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The fact on Roman Catholicism

The Facts on Roman Catholicism

What Does The Roman Catholic Church Really Believe?
by John Ankerberg & John Weldon

With 800 million members, the Catholic Church is one of the most powerful voices in the world community.  Learn the facts about what Roman Catholicism teaches and how it compares to Protestantism.

  • What does the Catholic Church teach concerning salvation and justification?
  • What are the sacraments and how do they function in the life of Catholics?
  • What is the unique role of Mary, and is it biblical?

Authors Ankerberg and Weldon offer a biblical examination of Catholic doctrine and provide important insight into this influential religion.

A Biblical Evaluation of the Roman Catholic Church

1. Why should the issue of what constitutes divine revelation be a vital concern to all Christians?

2. Why do Protestants believe the Bible alone is authoritative and inerrant (free from error)?

3. What are the different categories of modern Roman Catholicism?

4. Have the basic doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church changed today?

5. What are the sacraments and how do they function in the life of a Catholic believer?

6. What does the Bible teach concerning salvation?

7. What does the Catholic Church teach concerning salvation?

8. What does the Bible teach about the doctrine of justification?

9. What does the Roman Catholic Church teach about the doctrine of justification?

10. Do Protestants and Catholics now agree on the doctrine of justification, or are the teachings of the Council of Trent still authoritative?

11. How is the Roman Catholic view of biblical authority and inerrancy compromised?

12. Is the Pope infallible?

13. What is the unique role of Mary in Roman Catholicism, and is it biblical?

14. What about "evangelical Catholics" who accept Rome as the authority?

A Personal Word to Catholics

A Biblical Evaluation of the Roman Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ for the salvation of all mankind (Rev.  John A. O'Brien, The Faith of Millions, 46).

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine (the apostle Paul's instructions to Titus, Titus 2:1).

The purpose of this booklet is twofold:
1) to help non-Catholic Christians better understand what Roman Catholicism believes and practices; and
2) to help Roman Catholics evaluate their own church on the basis of biblical teaching.
This is necessary since, as Catholic apologist Karl Keating correctly points out in What Catholics Really Believe-Setting the Record Straight (1992, p. 112), "Catholics are required to hold and believe all the declared doctrines of the Church."

No one can deny that substantial changes have occurred in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, the major Roman Catholic council intended to usher in "the beginning of a new era in Roman Catholic history."  Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has increasingly encouraged its members to read the Bible and apply it to their lives.  Also, it is no longer a serious sin to attend non-Catholic churches.  Perhaps the most important change in Catholicism is its allowance of a new freedom for the biblical gospel itself

Modern Roman Catholicism is commendable in other ways as well.  For example, socially, the Church has consistently maintained a high view of the sanctity of life and of marriage.  Biblically, it has continued to defend the inerrancy of Scripture, at least as an official doctrine of the Church.  Theologically, it accepts the orthodox view of the Trinity, Christ's deity, and His atonement.  Spiritually, it has a good understanding of the seriousness of sin and its consequences in eternal judgment.

Nevertheless, all this does not mean that the Church is without problems.  Perhaps the most serious issue in Roman Catholicism is its unwillingness to accept biblical authority alone as the final determiner of Christian doctrine and practice.  For example, by accepting Catholic Tradition as a means of divine revelation, even biblically correct teachings in the Church become hedged about with unbiblical trimmings, which in turn tend to either revise, neutralize, or nullify these truths.

We agree with Dr. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones that, in many ways, the problem "is not so much a matter of 'denial' of the truth, but rather such an addition to the truth that eventually it becomes a departure from it." This truly unfortunate situation illustrates a principle Jesus Himself taught that even heartfelt religious traditions could actually become a means of leading people away from God's best for their lives.  On one occasion Jesus told the leading religious figures of His day, "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men" (Mark 7:8).

Regardless, no one can argue with the statement that "... the Roman Church has been one of the most powerful influences in the history of all civilization ...." Thus, because Roman Catholicism is a major world religion having some 800 million adherents, and because its influence in the world is sizable, a biblical evaluation of the teachings of the Church is vital.

1. Why should the issue of what constitutes divine revelation be a vital concern to all Christians?
If God has revealed Himself to mankind, can we know where that revelation is found? Can we identify it? In other words, can we truly know what God has spoken to us?

No subject is more important to men and women of religious persuasion, in any religion.  The subject of what constitutes divine revelation is crucial because without it, very little can be known about God-who God is, what He has communicated to us, or what He expects of us.  Thus, the issue of divine authority is inseparably bound to the issue of divine revelation.  Only that which comes from God has divine authority.  In other words, only God's revelation has authentic and inherent power to command obedience.

So, has God spoken? And if so, where has He spoken?

Protestants have traditionally maintained that God has spoken solely in the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament.  Only these books are divinely authoritative.

In contrast, Roman Catholicism teaches that in addition to the Protestant Bible, there are five other sources having divine authority.

First, there are additional books written between the Old and New Testaments, known to Catholics as the deuterocanonical books and to Protestants by the term "Apocrypha." Roman Catholics consider these books as genuine Scripture and thus include them as part of their Bible.
Second, Catholicism maintains that divine authority is to be found in the authorized Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, which is also classified as the "Word of God."
Third, divine authority (infallibility) is given to the Pope when he speaks officially on matters of faith and morals.
Fourth, when speaking or teaching in conjunction with the Pope and orthodox Catholic Tradition, Roman Catholic bishops are also held to be infallible, and hence, divinely authoritative.
Finally, official Roman Catholic interpretation of the Bible (Catholic teaching) is considered to have divine warrant and authority. In essence, all five of these sources can be summarized by the term "Roman Catholic Tradition."

Protestantism rejects these additional sources of divine authority, and this underscores the single most important division between the two churches.  Neither Protestants nor Catholics can deny this issue.  Divine authority cannot be found in the Bible alone and at the same time in various additional sources of alleged revelation, if  these deny the Bible.  Because God does not contradict Himself (2 Corinthians 1:17-20; cf. Psalm 145:13; Galatians 3:21; Hebrews 13:8) and cannot lie (Titus 1:2), He cannot affirm one set of teachings in the Bible and then declare them wrong through additional forms of revealed Tradition.  Therefore, Protestants believe that if the Bible truly is God's Word (as Catholics also maintain), then anything that conflicts with biblical teaching cannot possibly be from God.

In short, this issue is crucial because Catholic Tradition and biblical revelation conflict with one another on matters of vital importance, such as the means of salvation.  In the end, this may have great personal consequence, including the uncertainty about or even the unintended rejection of the true means of salvation.

No one can deny that devout Catholics, like Protestants, sincerely wish to do God's will; they desire to know what is pleasing to God so they may live their lives accordingly.  This is why the issue of biblical authority is so crucial.

2. Why do Protestants believe the Bible alone is authoritative and inerrant (Free from error)?
As we will see, the Bible asserts or assumes its inerrancy throughout its pages.  But it is important to realize that inerrancy is inseparably bound to both the doctrine of revelation as well as to the nature of God Himself. Why?

First, because God's revelation of Himself occurred through a very specific manner, what is termed "verbal, plenary inspiration." This means that the divine inspiration of the Bible involves its very words (Matthew 4:4; Romans 3:2) and extends to every part of Scripture.  This is why the Bible claims "All Scripture is inspired by God..." (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB).

Second, the Bible reveals that God's nature is holy; therefore, He is incapable of lying.  If divine inspiration extends to every word of the Bible, the entire Bible must be considered free of error.  In other words, if God is incapable of inspiring error, whatever is inspired is inerrant.

Finally, the Bible also reveals that God is omnipotent or all powerful.  This means He was able to safeguard the process of inspiration from error even though it was given through fallible men.  In light of all this, it must be concluded that whatever God speaks is inerrant, and since every word of the Bible is God's word, therefore the Bible is without error.

Thus, in order to establish the Bible alone as the only source of divine authority, we need to prove that
a) the Bible claims to be the inerrant Word of God,
b) these claims are justified, and
c) anything which contradicts what the Bible teaches cannot logically have divine authority.

A. Does the Bible claim to be the inerrant Word of God?
1. The Old Testament

The Old Testament is either God's Word or a fraud because it repeatedly asserts its divine authority (e.g., Isaiah 40:8).  The term "thus saith the Lord" or similar expressions are used some 2,800 times (Jeremiah 1:2; cf.  Exodus 34:27; Deuteronomy 18:18; 1 Kings 22:14; Isaiah 8:19-20; Jeremiah 36:28; Amos 1).  Inspiration (i.e., inerrancy) is explicitly asserted for almost 70 percent of the Old Testament, or 26 of 39 books.

Further, New Testament assertions to the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Old Testament provide additional corroboration.  Here we find that more than 90 percent of the Old Testament books "have their authority and/or authenticity directly affirmed by the New Testament." For example, in the book of Hebrews the phrase "God said" or its equivalent occurs many times just prior to quoting specific books of the Old Testament such as Psalms (Hebrews 1:6-12; 4:7), Jeremiah (8:8-12; 10:15-17), Haggai (12:26), Deuteronomy (13:5), and others.  Particularly relevant are the pronouncements of Jesus, who, as God incarnate, speaks infallibly (Matthew 24:35; John 5:46; 7:16; 8:14-16,26, 28; 12:48-50; 14:6; cf.  Philippians 2:1-8; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:20-21; John 1:14).  In John 17:17, Jesus said, "Thy Word is Truth" (NASB), and in Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of GOD" (NASB).  In both instances He could only have referred to the Jewish Scriptures-our Protestant Old Testament (cf Luke 24:27).  Jesus Himself, then, affirms 100 percent of the Old Testament as inspired and inerrant.

2. The New Testament

Jesus Himself indicated more than once that new revelation from God was forthcoming.  For example, He promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and bring to remembrance the things Jesus taught them (John 14:26), referring to the Gospels (cf.  Matthew 24:35).  He also promised that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth (John 16:12-15), referring to the remainder of the New Testament.  Thus, it is not surprising that:

Virtually every New Testament writer claimed that his writing was divinely authoritative....The cumulative effect of this self-testimony is an overwhelming confirmation that the New Testament writers claimed inspiration.*

Indeed, the fact that the New Testament writers assumed their writing was as binding as the Old Testament asserts a great deal.  Such writers were orthodox Jews who believed God's Word was heretofore confined to the known Old Testament canon. To add to this body of holy writings was a terrible presumption unless inspiration were clearly present.  But their recognition of inspiration is not so surprising. The very fact of the arrival of the long prophesied Messiah and the New Covenant (as in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.) coupled with the incarnation and atonement of God Himself (John 1:14; Philippians 2:1-9) virtually demanded a corresponding body of divine literature to explain and expound these events, just as was true for the activity of God in the Old Covenant (e.g., Galatians 3:8; cf, John 16:12-15).  God had no more likely candidates for this revelation than the apostles of His own Son, or those they approved.  And for perhaps even more credibility, the former skeptic and persecutor of the Church, the great apostle Paul, was commissioned by God to write a full fourth of the entire new revelation.

Is it credible to believe Jesus thought the Holy Spirit, the "Spirit of Truth," who inspired the New Testament (cf.  John 16:13-15) would corrupt His own words, or inspire error?

How could the incarnate God teach the infallibility of the divinely inspired Old Testament and not know the same condition would apply to the divinely inspired New Testament? Perhaps one reason Jesus Himself never wrote anything was because He knew it was unnecessary: the Holy Spirit would inspire an inerrant Word.  How else could He teach (or could we reasonably believe), "My words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35)?

Regardless, is it proper to call errant writings "holy"? How is inspiration divine if it allows for the presence of truth and error? Is it not simply human, and, like every other book, to be treated like every other book? If we answer "no" by appealing to its unique theological content, how do we really know such content is true?

If God's Word is eternal, can it be flawed? What did God mean when He called His Word "holy," "perfect", "true," "righteous," "good," "trustworthy," and "pure"?

On this issue of inerrancy, the great expositor Charles Spurgeon once stated, "This is the book untainted by any error, but is pure, unalloyed, perfect truth.  Why? Because God wrote it.  Ah! charge God with error if you please; tell Him that His book is not what it ought to be ...."

B. How do we know the claims to the inspiration of the Bible are justified?
There are many converging lines of evidence which strongly indicate the Bible really is God's only revelation to mankind.  For example, scores of detailed predictions of the future which are later fulfilled are found only in the Bible and can only be explained on the basis of divine inspiration. But the area we wish to stress is simply the authority of Jesus Christ Himself. Did Jesus ever express any doubts about Scripture? Did He warn His Church that the New Testament canon would be incomplete or corrupted? It is an historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead, something no one else has ever been able to do in all of human history. This proves the truth of His claims to be God incarnate.  If so, then He is an infallible authority, and in that role He declared the Old Testament the inspired Word of God, pre-authenticated the New Testament (Matthew 24:35; John 14:26), and personally inspired its final book (Revelation 1:1-3).

Indeed, the strength of the case for inerrancy can only be seen by a detailed study of Jesus' absolute trust in and use of Scripture. For Jesus, what Scripture said, God said.  Not once did He say, "This Scripture is in error" and proceed to correct it.  If Jesus was God, then He was correct in His view of Scripture: The Bible truly is the inerrant, revealed Word of God.

If God cannot lie, never changes, and can be trusted to never contradict Himself, then only one conclusion follows: Whatever denies what God has revealed in the Bible cannot be from God.  Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us to accept anything which contradicts what He has said is true in His Word.  All this is why Protestants logically maintain that our spiritual allegiance is to God and to His Word alone. To give our allegiance to church traditions or men who claim divine authority-but never establish it-is to take away the rightful place God should occupy in our lives.

3. What are the different categories of modern Roman Catholicism?
There are same nine categories of Roman Catholic people around the world.  The distinctions between them are not often clear because they can overlap or merge or blur into one another.  Nor would individual Catholics necessarily appreciate or agree with such labels.  But they will serve as convenient definitions for purposes of discussion:

1. Nominal or Social Catholicism: the Roman Catholicism of the largely uncommitted-perhaps those born or married into the Church but who have little knowledge of Catholic theology and who are, in practice, Catholics in name only.

2. Syncretistic/eclectic Catholicism: the Roman Catholicism that is, to varying degrees, combined with and/or absorbed by the pagan religion of the indigenous culture in which it exists (e.g., as in Mexico and South America).

3. Traditional or orthodox Catholicism: the powerful conservative branch of Roman Catholicism that holds to historic church doctrines such as those reasserted at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

4. "Moderate" Catholicism: the Roman Catholicism of Vatican II which is neither entirely traditional nor entirely liberal.

5. Modernist, liberal Catholicism: the post Vatican II "progressive" Roman Catholicism that to varying degrees rejects traditional doctrine.

6. Ethnic or cultural Catholicism: the Roman Catholicism often retained by migrants to America who use "their religion to provide a sense of belonging.  They feel that not to be Roman Catholic is not to belong and to lose [their] nationality and roots."

7. Lapsed or apostate Catholicism: the Roman Catholicism which involves alienated, backslidden, or apostate Catholics who are largely indifferent to the Catholic Church.

8. Charismatic Catholicism: the Roman Catholicism which seeks the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" and speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts as signs of a deeper Catholic spirituality.

9. Evangelical "Catholicism": the branch of former Roman Catholics who are truly evangelical and who have rejected the unbiblical teachings of Rome, often deciding to remain in the Church as a means to evangelize other Catholics.

The traditionalists are arguably the most influential segment of the Church because through the Pope, bishops, and orthodox priests, they occupy the center of power in Catholicism.  Traditionalists believe that by being obedient to the Church, they are being obedient to God and Christ.  This is because they have been taught that whatever the Church decrees as orthodox belief and practice through its tradition is, by definition, the will of God.

4. Have the basic doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church changed today?
With such a variety of modern Catholic expression, many people might assume that the doctrines of Rome itself have changed since Vatican II (1962-1965).  While it is true the Church has undergone significant alterations, major, permanent doctrinal change is not one of them.  This is conceded by both knowledgeable Catholics and non-Catholics.  For example, Catholic apologist Karl Keating confesses, "The Catholic Church did not change any of its doctrines at Trent and it did not change any at Vatican II," and "... there has been no alteration at all in basic doctrines .... The Catholic Church is still the sole true Church....." A recent Evangelical Council on Catholicism likewise concluded, "...there are many indications that Rome is fundamentally the same as it has always been." In 1964 no less an authority than Pope Paul VI himself affirmed that "nothing really changes in the traditional doctrine ." Another commentator noted, "Roman Catholicism does not change.  At heart, it is the same as it ever was."

Nevertheless, Rome is still not entirely what it used to be. Vatican II did institute many nondoctrinal (e.g., ecclesiastical) changes as well as significant alterations in the interpretation of traditional doctrine.  These new interpretations have such elasticity that they have the practical effect of permitting fundamental doctrinal change for those who wish it.  As Protestant theologian Millard J. Erickson observes in his Christian Theology,

[Examining Catholic theology] is difficult because, whereas at one time there was a uniform, official position within Roman Catholicism on most issues, now there appears to be only great diversity.  Official doctrinal standards stil. remain, but they are now supplemented, and in some cases, are seemingly contradicted, by later statements.  Among these later statements are the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council and the published opinions of individual Catholic scholars.

However, in spite of changes made at Vatican II 30 years ago, it is clear that the historic doctrines of Rome, which are handed down from its centralized teaching authority, remain the same.  One area of concern to Protestants is the doctrine of salvation.  We will introduce this subject with a discussion of the Catholic sacraments.

5. What are the sacraments and how do they function in the life of a Catholic believer?
The sacraments of Catholicism involve particular spiritual activities partaken of by believers, such as baptism, confirmation, penance, and participation in the Mass.  They are presided over by a Catholic priest who acts as a mediator between God and man.  These special activities are held to dispense God's "grace" (here, as a spiritual substance or power) and God's favor.

Rome's sevenfold sacramental system was apparently initiated for the first time in the twelfth century.  And today, "For the Roman Catholic his whole life from the cradle to the grave, and indeed beyond the grave in purgatory, is conditioned by the sacramental approach." Thus, understanding the sacraments is essential to understanding Catholicism itself.

Through the sacraments, "...internal grace is that power, received in the interior of the soul, enabling us to act supernaturally." Further, "The supernatural gift of God infused into the very essence of the soul as a habit is habitual grace.  This grace is also called sanctifying or justifying grace, because it is included in both ...."

Thus, the real difference between the Protestant and Catholic view of sacraments is not in the number of sacraments, two versus seven, but rather in the meaning and purpose of the sacraments themselves.  Protestantism sees its sacraments, baptism and communion, primarily as symbols and memorials of vital theological truths.  But Catholicism sees the sacraments as actually changing a person inwardly, as if through a form of spiritual empowering.  In Protestantism a sacrament underscores a promise of God; in Catholicism the sacraments infuse a special grace into the soul in order to meet a special need.  Catholic sacraments are, therefore, an outward sign of an infused grace.

We have summarized the results of each of the sacraments below:

  • Baptism (which is not repeated) cleanses from original sin, removes other sin and its punishment, provides spiritual rebirth or regeneration (John3:3),         begins the process of justification, and is "necessary for salvation."
  • Confirmation (not repeated) bestows the Holy Spirit in a special sense, leading to "an increasing of sanctifying grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit" as well as other spiritual power and a sealing to the Catholic Church.
  • Penance removes the penalty of sins committed after baptism and confirmation.  Thus, mortal or "deadly" sins are remitted and the "justification" lost by such sins is restored as a continuing process.
  • Holy Eucharist is where Christ is resacrificed and the benefits of Calvary are continually applied anew to the believer.
  • Marriage is where grace is given to remain in the bonds of matrimony in dictates with the requirements of the Catholic Church.
  • Anointing the sick (formerly extreme unction) bestows grace on those who are sick, old, or near death and helps in forgiveness of sins and sometimes the physical healing of the body.
  • Holy orders (not repeated) confers special grace and spiritual power upon bishops, priests, and deacons for leadership in the Church as representatives of Christ "for all eternity."

The Catholic Council of Trent (1545-63), whose decrees remain authoritative, declared as "anathema" (divinely cursed) anyone who would deny the seven sacraments of Rome: "If anyone says that the sacraments ... were not all instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, or that there are more or less than seven ... or that any one of these seven is not truly and intrinsically a sacrament, let him be anathema." Further, "If anyone says that the sacraments ... are not necessary for salvation ... and that without them... men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification... let him be anathema." Further, Canon Five reads, "If anyone says that baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be anathema.

What this means is that Catholicism offers what is termed a sacerdotal salvation-a salvation that is given through the functions of the priesthood, namely the sacraments.  In the end, salvation is a function of 1) God's grace, 2) individual faith and works, and 3) the Roman Catholic system of sacraments. (This is why the Church has traditionally taught that there is only one true Church-Rome-and that those outside of the Church cannot be saved since they are partakers of neither the one true Church nor the sacraments, both of which help procure salvation.) In our next two questions we will see what the Bible teaches about salvation and then compare this with the Catholic view of salvation in greater detail.