicism is not a Christian religion and in this article we will explain why.
Many Evangelical Christians today have very positive feelings about both the Pope in particular and Roman Catholicism in general. Others are uncertain as to how Roman Catholicism should properly be classified in light of biblical teaching. That such support and/or perplexity is undergirded even by many Christian organizations can be seen in the following response sent out to those inquiring about Catholicism by a leading Christian apologetics ministry. This standard reply was given by a group which specializes in the analysis of comparative religion and cultic theology. In answer to the question, “Is Roman Catholicism Biblical?”, the verbatim response was as follows (copy on file):
- 1. Does the Catholic Church teach orthodox Christianity? Answer: Yes.
- 2. Does the Catholic Church teach salvation by good works or by faith? Answer: They teach it by faith.
- 3. Does the Catholic Church teach another gospel? Answer: No.
This reply would certainly lead many to conclude that Roman Catholicism should be classified as a legitimate Christian faith.
Of course, Roman Catholicism claims it alone is the one true Church on earth. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues, “The term Roman Catholic has come to be the accepted designation of the one true Church….” It also teaches that God has indeed revealed Himself “and that the Catholic faith is that revelation.” In addition, it describes the Catholic Church as “The Church founded by Jesus Christ,” and defines the Church in the following manner, “When the Church is spoken of, it means that visible religious society, founded by Jesus Christ, under one head, St. Peter, and continuing under the governance of his successors, the popes…. It is thus the role of the Church to present the means of salvation given by Christ, [i.e., the sacraments]….”
Under the heading of “Doctrine of the Catholic Church” we read, “It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.”
Under “Church Membership,” we find Pope Pius XII cited in his On the Mystical Body of Christ (1943). He teaches that only Catholics are to be considered members of the one true Church. “Actually, only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized, and who profess the true faith [Roman Catholicism], and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body…” [i.e., Protestants].
Finally, under the heading “Protestantism,” we find that the official position “of the Catholic Church was set forth in the twenty-five sessions of the Council of Trent…” which thoroughly anathematized Protestantism. At least here Protestantism retains its curse.
All this proves that Roman Catholicism claims that it alone is the one true Church on earth, and that Protestant churches are false—or at the very best, to be liberal, inadequate.
But what if it is actually the Roman Catholic Church which fails qualification as the one true Church—according to at least three of its own requirements? The Catholic Church itself has officially defined the identifying marks of the one true Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia we are told there are four criteria endorsed by the Council of Trent: 1) oneness of doctrine, 2) the generation of true personal holiness dispensed through the Church’s means of sanctification (e.g., sacraments), 3) Catholicity (universality of mission) and 4) apostolicity—teachings and practices derived from Christ and the apostles.
First, can it logically be maintained that the Catholic Church has a “oneness of doctrine?” In the sense of doctrine, the term “Catholicity” was classically defined in the “Vincentian canon” (5th century) as “What has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Individual Catholics aside, have even the popes always maintained unity of doctrine? How is this possible with the doctrinal contradictions and controversies in Catholic history, tradition, and Scripture (e.g., the Apocrypha)? What about the serious differences found in the various competing forms of modern Roman Catholicism such as liberal, moderate, conservative, mystical and charismatic? Does Vatican II agree entirely with Trent?
Second, on what biblical basis can true holiness be said to be dispensed through the Roman Catholic Church and its beliefs and practices? Biblically, it is clear that sanctification, or growth in holiness, comes principally through the work of the Holy Spirit applied individually to true believers in Christ through the renewing power of both learning Scripture and obeying it. If so, of what value are the Roman Catholic sacraments and other practices for the process of sanctification? Especially if individual Catholics are attempting to earn their own salvation by good works and are not yet even saved? In fact, by inhibiting personal salvation through unbiblical doctrine and practices, Roman Catholicism inhibits true sanctification because sanctification is not possible without regeneration (cf., Jn. 6:63; Col. 2:23).
Thus, millions of Catholics today think they are Christians when in fact they are Catholics. Of course, the same may be said of Protestants who reject the gospel. Nevertheless, perhaps it is the fact of a largely unregenerate church which explains the strong comments of former Franciscan priest Emmett McLoughlin. In his Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church he argues as follows:
- The purpose of this book is to show that the Roman Catholic Church in its most important work sanctification is a failure. Among its members crime and immorality are greater than the unchurched or the members of other churches. Whatever else the Roman Catholic Church may be able to do… it cannot, it has not, and it does not make the majority of its members better and holier….
- That the Roman Catholic Church has been one of the most powerful influences in the history of all civilization cannot be seriously denied….
- [Nevertheless] It is my contention and my sincere conviction, from my experience in the Catholic educational system, my life of fifteen years in the priesthood, and thirteen years of constant observation and intense study since leaving the Church, that its influence on all civilization has been far more of evil than of good….
- Morally, this book will show the high rate of crime and sin among Roman Catholics everywhere, and particularly in the United States. It will also demonstrate that this immorality is not in spite of Catholic education and training, but directly because of it.
Today, some have even claimed up to one-third of the 57,000 Roman Catholic priests could be HIV infected—and now, several books exist on priestly pedophilia—with up to 3,000 priests apparently involved.
The third Catholic test for identifying the one true Church is apostolicity. But if the Roman Catholic Church rejects key teachings of the apostles, how can it logically be considered apostolic—that is, derived from them? Thus, the Catholic Church fails in at least three of its four criteria for evaluation of its own authenticity.
Again, all this raises the question, “Can Roman Catholicism truly be considered Christian?”
Merely having some degree of doctrinal orthodoxy does not, by definition, prove a religion is Christian. For example, in Church history, certain unorthodox or heretical sects have accepted the doctrine of the Trinity and yet denied other cardinal doctrines of the faith. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the inerrancy of the Bible far more consistently than Catholics. Yet, no one argues they are Christian but themselves. Mormonism provisionally accepts the Bible as the Word of God and in certain ways believes in the atonement of Christ. Yet no religion is more anti-Christian. The Way International teaches “salvation by grace” and other biblical doctrines, yet denies the Trinity and the deity of Christ. They cannot be properly classified as Christian either. Even Muslims are devout monotheists having many moral views in harmony with the Bible. But none of these religions can be classified as Christian because what makes a religion Christian is both a) a fundamental body of correct doctrinal belief that true Christians have always believed in without compromise and b) religious practices and lifestyle among its members that conform to biblical standards.
No one denies that the Catholic Church historically today believes many Christian doctrines. They are monotheists, they believe in the Trinity, that God is Spirit, the reality of sin, Christ as God, the virgin birth, and heaven and hell.
But they also offer many unbiblical doctrines such as salvation by works. Further, even the orthodox doctrines they hold have a tendency to become compromised in various ways. The deity of Christ itself is impacted by Rome’s teaching that Christ is incarnated in the Church.
All this underscores a simple fact. Claims to be Christian need to be thoroughly evaluated with proper attention to 1) word meanings, 2) doctrine as a whole and 3) lifestyle and practices. If we look at Roman Catholic doctrine comprehensively as well as its word meanings and practices, this would seem to require the categorization of Roman Catholicism, as a whole, as not being Christian.
From the perspective of the sociology of religion alone, the Roman Catholic Church indeed may be called a Christian religion, but certainly it cannot be considered a biblically orthodox Christian religion.
Even if we must reduce the issue to a single doctrine, what primarily determines whether a religious body is Christian or not is the basic gospel message of salvation, not how close a given religion can come to the historic doctrines of Christianity. Let’s take an example. Say there is a very powerful and influential worldwide religion with a half-billion members. It’s called “the church of Christianity.”
Say this world religion is orthodox on every major teaching of historic Christianity, such as—the deity of Christ; salvation by faith in Christ alone, the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit, Biblical Inerrancy, the Fall of man, the virgin birth, incarnation, the Trinity, second coming, the atonement of Jesus Christ, etc.
But now let’s say this religion is only “ninety-nine percent” orthodox. There is only one historic doctrine it refuses to accept. It absolutely rejects salvation by grace through faith alone and teaches that, in the end, a person is ultimately to recognize that they are saved by their faith and their good works.
Is it still a Christian religion? After all, it’s ninety-nine percent Christian. It’s as orthodox as can be in every area but one. In fifty Christian doctrines its teachings are biblical; there is only one doctrine it opposes.
Biblically, such a religion cannot possibly be classified as Christian. Again, how close one gets to Christianity isn’t the issue; it is: Does one accept the gospel or not?
Now, consider Roman Catholicism. The fact that it accepts many Christian doctrines is irrelevant. That it teaches salvation by works proves that it is not a Christian religion. The fact that some are saved within the Roman Catholic Church only means that some, like Luther, have found salvation (by God’s grace) because they studied the Bible—or because Christians witnessed to them and they were saved by hearing the gospel.
But just because there are some people who are saved in Roman Catholicism and because it has a number of biblical teachings is insufficient reason to conclude that Catholicism is Christian and that therefore Christians and Catholics can worship together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Luther also said this, “If I declare with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of God’s Truth except for that one little bit which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ no matter how boldly I may be professing Christ….”
The gospel—anything but minuscule—is what the world and the devil have always opposed. And it continues to be opposed today in the Catholic Church. Therefore, Christians who think Roman Catholicism is Christian, “Evangelical Catholics,” who seek to bring their “separated brethren” back to Rome, and Evangelicals who have converted to Rome need to ask where their commitment is to the gospel—that doctrine of salvation by grace alone, that the world and the devil are at this moment attacking. And if their commitment isn’t to taking a strong stand in defense of the gospel, is their commitment really to Christ and His Church? We don’t think so—it cannot be.
On this key issue alone Catholicism fails the test of being Christian. But Roman Catholicism also teaches the following doctrines that negatively impact or deny the biblical teaching on salvation:
- Justification as the infusing of righteousness based on good works, not the imputation of righteousness as a judicial decree of God.
- The Mass “as truly propitiatory” and, in some sense, truly re-sacrificing Christ.
- The seven Catholic sacraments as infusing grace for purposes of sanctification and salvation. (But if the Sacrament of Holy Orders confers supernatural power on Roman Catholic bishops, priests and deacons to “serve as a teacher as Christ Himself,” how is it that Roman Catholic bishops, priests and deacons can so consistently oppose the key teaching of Scripture?)
- Baptism, penance, suffering in purgatory, indulgences etc., as having the power to remit or forgive sin or its punishment.
- Catholicism alone as the one true Church.
No one can deny that given the above teachings relating to salvation, that Catholicism offers a different gospel than the one clearly stated in the Bible.
But Catholicism also teaches doctrines which undermine the authority of the Bible itself:
- The pope as infallible in matters of doctrine and morals. Further, Peter was the first pope, and Christ instituted the office of the papacy.
- Catholic tradition has divine authority and is to be equated with the word of God.
- The Apocrypha is also the word of God.
- The teaching authority of the Church as the final and only correct interpreter of the Bible to its people. This means that individual Christians cannot properly interpret the Bible on their own. This is why the Protestant view of individual interpretation is referred to as a product of “theological rationalism” and condemned by Rome.
The Documents of Vatican II teach, “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living, teaching office of the Church….”
The above teachings indicate that the Catholic Church has also undermined the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures. But further, the Catholic Church also teaches the following items listed below, again, none of which are biblical:
- Mary was born without sin, is sinless, ascended bodily into heaven and is a “coRedemptrix” “Mediatrix” and “Queen of Heaven” in God’s plan of salvation. She is to be venerated/“worshipped” and offers all the graces of Christ to men who adore her, whether in the Church or at thousands of her shrines/altars throughout the world.
- Faith is an intellectual assent to the doctrines of the Church. In fact, true faith “demands that we believe” in Roman Catholic doctrines without which we cannot be sanctified or saved. (Apparently then, Christians whose faith in the Bible alone compels them in their conscience to reject Catholic belief are without true saving faith.)
- Catholic saints are to be venerated. True “saints” and “priests” are comprised of an extremely minuscule portion of the body of Christ.
- Sin is to be compartmentalized into moral/venial categories.
Perhaps it would do well to remind Protestants that, historically, one of the greatest enemies of Christianity has been false religion. It is the growth of such religion throughout the world that has remained the most serious threat to the health of the Church and will continue to do so far into the 21st century.
Is Roman Catholicism Christian? In a nutshell, it would seem that there are so many ways in which Catholicism is not biblical that it is logically impossible to classify it as a genuine Christian religion.
All this is why the obstacles between Catholicism and Evangelicalism are insurmountable, at least until there is fundamental biblical reformation in Rome.
- Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, revised and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 528, emphasis added.
- Ibid., p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 115.
- Ibid., p. 170, emphasis added.
- Ibid., p. 381.
- Ibid., p. 499.
- Ibid., p. 371.
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, Press, 1988), pp. 26, 2.
- Emmett McLoughlin, Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church (NY: Lyle Stuart, 1964), p. 10.
- Patrick Dixon, The Whole Truth About AIDS (Nashville: Nelson, 1989), p. 22; cf. Jason Berry, Lead Us Not Into Temptation and US. News and World Report, October 5, 1992.
- John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Mormonism (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1992).
- Gerrit C. Berkowuer, The Conflict with Rome (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed,1958), pp. 191-211; Walter M. Abbot, gen. ed., The Documents of Vatican II (NY: Guild Press, 1966), p. 141; Paul G. Schrotenboer, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), p. 41; H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1976), pp. 41-42.
- Broderick, ed., p. 438.
- Ibid, p. 514.
- Abbott, pp. 117-118, emphasis added.
- Broderick, ed., p. 213.