Much of Protestantism today, contrary to the teaching and practice of the Reformers, openly accepts Roman Catholicism as Christian. As this clearly points to a change in attitude on the part of many, its validity is an issue for inquiry. The marks by which the true Christian Church is known are as follows:-
(a) the true preaching of the Word (John 8:31,32,47; 14:23; 2 John 9);
(b) the proper administration of the sacraments (Matt.28:19; Acts 2:42; 1Cor.11:23-30);
(c) the faithful exercise of discipline (Matt.18:18; 1Cor.5:1-5,13; 14:33,40; Rev.2:14,15,20).
Roman Catholicism must be examined to see if it is truly Christian, and has a right to be included as a part of the Church of Christ.
THE PREACHING OF THE WORD
Traditionally, Roman Catholics have accepted the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Furthermore, the reading and preaching of the Word have always been integral parts of its liturgy. The introduction, in recent days, of the use of the vernacular in its worship, and openness to translations formerly banned and a relaxation in the prohibition on the ‘laity’ reading the Scriptures in private are seen as steps in a positive direction.
Roman Catholicism, however, errs in using unreliable translations and interpretations; by adding to the Scriptures certain uncanonical books and by subtracting from them (e.g. the second Commandment). Furthermore, in recent decades the authority of Scripture within Roman Catholicism has been seriously undermined by the fact that the ‘Higher Criticism’, which for so long has characterised much of modern Protestantism, is now increasingly prevalent in Rome.
Its greatest deviation is in the area of authority. It rejects the principle ‘sola scriptura’ (Scripture alone) as the sole and final authority. Rather, it sees tradition, the decisions of councils, and ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope, as having the same authority, and as equally binding, as Scripture. This was emphatically re-affirmed at the councils of Vatican I (1870) and Vatican II (1962-1965) with such statements as, “… both Scripture and Tradition should be accepted with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence…. sacred Tradition, Holy Scripture, and the Church’s magisterium (official teaching office) are by God’s most wise decree so closely connected and associated together that one does not subsist without the other two, and that all of them, and each in its own manner, under the impulse of the one Spirit of God, contribute efficaciously to the salvation of the soul… it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, … is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith and morals and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable…”.
It is insufficient, however, to say that, on the matter of authority, Roman Catholicism simply places, on a par with Scripture, other sources of revelation. This is only partially true. Above both the Bible and tradition, Roman Catholicism asserts the authority of the Church. It was the Church, it teaches, which gave the Bible and likewise it is the Church which determines which traditions are truly apostolic. The logical outcome of this is, as one Roman Catholic theologian rightly observed, that “tradition gets the better of Scripture, and the teaching office in turn gets the better of tradition, because it decides what the tradition is and hence also what Scripture is.”
From this scheme it follows that the preaching of the Word within Roman Catholicism cannot be regarded as ‘true.’ Instead of proclaiming the Word of God, and it alone, its message contains both the words of God and man, God’s Word usually being changed, misrepresented, or in some cases ignored to suit man’s worldly wisdom. This is particularly true in relation to the central theme of the gospel – justification by faith alone. The Scriptures make it abundantly plain that justification is an act of God’s free grace in which He pardons all our sins and accepts us as “righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.” “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ … because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” “But if it is by grace, it is no more works: otherwise grace is no more grace.” In justification, then, a person is pronounced righteous. This is the opposite of condemnation. As an act of free grace, justification is complete and cannot be lost or increased.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is obscure and complicated. There is a tendency to confuse justification and sanctification. Roman Catholicism teaches that the benefit of Christ’s redemptive work is bestowed in baptism. It holds to the doctrine of human merit, making penance a sacrament. It teaches that the justified state may be lost, and that it can be increased. It rejects outright the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Consequently, the Canons of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) pronounced an anathema against those who maintain that justification is by faith alone, that it cannot be lost or increased and who deny that the good works of the justified are meritorious. For example, Canon 12 reads “If anyone shall say that justifying faith is nothing less than confidence in the Divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake; or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified, let him be accursed.” This is the antithesis of the gospel of Christ. Subsequent Roman Catholic councils (e.g. Vatican I and II) did not retract the position established at Trent. Hence, the teaching of that Council on justification remains the official teaching of Roman Catholicism.
Furthermore, the lack of a final and absolute authoritative base for its teaching has resulted in Roman Catholicism introducing into its worship beliefs and practices that are contradictory to the clear teaching of Scripture, e.g., the doctrine of Mariolatry, the mediation and worship of ‘saints’ and the use of images.
THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS
In Roman Catholicism the two Biblical sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are acknowledged. In the former, the element of water is employed and infants as well as adults are recognised as proper subjects for baptism. In the latter, the elements of bread and wine are used, and more recently the people have been permitted to receive the wine as well as the bread.
Here the resemblance of the rites observed in Roman Catholicism to the Biblical sacraments ends, both Sacraments being seriously corrupted. Roman Catholicism holds that, when infants are baptised, they are ‘born again’ (baptismal regeneration). The Mass is radically different from the Biblical sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Rome claims that in the Mass the bread and wine are miraculously changed into the body and blood of the Lord. “The Mass is the same sacrifice as that of the cross, because in both we have the same victim and the same offerer; for the same Christ, who once offered Himself a bleeding victim to His Heavenly Father on the cross, continues to offer Himself in an unbloody manner, by the hands of His priest on our altars.” Further, these ‘sacraments’ are surrounded by much superstition.
The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the only sacraments sanctioned by Scripture. Roman Catholicism, however, has added five additional ‘sacraments’ of its own: confirmation, penance, extreme unction (anointing of the dying), marriage and holy orders (ordination). A Biblical sacrament, however, must satisfy four qualifications:-
(a) be commanded by Christ;
(b) be a sign and symbol of God’s grace in Christ;
(c) be perpetual, i.e., to be observed in the Church until Christ returns;
(d) be a seal intended to strengthen the faith of those who receive it.
The five additional ‘sacraments’ of Rome, rejected by the Reformers, obviously do not qualify as true sacraments of Christ’s Church.
THE EXERCISE OF DISCIPLINE
When we come to consider Roman Catholic discipline we are confronted by a strange combination of exclusiveness and inclusiveness, both of which we find to be at variance with the Biblical doctrine of the Church.
The official position of Roman Catholicism has been that it is the one, true Church. Traditionally, it has seen those beyond its bounds as outside the kingdom of God, a view which naturally gave rise to intolerance and persecution. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), there has been a subtle restatement of Roman Catholic exclusivism to bring it into line with modern, ecumenical theology. Rome’s new definition of the Church and salvation as stated by Vatican II, has been illustrated by a series of concentric circles. At the centre of the circles is Christ. The innermost circle is comprised of Roman Catholics and these are said to be ‘incorporated’ in Christ. The second circle contains those described as ‘non- Catholic Christians’, who are said to be ‘linked’ to Christ. The third circle includes the non-Christian religions, such as Jews, Hindus and Moslems. They are said to be ‘related’ to Christ. The final circle is made up of atheists, described by Roman Catholic theologians as ‘anonymous Christians’. Thus Rome stills holds to her ancient dictum, ‘No salvation outside the Church (of Rome)’. However, as we have seen the meaning of the word ‘church’ has been stretched.
In practice, Roman Catholicism tends to see itself as a vast, all-embracing religious organization, rather than a community of saints. Biblical standards are not upheld and frequently gross sins among its adherents go unchecked. The emphasis on penance rather than repentance has produced distressing laxity in the moral and ethical spheres.
As the Reformers rightly maintained, there are individual Roman Catholics who are true believers. Most Roman Catholics, however, are in gross spiritual darkness and are to be regarded as a legitimate missionary target. In view of the foregoing, we have no alternative but to conclude that the Roman Catholic ‘Church’ is not a Christian Church.