Is Roman Catholicism Christian?
Is Roman Catholicism Christian?
To some the answer to this question is an obvious “yes”. “Of course Roman Catholicism is Christian! That’s like asking is the city of Mecca Muslim. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest body of Christians in the entire world.”
To others the answer to this question is an equally obvious “no”. “Roman Catholicism isn’t truly Christian because it preaches a false gospel and teaches things that go against the truths of the Bible.”
What are we to think? What would a biblically-based answer to this question look like?
Before seeking to answer this question let me offer several reasons why I think it is both a fair and an important question.
First of all, this is an important question for the very reason that the Roman Catholic Church does indeed profess to be a genuinely Christian church (indeed, it claims to be the one true church of Jesus Christ on earth); because it exercises such a large cultural and (in some cases) political influence throughout the world; and also because it boasts such a large membership worldwide.
It is also a fair question because not everything or everyone who claims to be “Christian” is, in fact, Christian, at least as measured by the only infallible standard of God’s Word.
So, is Roman Catholicism Christian? The answer we give to that question depends upon how we define the term “Christian”, and also upon the different senses in which that term can be used.
I believe the answer to this question is: In one sense, “yes”; in another sense, “no.”
Lest it seem like I’m trying obfuscate and complicate matters, allow me to explain.
First of all, all Bible-believing Christians should recognize that the Roman Catholic Church in her official teachings confesses and uphold many biblical, gospel based truths. Orthodox Protestants and traditionalist Roman Catholics share a great deal in common, at least at the foundational level of “Mere Christianity” (to borrow the title from C.S. Lewis’ famous book).
For example, historic Catholics and Protestants share the same New Testament and agree that the Bible is, in some sense, the Word of God, a written Divine Revelation.
Together they confess the Bible-based truths summarized in the great ecumenical creeds, such as the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. For example, both Bible-believing Protestants and traditionalist Catholics confess belief in the Holy Trinity (the one true God existing eternally in three co-equal Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Both affirm the full Deity and full humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Both confess His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, His sinless life, His mighty miracles, His death upon the cross for our redemption from sin, His glorious bodily resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, His reign at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and His coming again at the end of this age to judge the living and the dead, and His bringing in of the eternal state. And both (to the surprise of some Protestants) believe in the absolute necessity of Divine grace for eternal salvation.
Let it be said that, in the context of the increasingly secular, “post-Christian” culture in which we live, where rank unbelief and anti-Christian hostility seem to be the new norm, these commonly-shared Christian beliefs held by both biblical Protestants and traditionalist Catholics stand in sharp contrast to our contemporary secularist zeitgeist.
So, at this basic level of “Mere Christianity” and the ancient ecumenical creeds, Roman Catholicism is indeed “Christian.”
At the same time, and at a deeper level still, there is a sense in which Roman Catholicism, as it has evolved from medieval times into the contemporary world, is profoundly unChristian – even anti-Christian. For while, at the level of “Mere Christianity” it is Christian, at the level of its’ distinctive teachings and practices it does indeed deny and/or distort the saving truths of the Bible.
For example, in response to the Protestant Reformation the Roman Catholic Church officially added the apocryphal (or “deuterocanonical”) books to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, so that the Roman Catholic version of the Old Testament contains books that both Jews and Protestant Christians believe should not be there. The Apostle Paul tells us that the “oracles of God” (i.e., the Old Testament Scriptures) had been entrusted to the people of the Jews (see Romans 3:2). While the apocryphal books contain some valuable historical and devotional material, and while the Christian church has always read these books for edification (though, historically, not to establish doctrine), the Jews had never recognized the apocryphal books as being inspired by God, and therefore they were excluded from the Jewish canon of Scripture. The Protestant Reformers accepted the Jewish canon of the Old Testament Scripture, in accordance with Romans 3:2. But the Roman Catholic Church added uninspired books to the inspired Word of God — a very serious sin which is strictly forbidden by God and which calls down the anathema of God upon those who dare to add to or take away from God’s Word (see Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19).
In addition to adding the uninspired apocryphal books to the inspired Word of God, the Catholic Church has added, over the years, many man-made traditions to the requirements of God’s Word, burdening the consciences of the faithful with a plethora of man-made ecclesiastical rules, rituals and laws with no clear warrant from Holy Scripture. This, too, is profoundly unChristian.
Arguably the worst errors of Roman Catholicism relate to its teachings on human salvation. While Romanism does recognize man’s need for Divine grace and the merits of Christ in order to be saved, its teaching on salvation in effect denigrates and denies both the absolute perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s saving work and the grace of God by teaching a doctrine of salvation by Divine grace plus human free will, Christ’s merits plus the (Spirit-wrought) merits of the believer, and justification by faith plus works.
Rome teaches that human salvation is accomplished by human free will cooperating with God’s grace. But Scripture teaches that God’s election, and thus human salvation, “…depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16, ESV).
Rome teaches that, while Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is sufficient for human salvation, His sacrifice on Calvary must be continuously re-presented to God the Father by a human priest through the “unbloody sacrifice” of the Roman Mass offered on altars in Roman Catholic churches. In this way the absolute perfection, completion and efficacy of our Savior’s once-for-all sacrifice is denigrated and blasphemed. For Scripture says of Christ our great High Priest: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:12, 14, ESV; emphasis added)
Rome teaches that justification is by faith in Christ plus the grace-wrought works of believers. But the Bible teaches that we sinners are justified (i.e., declared righteous) before God by His grace alone, through faith in the merits of Christ alone, and apart from works (even grace-wrought works). “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5, ESV) “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV) Thus Rome in its official teachings denies the biblical gospel of justification by faith alone, teaching instead a false gospel of justification of faith plus works. In doing this it has placed itself under the anathema of God (see Galatians 1:8-9).
Add to Rome’s errors in adding to the Scriptures and distorting the biblical message of salvation its idolatry in promoting religious prayers and devotion to Mary and the Saints, the Rosary, its promotion of priestly celibacy (contrary to First Timothy 3:2 which explicitly permits church leaders to be married), its post-Vatican II extension of salvation to nonbelievers (even ethical atheists according to the current pope), and its many other unbiblical teachings and practices, Roman Catholicism is, at a deeper level, profoundly anti-Christian.
So how are we to approach our Roman Catholic friends and neighbors? Well, we can dialogue with them at the level of those things in which we agree. We can even cooperate with them on a cultural level in terms of common cultural goals (for example, defending the unborn and promoting religious liberty). We should reach out in love and friendship as good neighbors. But at the same time we must “speak the truth in love” by bearing witness to the pure, biblical gospel and by exposing the errors of Romanism. While Rome officially teaches much that is truly Christian, by mixing its profound errors in with the biblical truths it affirms, it ends up being even more dangerous, for profound truth mixed with profound error results in even more deceptive, alluring, potentially soul-destroying error.