Most evangelicals have vague ideas of what their Roman Catholic friends believe. But I find these ideas remain vague because we just don’t know who to believe. You see, people are told various things about the Roman Catholic church (RCC), and often the stories and beliefs they hear just don’t seem to add up. Here are a few of the things I’ve read or heard about Roman Catholics (RCs) through the years.
- RCs worship Jesus’ mother Mary
- RCs don’t believe the Bible
- RCs are taught all Christians who are not RC’s are going to hell
- RCs think all people are eventually going to heaven
- RCs blindly follow the pope
- RCs add to the Bible
- RCs believe in salvation by works and not by Christ
- RCs say their church is the only true church
- RCs are not Christians
- RCs are convinced they cannot be saved outside of Roman Catholicism
I’m sure you’ve also come across many of these as well. But while you may find some RCs who will confess a few of these beliefs, it remains very difficult for evangelicals to understand what exactly the RCC officially believes. Why is this the case? Because, contrary to popular belief, Roman Catholicism is not monolithic. In fact, it is a high complex religious tradition that has changed and continues to change.
So how are we to solve the riddle that Roman Catholicism poses to non-RC Christians? John Armstrong, a traditional Protestant, has edited a book that seeks to tackle this problem. The book is called Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us. It is a collection of essays by various experts weighing in on the historical, theological, practical, and contemporary issues surrounding the RCC. As with all books with multiple authors, the chapters are not of equal quality. Every contributor is a scholar of sorts, with some making them vocation home in the academy more than the church. Hence some chapters have a more scholarly bent than others, making them more difficult to digest. Some authors assume a great amount of prior knowledge of Roman Catholicism, giving their arguments a technical feel as they slough through theological and ecclesial terminology. But for the informed and persevering layman, there is much of value in this book.
Its thesis is the Roman Catholic system of Christianity developed over a period of centuries (more or less over 1000 years) in western Christendom from roughly AD 500 to 1500. During this time the church slowly added new doctrines, practices, and traditions that the early centuries of the church either did not know at all or where minority strands tolerated which the broader community of orthodoxy. But as the centuries passed the church slowly began to leave the apostolic foundation of faith laid in the New Testament and carried on by the early Church Fathers. There were sporadic periods of renewal and reformation, decline and darkness, until the tension came to a head in the Protestant Reformation. When the RCC finally ejected the Reformers from their church and codified their response to the Protestants at the Council of Trent, then the distinct tradition of Roman Catholicism was born. Since then the RCC has existed and developed apart from evangelical Protestantism.
Part 1 of the book deals with the historical background of the RCC. The contributors describe what the Apostles’ Creed refers to in the phrase “one, holy catholic, and apostolic church.” They answer the question of how the church in Rome became Roman Catholicism. They describe what really caused the great divide between the RCC and its Protestant children.
In Part 2 the theological issues are addressed. Current RC theology turns out to be higher critical playground on the academic side, checked by the more conservative magisterium (the official teaching office of the RCC) on the ecclesial side. The two sides are quite different in theology, somewhat like the difference between mainline Protestant academic theology and the teaching of its churches. In the Roman Catholic system the academic is allowed wide berth by the magisterium, with the understanding that the academy and its scholars may not sharply criticize the magisterium without discipline and perhaps removal from the RCC. This section of the book also addresses Mary, the saints, and sacerdotalism, concluding that while Marian worship is not officially sanctioned, it is tolerated and even encouraged by the RCC in various parts of the world. The RCC adds to Mary’s biblical profile the traits of immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, sinlessness, and co-mediator with Christ (at least by implication). Likewise the saints are venerated (a kind of religious devotion short of be worshiped) and prayed to by the RC faithful do to the unbiblical teaching that saints have extra merit, which they earned on earth, to offer RCs who ask. The system of dispensing religious grace, sometimes labeled sacerdotalism, is understood by the RCC to be both spiritual and mechanical (out of the thing itself it is done), and it covered all the significant periods and milestones in the life of a RC. The RCC adds to the biblical sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), which are rightly viewed by Protestants as “signs and seals” of gospel grace, an additional five extra-biblical sacraments which are confirmation, penance, holy orders, matrimony, and extreme unction. The authors conclude these theological issues all strike at the purity of the biblical gospel at the unique person and work of Jesus Christ.
Parts 1 and 2 are the most difficult section of the book, partly because the tone is strongly polemic. The second half of the book is more irenic and practical in the questions it asks and the implications for religious choices Christians must make in response the RC claims. Part 3 explores the common ground evangelical Protestants share with RCs. Chapter 7 proposes ground rules for dialog between the two parties. On the one hand, some of the longstanding and deep-seated antagonism is unhelpful in light of what they have in common. Protestants and Catholics are no longer killing each other over doctrine, and we ought not pretend we still live in such an environment. On the other hand, some of the courtesy that exists between the two parties can be unhelpful. Just because we don’t kill each other anymore over deeply held beliefs, it doesn’t follow that our deeply held differing beliefs are no longer vitally important. Friendliness should not lead to a doctrinal apathy that sweeps away our differences to make way for a round of campfire Kum Ba Yah. Chapter 8 identifies ways that evangelicals and RCs have cooperated in the public arena on social issues like public morality and religious freedom. Chapter 9 analyzes the effects of 20th century ecumenism, warning that pursuing unity at the expense of the gospel is not a healthy thing for evangelical churches.
Part 4 attempts to blaze a trail forward in light of the recent (circa 1990s) phenomenon of many evangelicals joining the RCC. Why did this happen? Why does it continue to happen? There are a myriad of reasons, probably as many reasons as converts. But there are identifiable trends. Evangelicals usually “swim the Tiber” to Rome for (1) romantic reasons (the smell and bells, the beauty of the liturgy, the notion of coming home), or (2) theological reasons (Tridentine Catholicism, perceived institutional unity, doubting the Reformation “Solas”). The author’s conclusion to this matter is sobering:
So why are evangelicals joining the Catholic Church? In many cases it is because we have not given them good enough reasons to stay. In other cases converts have become convinced that evangelicals simply do not have the answers to satisfy Catholic objections. But in either case, unless evangelicals recall and defend their own Protestant heritage and recover the true understanding of what it means to be an evangelical in the first place, they should not expect this trend to reverse itself anytime soon. 
Other chapters in Part 4 seek to answer the questions of what still keeps evangelical Protestants apart from the RCC, whether former RCs really did leave the Holy Catholic Catholic church (the author quotes the NT and the Church Fathers to argue “no”), and what should the evangelical church do to respond to the current need at this historical moment.
All in all, Roman Catholicism is a helpful an insightful read. It feels a bit dated with all the references to the current moment in the late 20th century, and that Pope John Paul II (the presiding pope when the book was written) is now 2 popes ago. But the arguments regarding the history and theology are still relevant. Because of the technical nature of Parts 1 and 2, and the somewhat repetitive nature of the arguments due to multiple authors, I recommend slowly digesting the book. Perhaps a chapter every few days, spreading the book over a month or two in your study schedule. What will you take away from it? It probably depends somewhat on your theological perspective. I concluded that a nuanced understanding of Roman Catholicism is helpful when considering what RCs believe. Is the RC academically minded? His/her beliefs are probably similar to the Protestant higher critics and the neo-orthodox theologians of the 20th century. Is the RC a devoted follower of the church and its teaching? Then his beliefs can probably be summarized in the official RC catechism. But perhaps not! Your friend might see himself as a “Council of Trent” believer. Or a follower of whoever is the current pope. Or an Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, or Jesuit. Or maybe your Catholic friend is a devoted Bible reader and evangelically minded. Or perhaps a nominal, cultural RC. There is no way to know except to dialog. So read a little on Roman Catholicism and start a conversation. Keep the Bible, Jesus, and the gospel always at the forefront. And pray for God’s Spirit to move you both toward understanding, faith, religious conviction, and friendship.
The Holy Catholic Church, by John Armstrong
From Wheaton to Rome, by Scot McKnight
What Still Keeps Us Apart? (chapter 11 of the book) by Michael Horton
Evangelical Approaches to Roman Catholicism, by Trevin Wax
The RCC of the Middle Ages, by Jack Arnold
Calvinism vs. Roman Catholicism, by Ra McLaughlin
Is the Reformation Over? by R.C. Sproul