A crucial starting point in an appraisal of the Roman Catholic
church is to understand some of the unique sociological features of
contemporary Catholicism. Erroneous classifications of Catholicism
frequently fail to grasp the significant diversity within the
church. While the church's unity is of central importance,
Catholicism possesses incredible diversity -- the church is
anything but monolithic. This diversity is illustrated by the six
major theological types of Catholics: ultratraditionalist,
traditionalist, liberal, charismatic/evangelical, cultural, and
popular folk. A Protestant appraisal of Catholicism should then
examine the areas of genuine doctrinal agreement between
Catholicism and Protestantism (especially evident in the creeds),
before moving on to analyze the significant areas of difference.
One of the most perplexing issues evangelical Protestants face
is how to understand, evaluate, and ultimately classify the Roman
Catholic church. Few topics prove to be as controversial as the
question of just how Protestants view and relate to Catholics.
There exists no universal agreement or consensus among conservative
Protestants in this regard. The spectrum of opinion ranges from one
extreme to another.
On the one hand, some people hold to an optimistic but
seemingly naive ecumenism that sees no essential or substantial
differences between the church of Rome and historic Protestantism.
This camp views Catholicism as authentically Christian, but largely
ignores the doctrinal controversies that sparked the Protestant
Reformation of the sixteenth century. They seem to only take into
account the vast areas of agreement between Protestants and
Catholics. At the other extreme is a band of Protestant
fundamentalists who are literally rabid in their denunciation of
Catholicism. This assemblage (usually led by vociferous
ex-Catholics) dismisses Catholicism outright as an inherently
unbiblical and evil institution. They not only consider the Roman
church to be doctrinally deviant, but also the efficient cause of
many or most of the social, political, and moral ills evident in
the world today. Genuinely "anti-Catholic," this faction views the
Catholic church as the "Whore of Babylon," a pseudo-Christian
religion or cult. They seem to concentrate exclusively on those
various doctrines that sharply divide Protestants and Catholics.
I believe most evangelical scholars who are knowledgeable about
Catholicism would feel uncomfortable with both of these positions.
Unfortunately, however, these two camps often operate as if their
own views are self-evident and exhaustive. Both camps (especially
the anti-Catholics) virtually anathematize anyone who is not
squarely in their camp. If one is critical of Catholicism because
of Reformational doctrinal distinctives, the first camp accuses
that person of being divisive, not supporting Christian unity in
this important age of ecumenism. In contrast, if one defends
certain Catholic beliefs as being authentically Christian, the
second camp accuses that person of being a betrayer of the
Protestant Reformation and fraternizing with the enemy. Both
camps fail to see that there is an acceptable alternative position
between the two extremes.
This series of articles will attempt to provide some needed
balance to this important discussion by doing several things.
First, we will seek an accurate understanding of contemporary
Catholicism by exploring some of the unique sociological features
of the Catholic religion. We will consider the Catholic church's
size and sphere of influence, as well as its unity and contrasting
diversity. We will look at the major theological types or
classifications of Catholics, and explore the uniqueness of the
American Catholic church. Second, we will begin our theological
appraisal of Catholicism by probing the common areas of agreement
between classical Catholicism and historic Protestantism.
In Part Two we will consider serious problems with both the
anti-Catholic and uncritically ecumenical Protestant views of
Catholicism. Then, in Parts Three and Four, the most important
doctrines on which Catholics and Protestants disagree will be
carefully examined. At the close of this series the necessary
groundwork will have been laid to reach some conclusions about how
evangelical Protestants should view Roman Catholics.
Our goal will be to steer clear of the extreme and erroneous
classifications of Catholicism described above by providing an
evaluation which is fair and representative of Catholicism, but
genuinely evangelical in its perspective, and squarely rooted in
the central theology of the Protestant Reformation.
Before we begin our evangelical appraisal of Catholicism, we
need to give some definition to what is meant by the often vague
and ambiguous term "evangelical." The term is derived from the
Greek noun euangelion, which has been translated "good news,"
"glad tidings," or "gospel." Therefore, at the most fundamental
level, being an evangelical Christian means being a believer in and
proclaimer of the gospel (the good news that sinful humanity can
find redemption in the doing and dying of Christ [1 Cor. 15:1-4]).
If this were all there was to being an evangelical, however,
virtually every Christian group would claim this title. Obviously,
the term carries a deeper historical and theological meaning.
Lutheran theologian and apologist John Warwick Montgomery has
summarized well the historical roots and doctrinal foundations that
stand behind evangelical Christianity:
To my way of thinking, "evangelicals" are bound together
not by virtue of being members of the same Protestant
confessional stream, but by their firm adherence to
certain common theological tenets and emphases. These
latter would summarize as follows:
(1) Conviction that the Bible alone is God's
objectively inerrant revelation to man;
(2) Subscription to the Ecumenical creeds as expressing
the Trinitarian heart of biblical religion;
(3) Belief that the Reformation confessions adequately
convey the soteriological essence of the scriptural
message, namely, salvation by grace alone through faith
in the atoning death and resurrection of the God-man
(4) Stress upon personal, dynamic, living commitment to
Christ and resultant prophetic witness for Him to the
unbelieving world; and
(5) A strong eschatological perspective. Whether a
member of a large "inclusivist" church or of a small
"separated" body, whether Anglican or Pentecostal, an
evangelical regards himself in home territory where the
above theological atmosphere exists.
This concise summary cogently sets forth the belief system that
stands behind authentic evangelical Christianity. And it is this
broad base that evangelicals affirm to be the very bedrock of
Christianity itself. It is from this historic evangelical
perspective that we begin our appraisal of contemporary Roman
UNDERSTANDING TODAY'S CATHOLICISM
Some of the more striking features of Catholicism include its
imposing size, its vast sphere of influence, its unity, and its
contrasting diversity. Gaining an appreciation of each of these
characteristics can help us better understand contemporary
Size. The size of the Roman church is astounding. Just less
than eighteen percent (17.7) of the entire world population is
Roman Catholic (a whopping total of over 928 million people, soon
to be a billion). Additionally, the church is truly universal in
scope, having parishes in virtually every major part of the world.
There is a significant Catholic presence on every continent, with
the possible exception of Asia. The following are some percentages
of Catholics in the world: Africa, 13.9; North America, 24.2;
Middle (central) America, 86.6; South America, 88.9; Europe, 39.9;
Oceania, 26.5; and Asia, 2.7.
In terms of other religious bodies, the Roman Catholic
population is larger than the other two main branches of historic
Christianity combined (Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism). There
are approximately the same number of Catholics in the world as
there are Muslims. The Catholic population in the United States is
presently well over 55 million (approximately 22 percent of the
U.S. population), and by some Gallup estimates may actually be
significantly higher. By comparison, the second largest
Christian denomination in the United States is the Southern
Baptists with approximately 14 million members.
Sphere of Influence. The influence that the Catholic church
has had on the world is incalculable. One of Western civilization's
greatest influences has undoubtedly been Roman Catholicism. In many
respects, European culture has been directly shaped and molded by
events surrounding the Vatican. From the fourth century to the
present, Roman Catholic thought has had a momentous influence in
the areas of politics, economics, history, science, education,
theology, philosophy, literature, art, and numerous other areas of
culture. The church has wielded great power over the centuries,
often spreading enlightenment and benevolence among humanity, but
at some points corruption and tyranny.
While modern-day Catholicism does not exert the kind of control
over Western culture that it did in the high Middle Ages, it is
still, as the great Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it, "the
most formidable religious institution in the history of America and
of the world." Evangelicals should be interested in the study of
Catholicism if for no other reason than its immense size and vast
sphere of influence. This broadly based system of religious and
philosophical thought has captured the hearts and minds of untold
millions through most of Christian history.
Unity. The unity of the church is of central importance
within Catholicism. The Catholic church is understood to be a
union. This oneness is spoken of when Catholics refer to the
"four marks of the church": (1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic, and
(4) apostolic. Ideally, this essential oneness is to be expressed
in many aspects within the church: doctrine, ethical teaching,
authority, the visible and concrete institution, historical
continuity, and sacraments. Unquestionably, one of Catholicism's
greatest strengths over the centuries has been its sense of unity
and historical continuity. Many converts to Catholicism identify
this as their central reason for considering the claims of the
Catholic apologists frequently try to marshal the argument that
it is this oneness that identifies the Roman church as the one true
and authentic church of Jesus Christ. And in certain respects the
Catholic church has fared better in terms of unity than its rival
-- Protestantism. However, the Protestant evangelical rejoinder is
that they, rather than Rome, are more faithfully unified in
authentic apostolic doctrine. Additionally, if we are to take the
Catholic argument seriously, then it could be pointed out that the
Eastern Orthodox church has remained more consistently unified in
certain respects than has the Roman church. Regardless, this strong
emphasis on unity within Catholicism has left many non-Catholics
with the impression that Catholicism is in actuality a monolith --
a church completely uniform in belief and practice and marching to
the same tune.
Diversity. Catholicism has probably never been the strict
monolith that outsiders have perceived it to be. However, even 50
years ago it still carried many of the unyielding and inflexible
characteristics associated with a monolithic structure. In many
respects this era of seeming invariability and immutability came to
an end with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This council
truly revolutionized the church. It was not so much a revolution
in doctrine as in perspective. Vatican II allowed the "wind of
change to blow through the church." This change created an
environment that allowed for greater freedom in theology and
practice -- and a greater tolerance of diversity. In times past
the measure of being Catholic was submission to the teaching and
discipline of the magisterium (official teaching office). Since
Vatican II, however, being Catholic may mean many different things.
Today the Catholic church is incredibly divergent. Its
diversity is actually on the level of that within Protestantism.
This diversity is evidenced in the various types of Catholics one
finds in the church. While the genus (class) remains Catholic,
there are several different species (varieties). Evangelical
theologian Kenneth Kantzer calls it "the Catholic montage."
Different Types of Catholics
The following varieties of contemporary Catholics should not be
understood as exact classifications. Not every Catholic fits neatly
into one particular type -- there is significant overlapping.
(Unfortunately, this overlapping has sometimes caused outside
observers to lump differing viewpoints together.) In addition, the
types reflect both a sociological and theological assessment, and
are best understood in terms of a paradigm (an example or model).
Ultratraditionalist Catholics. Ultratraditionalist
Catholics consider themselves nonrevisionist Catholics. They are
extremely critical of the changes brought about by Vatican II and
wish the church would return to its earlier course. They can be
somewhat radical in their defense of "old time" Catholicism. For
example, they would be happy if the mass (liturgical service
centered around the Eucharist) were still recited in Latin. They
hold the traditions and hierarchy of the church in highest esteem
(except when the hierarchy steps on their nonrevisionist toes).
They would strongly affirm classical Catholicism as revealed in the
ancient creeds, councils, conciliar documents (i.e., documents
produced during councils), and papal encyclicals (i.e., letters).
They are generally suspicious and intolerant toward other divergent
groups within Catholicism.
One of the best examples of an ultratraditionalist was the late
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of Switzerland who stated that the
reforms of Vatican II "spring from heresy and end in heresy."
During his reign as archbishop, Lefebvre continued to ordain
priests even after the pope ordered him to stop, and he continued
to use the form of the mass as prescribed at the Counter
Reformation Council of Trent instead of its modern form.
While staunch in their beliefs and commitment to nonrevisionist
Catholicism, the ultratraditionalists are small in number and their
influence within the church is not of great significance. The
ultratraditionalists should probably be seen as the more extreme
segment within the traditionalist camp.
Traditionalist Catholics. The traditionalist Catholics in
many ways make up the backbone of the church hierarchy. A
Christianity Today editorial described the group this way: "This
important segment of the church, specially powerful among the laity
of the national churches, the older clergy, and the bishops and
upper level of the hierarchy, adheres to the whole of creedal Roman
Catholicism and obedience to the church as interpreted by the
pope." The traditionalists are very critical of liberalism and
modernism within the church, but they are generally accepting of
the reforms found in Vatican II. Although this group's influence
diminished somewhat after Vatican II, they have enjoyed a revival
during John Paul II's reign as pope. While Pope John Paul may be
considered progressive in many of his decisions concerning the
church, at heart his doctrinal views are those of a traditional
Catholic. This is especially illustrated in his beliefs concerning
the Virgin Mary.
Liberal Catholics. Liberal Catholics have substantially
departed from traditional Catholicism, and one might say from
traditional Christianity as a whole. While liberals differ among
themselves in the degree to which they depart from classical
Catholicism, like their Protestant counterparts they have conceded
much to the rationalistic unbelief so prevalent in Western culture
since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period. They have in
effect replaced the Bible and church authority with the authority
of human reason.
Many liberal Catholic scholars, such as the German scholar Hans
Kung, have questioned the infallibility of the pope, church
councils, and the Bible. Others, going farther, have clearly
abandoned traditional Christological beliefs and the miracles of
the New Testament, and have forsaken almost completely the
orthodoxy of the ecumenical creeds. Liberals also question the
ecclesiastical practice of an exclusively male priesthood, and many
have cast off the church's teaching regarding such moral issues as
birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.
Some within the liberal camp have been strongly affiliated with
liberation theology, especially in Latin America. Liberation
theology interprets the gospel in terms of liberation from poverty
and social oppression, and the reconstruction of society -- usually
along Marxist lines. Catholics who embrace liberation theology
often show an amazing disregard of traditional doctrinal issues.
Another subset within the broader category of liberal Catholics
is what might be called "Eastern mystical" or "New Age"
Catholicism. This group seeks to blend Catholic and New Age
spirituality. Orthodox Christian beliefs about God and Christ are,
to varying degrees, replaced with distinctive New Age beliefs such
as pantheism (God is all and all is God), panentheism (God is
intrinsically in the world and the world is intrinsically in God),
and emphasis upon the Cosmic Christ (a universal, impersonal spirit
or cosmic force). Probably the leading "Catholic guru" is Dominican
priest Matthew Fox with his "creation-centered spirituality."
Since Vatican II, this liberal camp as a whole has grown
significantly within the scholarly ranks of the church, and to a
lesser degree among the laity (although both the liberation
theology and New Age subsets have strong lay components). Pope John
Paul has attempted to curb this influence, however, by disciplining
some of the more outspoken liberal scholars (for example, both Kung
and Fox have been disciplined by the church). This crackdown has
been met with some resistance, especially in America.
Charismatic/Evangelical Catholics. 1992 marked the
twenty-fifth anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal
movement. Emerging from humble beginnings in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania in 1967, the late 1960s and 1970s saw the Catholic
charismatic renewal flourish in the church. While it experienced
slow decline in the 1980s, it remains one of the most energetic
forces in the Catholic church. It is estimated that 10 million
American Catholics have been involved in the renewal, and that
worldwide Catholic involvement may be as high as 50 to 65
million. Catholics now make up more than a fifth of the
worldwide Pentecostal-charismatic constituency.
Like the broader movement, charismatic Catholics emphasize the
charisma or gifts of the Holy Spirit, the importance of being
baptized in the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit-filled life.
Charismatic Catholics tend to be more evangelical in belief,
emphasizing personal faith and trust in Christ, and the assurance
of salvation. Reformed theologian J. I. Packer comments
concerning charismatic Catholic piety:
It is a fact that in charismatic Catholicism, joyful
trust in Christ as one's sin-bearing Savior and loving
fellowship with him in his risen life have shifted the
traditional devotional focus away from the somber
disciplines of self-denial and suffering and away, too,
from the anxieties about merit and destiny to which the
formulations of the Council of Trent naturally give rise.
Does Catholic doctrine as Trent defined it permit
assurance of salvation based on once-for-all
justification through faith? Opinions, both Protestant
and Catholic, differ about that. Nevertheless, Catholic
charismatics do observably enjoy this assurance, while
yet maintaining humility, a sense of sin, and a life of
repentance often more successfully than do their
Protestant counterparts. And Protestant and Catholic
charismatic teaching on the Christian life is to all
intents and purposes identical. Is this not significant
for the Christian future?
It is true that many charismatic Catholics describe themselves
as "born again, Spirit-filled Catholics."
Along with possessing a Pentecostal piety, charismatic
Catholics generally tend to give Scripture more of an authoritative
place in their personal spiritual lives. However, many (though by
no means all) charismatic Catholics also have a strong devotion to
Mary. While the issue of Marian devotion tends to be a stumbling
block between evangelical Protestants and charismatic
Catholics, evangelical Protestants surely have more in common
with charismatic Catholics than with any other type of Catholics.
Long-time renewal leader, Ralph Martin, is one of the most
recognizable American Catholic charismatics/evangelicals.
Cultural Catholics. The majority of Catholics in the world
probably fit into the category of cultural Catholics. This group is
unlike any other type we have considered above. Their
identification as "Catholic" is simply more cultural and social
than religious. They might rightly be called "womb to tomb
Catholics." They often are born in a Hispanic, Irish, Polish, or
Italian family -- and are therefore baptized, married, and buried
in the Catholic church -- but have little or no concern about
Cultural Catholics do not understand Catholicism, nor do they
seriously follow its ethical teaching. But they nevertheless have
an emotional commitment to the Catholic church. When they attend
mass, it is out of habit or family obligation, not religious
conviction. Being Catholic to them is essentially a cultural
identity (they may even be secular or humanistic in their
thinking). This is not unlike how some Jews are merely ethnically
or culturally Jewish, rather than adherents to Judaism. It is also
like the person who is Lutheran only because he happens to be
born into a German family, or the Anglican who is only Anglican
because she was born into a British family. You see, it happens in
Protestantism as well. Nominal Catholics, like nominal Protestants,
do not understand Christianity, and they do not have a relationship
with Jesus Christ. With all due respect, President John F. Kennedy
would seem to have fit well the mold of a cultural Catholic.
Popular Folk Catholics. Popular folk Catholics are found
especially in Central and South America. These Catholics are very
eclectic in their religious thinking and practice. They often
combine elements of an animistic or nature-culture religion (the
primitive religious beliefs that associate the forces of nature and
culture with myriads of spirits) with a traditional medieval
Catholicism. The result is a syncretistic nightmare. People in
countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina frequently engage
in a religion composed of polytheism, occultic spiritism, and a
superstitious form of Catholicism. This spiritual smorgasbord
enslaves millions of Latin America's peasantry.
Certainly, official Catholic teaching does not sanction this
kind of syncretistic religiosity. In certain respects, however, the
Catholic church remains culpable. First, the Catholic church has
been negligent by failing to train these people to reject all forms
of paganism and to embrace solely the Triune God of
Second, the unhealthy and unbiblical aspects of the Catholic
understanding of the communion of saints (i.e., the belief in the
unity and cooperation among believers in both this world and the
next) has contributed to the problem. Even some Catholics in the
United States virtually worship saints and the church has failed to
take aggressive measures to correct this serious problem of
idolatry. It is actually much worse when it comes to devotion to
the Virgin Mary, where on a practical level millions of Catholics
commit idolatry on a daily basis by worshipping the virgin. This is
certainly contrary to official church teaching (i.e., teaching set
forth by the Vatican as standard Catholic doctrine), but the
Catholic church has been derelict in correcting this serious
problem. If the Catholic church wants to convince evangelical
Protestants that they merely honor Mary, but do not worship
her, then they must step in and stop this gross idolatry.
Third, the Second Vatican Council's openness to forms of
religious pluralism has greatly exacerbated the problem. Ideas such
as the "anonymous Christian" (the belief in the possibility of
salvation without explicit Christian faith -- even through
non-Christian religions) as set forth by the influential German
theologian, Karl Rahner, has acute and distressing
We have discussed six different species of the one genus: Roman
Catholicism. Certainly there are other viewpoints expressed in
today's Catholicism, but these appear to be the major types of
Catholics. We will now turn our attention to the American Catholic
Just as Americans in general exhibit a different ethos from the
rest of the world, American Catholics have a mindset distinct from
other Catholics. Generally speaking, American Catholics tend to be
both more independent and more selective in their practice of
Catholicism. This attitude certainly contributes to the fact that
many American Catholics follow their conscience over church
authority, especially when it comes to some of the issues regarding
sex and personal lifestyle. In fact, in 1990 the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops was so concerned about the inroads
the pro-choice element was making into the American church that it
hired a public relations firm to "jazz up its public appeal on the
abortion issue." (This was the same public relations firm, by
the way, that handled former President Ronald Reagan!)
Russell Chandler comments on the extent of this American
American Catholics are more likely to follow their own
conscience or personal preference than to assent
unquestioningly to papal pronouncements. In no area is
this more true than matters of sex and lifestyle. Not
only do a large majority of U.S. Catholics disapprove of
the church's teaching against contraception, they also
favor a limited pro-choice position on abortion.
And many Catholics agree with dissident theologian
Father Charles Curran who says that homosexual behavior,
masturbation, premarital sex, and divorce aren't always
sinful. (About one-fourth of U.S. Catholics have been
divorced and a half of these have remarried.)
This is certainly powerful evidence that American Catholics
tend to think for themselves. The fact is, there is a defiant
attitude among a significant number from the clergy down to the
general laity. This also seems to illustrate just how strong
the cultural and liberal factions of Catholicism are within the
American church. American Catholicism, like American Christianity
as a whole, suffers from a growing secularization of both society
and the church.
Another area of great concern in Catholicism worldwide, but
especially in America, is the growing shortage of priests and nuns.
One estimate reported that one out of ten U.S. parishes had no
regular priest in 1990. What has made this problem more acute
is the fact that the American church continues to experience rapid
growth. The church's demand concerning celibacy is the central
reason given for men not entering the priesthood. This would only
seem to exacerbate the already explosive issue of women's
ordination. However, on the positive side, this shortage of clergy
has led to a great increase of lay involvement in ministry. As of
1989, an "authorization allows bishops to designate a deacon,
non-ordained sister, brother, or lay member to lead prayers, read
Scripture, preach, and perform a Communion service if bread and
wine consecrated by a priest is available." In today's church,
the laity is performing many of the duties once performed
exclusively by the priest.
A continuing bright spot for American Catholicism is its
educational system. From elementary schools to colleges, the
Catholic church has some of the best educational institutions in
Having gained some appreciation and understanding of many of
the facets of contemporary Roman Catholicism, we are now in a
position to examine Catholicism from a theological perspective.
AN EVANGELICAL PROTESTANT APPRAISAL
In appraising the Roman Catholic faith, we must first identify
which Catholic faith we are speaking about, for as the previous
discussion has clearly shown, Catholicism is actually more of a
montage than a monolith. Nevertheless, while there are many
competing contemporary interpretations of the Catholic faith, there
remains the so-called "official teaching of the church." This body
of official teaching is quite fluid in many respects, but,
nevertheless, it represents what may be considered the classical or
orthodox position of the Catholic church. Our focus must therefore
be directed toward classical or orthodox Catholicism (as found in
the ancient creeds, councils, and official documents of the church)
as interpreted by the magisterium.
Standing on Common Ground
The appropriate place to begin our appraisal of Catholicism is
with the vast amount of doctrinal agreement found between classical
Catholicism and historic Protestantism. This doctrinal agreement is
especially evident in our mutual commitment and loyalty to the
great ecumenical creeds of historic Christianity. The creeds, which
attempt to summarize the essence of Christian truth, are
believed and recited in both Catholic and Protestant churches.
The common points of agreement between orthodox Catholics and
evangelical Protestants extend to: belief in the Triune nature and
full theistic attributes of God; assent to God as the sovereign
creator and sustainer of the world; acceptance of Christ's
incarnation as the God-man, including trust in His virgin birth,
attesting miracles, atoning death on the cross, bodily resurrection
from the grave, ascension into heaven, future return in glory, and
work of judgment and resurrection of mankind; affirmation of the
Holy Spirit's personality, deity, and involvement in redemption;
the acknowledgment of sin, the necessity of grace, and the need of
salvation; and confidence in God's preservation and guidance of the
Christian church. And, while not mentioned explicitly in the
creeds, both camps have a high view of Scripture, affirming both
the inspiration and infallibility of the Old and New Testaments.
There is certainly much common ground between the two
traditions, but seldom is this carefully and reflectively
considered. Most discussions concentrate almost exclusively on the
differences between the two camps, which are unquestionably quite
significant, as we shall see in detail in future installments of
this series. But, the areas of common commitment are also quite
significant. We should not gloss over these areas of agreement
simply because there remain serious differences.
Further areas of agreement are also apparent. For example, a
number of Catholic scholars who would otherwise be considered
traditionalist Catholics (strong in their defense of the Catholic
views on authority, the nature of the church, the sacraments,
etc.), nevertheless set forth the gospel in very
evangelical-sounding terms. Catholic philosopher and apologist
Peter Kreeft fits this category. Kreeft, a prolific author whose
books sell well among evangelical Protestants, describes himself as
an "evangelical Roman Catholic." He made the following
provocative comments in his book Fundamentals of the Faith:
How do I resolve the Reformation? Is it faith alone that
justifies, or is it faith and works? Very simple. No
tricks. On this issue I believe Luther was simply right;
and this issue is absolutely crucial. As a Catholic I
feel guilt for the tragedy of Christian disunity because
the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was
failing to preach the gospel. Whatever theological
mistakes Luther made, whatever indispensable truths about
the Church he denied, here is an indispensable truth he
affirmed -- indispensable to union between all sinners
and God and union between God's separated Catholic and
Much of the Catholic Church has not yet caught up
with Luther; and for that matter, much of Protestantism
has regressed from him. The churches are often found
preaching one of two "other gospels": the gospel of
old-fashion legalism or the gospel of new-fangled
humanism. The first means making points with God and
earning your way into heaven, the second means being nice
to everybody so that God will be nice to you. The
churches, Protestant and Catholic, may also preach the
true Christian gospel, but not often enough and not
clearly enough and often watered down and mixed with one
of these two other gospels. And the trouble with "other
gospels" is simply that they are not true: they don't
work, they don't unite man with God, they don't
Kreeft is just one of an increasing number of Catholic scholars
who see validity in the Reformation concept of justification by
faith. Kreeft goes on to say: "Catholicism as well as
Protestantism affirms the utterly free, gratuitous gift of
forgiving grace in Christ, free for the taking, which taking is
faith. Good works can only be the fruit of faith, flowing freely as
a response to the new life within, not laboriously, to buy into
heaven." While we will examine the crucial issue of
justification in some detail in Part Three, it is important to note
that a number of Catholic scholars have an appreciation for the
insights of the Protestant Reformers. Certainly this trend does not
insure that there will be a change in the church's official
teaching on justification; but neither should it be dismissed as
Another point that should be understood and weighed, in terms
of Protestant-Catholic agreement, is that evangelical Protestants
actually have far more in common with orthodox Catholics than they
do with liberal Protestants. And orthodox Catholics have much more
in common doctrinally with evangelical Protestants than they do
with liberal Catholics. Both camps continue to face the challenge
of religious liberalism which in many respects denies the very
essence of Christianity.
Even with the significant areas of agreement that I have
discussed above, a notable number of evangelicals remain utterly
convinced that the Roman Catholic church is a non-Christian
cult. They frequently charge that "Romanism" is: (1) an
apostate religious system, (2) an invalid expression of
Christianity, and (3) the largest and most influential
non-Christian cult in the world. In Part Two I will demonstrate
just why Catholicism should not be classified as a cult. At the
same time I will highlight several aspects of Catholicism which
should be of serious concern to Protestants.
1 John Warwick Montgomery, Ecumenicity, Evangelicals, and Rome
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969), 16-18. While
this writer holds firmly to the full and complete inerrancy of
Scripture (and believes that the "limited inerrancy" view is
seriously flawed), some would be reluctant to exclude those who
are, except for their rejection of inerrancy, clearly
evangelical in belief and practice. For further discussion
concerning the proper definition of the word "evangelical," see
Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), s.v. "Evangelicalism,"
2 1993 Catholic Almanac (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor
Publishing Division, 1992), 367.
4 Ibid., 436.
5 A recent Gallup survey estimates that the present U.S. Catholic
population may be as high as 65 million (28%). See Andrew M.
Greeley, The Catholic Myth (New York: Macmillan Publishing
Company, 1990), 109.
6 See Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970).
7 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York:
Abingdon Press, 1960), 12.
8 Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 1988), 245-71. Kreeft discusses several other
ways in which the Catholic church expresses its essential
9 See David F. Wells, Revolution in Rome (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1972).
10 George Carey, A Tale of Two Churches (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1985), 7-15.
11 Andrew T. LePeau and Noel Becchetti, "Understanding Roman
Catholicism," His Magazine, April 1981, 22-25.
12 Ibid., 23.
13 "What Separates Evangelicals and Catholics?" Christianity
Today, 25 February 1983, 12-15.
14 See Ron Rhodes, "Christian Revolution in Latin America: The
Changing Face of Liberation Theology," Christian Research
Journal, Winter 1991, 8-14.
15 See Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., "Catholicism for the New Age:
Matthew Fox and Creation-Centered Spirituality," Christian
Research Journal, Fall 1992, 14-19, 29-31.
16 Julia Duin, "Charismatics on the Pentecostal Trail,"
Christianity Today, 22 June 1992, 25.
17 Stephen Board, "Are Catholic Charismatics 'Evangelicals'?"
Eternity, July 1978, 12-16.
18 J. I. Packer, "Rome's Persistent Renewal," Christianity Today,
22 June 1992, 19.
19 See Elliot Miller and Kenneth R. Samples, The Cult of the
Virgin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992).
20 See Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John
F. Kennedy (Toronto: The Free Press, 1991).
21 Some Catholic scholars and clergy have been greatly troubled by
this syncretism, and have attempted to reform the Latin wing of
the church in this regard. However, as a whole the church has
virtually neglected this problem.
22 We will return to the issue of religious pluralism later in this
series. For more discussion of Rahner's concept of the
"anonymous Christian," see Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F.
Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 1988), s.v. "Anonymous Christianity," 25-26.
23 "Catholic Soul-Searching in America," Insight, 14 May 1990,
24 Russell Chandler, Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping
America's Religious Future (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing
House, 1992), 173.
25 See Richard N. Ostling, "Drawing the Line on Dissent," Time,
9 July 1990, 62.
26 Chandler, 168.
28 Some Protestants, especially those from noncreedal or
nonconfessional churches, experience discomfort when one appeals
to the ecumenical creeds of Christendom as having some
authority. This is unfortunate, however, because while the
creeds are certainly not inspired or inerrant, and while they
are subservient to Scripture in terms of authority, they
nevertheless adequately convey biblical truth and are thus
authoritative statements. For further discussion on this see
Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy (Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House, 1992), 65-66.
29 On this see Carey, 61.
30 Peter Kreeft, "The Catholic Market," Bookstore Journal,
February 1992, 28.
31 Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith, 290.
32 See Carey, 44.
33 Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith, 291.
34 See Dave Hunt, "Heeding the Berean Call," The Berean Call,
April 1992; Albert James Dager, "Roman Catholicism: Is It a
Cult?" Media Spotlight, 1991.
Samples is currently serving as director of the Augustine
Fellowship Study Center at Post Office Box 23, Hemet, CA 92543;
End of document, CRJ0095A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"What Think Ye of Rome?: An Evangelical Appraisal of Contemporary
Catholicism, Part One"
release A, May 15, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
(A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in
the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.)
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